SMITH COLUMN: What a Saturday

Published 8:39 am Thursday, December 2, 2021

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On the way home from Historic Grant Field last Saturday, it was nice to take phone calls from friends and make a few of my own regarding the Bulldogs overwhelming dominance in the ancient rivalry.

Many of my friends are from the “Drought” era, but I remind them that Georgia’s two seven-year streaks, one by Dooley, one by Richt are quite memorable for Red & Black aficionados. Those with memories of the drought breaking past are especially overjoyed with the Bulldogs’ latent success against “the enemy” as identified by the great Dan Magill.

As I approached Athens, a mood came about that had me pining for a hamburger. That led me to the “Pub” in Five Points which may have the best French fries in town. A burger and fries — perfect for a post-game meal.

Kitty Culpepper and Jenny Sligh, proprietors of “Appointments at Five,” the popular antique gift shop that is a focal point of the Five Points neighborhood, had space in their corner for a friend and neighbor.

The “Pub” was packed, the atmosphere lively and the college football offering on the two incumbent television sets was highlighted by the Auburn-Alabama game. Thinking of any advantage that Georgia might accrue from the final results on the Plains, I would have been uplifted by an Auburn victory. The next best thing actually took place.  Alabama had to strain mightily for victory. Most football observers would surmise that games like that take much out of a team emotionally and can affect performance the next weekend.

While I can hear Kirby Smart spouting “hogwash,” no greater authority than Gen. Robert Neyland of Tennessee, the coach with the best winning percentage in the Southeastern Conference history (83%) never played two tough opponents back to back. He held the view that you cannot play a peak emotional game more than once, perhaps twice, a year.

A classic example to support the General’s view (few called him coach, deferring to his military title), was Georgia leaving so much on the field in defeating South Carolina in 1980, 13-10, before lining up against Florida in Jacksonville without its usual sharpness and verve. Yet it had what championship teams so often have—a ability to win when you are having an off day. I suppose you remember “Belue to Scott.”

Today, such scheduling as Neyland dictated, is out of the question. Saban at Alabama and Smart at Georgia play tougher schedules with superior recruiting to rely on talent to beat top ranked teams on back-to-back Saturdays.

Even an unsophisticated eye could appreciate the crushing efficiency with which the Georgia team played last Saturday. I didn’t see Wallace Butts great teams of the forties, but I did witness first hand all of Vince Dooley’s best teams, including the Herschel masterpiece of 1980.  I am convinced that this current Bulldog team is one of the best coached teams in UGA history.

Soon after placing my hamburger order, a call went out to the defensive coordinator at Michigan — one very successful summa cum laude graduate of the Terry College at the University of Georgia. I figured that Michael Macdonald had had enough time to get out of the mass of doting Wolverine fans at “The Big House” (so named by Georgian and ABC announcer Keith Jackson) to get home and begin boning up on Iowa for the Big Ten Championship game Saturday.

Following the earning of a Terry degree, Michael then set his academic sights on a degree in sports management. During that time, he became an assistant at Cedar Shoals High School and subsequently a graduate assistant for the Bulldogs, working with the defensive staff. His work turned heads. By the time he finished at Georgia, he had a decision to make — to follow a career path in finance, which his professors would have considered a slam dunk, or become a coach, entering a profession where security is as questionable as a faulty packed parachute. 

Michael did not play college football, but he grasped the game’s nuances quicker than a referee can tick off a passionate home team fan which is to say his learning curve has been acute. He started out as an intern for John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens, which meant that he handled multiple assignments for the regular staff including making coffee. Turning heads again, he was a defensive assistant a year later. Two years later he was the Ravens’ defensive backfield coach and a year after that, their linebacker coach. How ‘bout that learning curve!

If you follow college football, you are likely aware of Michigan’s struggles with Ohio State. If you follow Michigan, you know that the local railbirds have been most troubled by the travails of the Wolverine’s defense.

John Harbaugh did his big brother, Jim, a favor. He sent his linebacker coach to Ann Arbor to save the day.

A few hours before my hamburger was medium well done at the “Pub,” I got a first-hand report on how Michigan broke the drought of all time in the Big Ten.

Michael Macdonald, with modesty aforethought, credited the Wolverine players. “Our kids, really played well,” he said. “They were determined to find a way to win the game.”   

Certainly not quote worthy for the John Bartlett collection, but in Ann Arbor today, it ranks higher than Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.