Sports Columns

December 30, 2012

Loran Smith: Santa Erk made Sun trip special

Ever notice how much better dinner is when you are in a good mood? Setting and atmosphere affect how we enjoy any experience, but attitude may be the most influential of all when it comes to elevating our pleasure.

Except for the national championship being on the line in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, perhaps the most fun any University of Georgia football team ever had was the Sun Bowl trip in 1964 — one of the most serendipitous years in Bulldog history.

Vince Dooley’s first team won six games in the regular season, highlighted by a 7-0 victory over Georgia Tech between the hedges. The UGA fan base was overwhelmed.

When Joel Eaves became athletic director in November 1963 and hired “Vince Who?” there were no clairvoyants who could have foretold what was on the horizon.

There weren’t any expectations, but Eaves had hired a 31-year-old head coach whose team was fundamentally sound and found a way to win by running the football, playing defense with the greatest of emotion and underscoring the importance of the kicking game. It was the formula of the most accomplished coaches: Neyland. Bryant. Wilkinson. Woody Hayes and Wallace Wade.

Eaves, whose basketball teams were cut from the same fundamental cloth, could have told people what the personality of Dooley’s teams would be. They soon took note and liked what they saw.

The white-haired athletic director had faced a colossal challenge when he was hired by President O. C. Aderhold. The athletic program was in a mess. The program was awash in red ink and had reached the depths of the Southeastern Conference. The Bulldogs constituency had never been lower.

By defeating Georgia Tech, great appreciation for the new regime took root in Athens. Then the Sun Bowl came calling with an invitation to play Texas Tech in El Paso. Not many people knew anything about the Sun Bowl, the second oldest bowl after the Rose, but the word out of Lubbock was the Red Raiders had a lethal weapon in broad shouldered halfback Donny Anderson, who possessed quick feet and had thunder in his hips. It took a posse to bring him down.

It didn’t matter the challenge of the competition — the Georgia team was overjoyed with the opportunity to go bowling. Since the game was played on Dec. 26, it meant the Bulldogs would spend Christmas holidays away from home. Not many players’ families made it to West Texas, but those who did were exhilarated by the hospitality and the opportunity to cross the Rio Grande (which you actually could have done by foot) into Juarez, Mexico.

Many of the players were making their first flight. It was also a first-time excursion for some of the coaches’ wives, but everybody was filled with excitement. Big thick steaks, margaritas, sombreros, the desert and enchiladas — the Dogs were headed west, crossing the Mississippi for a game for just the second time since Wallace Butts took his team in DC-3s to Oklahoma State in 1947.

On Christmas Eve, presents were given to the team. Erk Russell, the beloved defensive coordinator, played Santa Claus. If the coaches were worried about homesickness, Russell made sure that notion was dispelled quickly. Nobody had any complaints. The Sun Bowl hospitality committee had taken care of that.  Everybody in the traveling party was grateful to be in El Paso, which meant that a good time would be enjoyed by all.

The team, eager to give a good account of itself against the favored Red Raiders, was up for the challenge to win Georgia’s first postseason contest since the Orange Bowl in 1960. Anderson, who went on to sign a big bucks contract with the Green Bay Packers, gained just 19 yards and was never a serious threat as the Georgia defense shut out Texas Tech in a 7-0 Bulldogs victory.  

I can see Russell now, with a victory cigar and a can of Lone Star beer, toasting everybody. His contagious smile and penetrating enthusiasm would complement the face of Georgia football for the next 16 years, but I don’t think he ever enjoyed a bowl game more when it came to the pure fun of a trip.

Most everybody in the Bulldogs’ party felt the same way.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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