Sports Columns

February 28, 2014

Loran Smith: A doggone good time at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame

Here last weekend, some very outstanding men, one woman and one mascot were honored by the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Actually, it was not a mascot who was honored but his master. You likely know about Uga, the University of Georgia’s mascot, as well as his owner, Sonny Seiler.

With the Hall recognizing Sonny, it was also paying tribute to Uga, because there is hardly a sports fan between Rabun Gap and Tybee Island who does not link Seiler with the English Bulldog that has been Georgia’s mascot since the 1950s.

Seiler was honored with the Erk Russell Spirit Award, named for the longtime Georgia defensive coordinator and Georgia Southern head coach who led the latter program — which began with more than a little faith — to three national championships. In fact, when the press conference took place to announce Russell’s hiring, the athletic association didn’t even have a football to use as a prop.

What Russell accomplished at Georgia Southern is one of the most remarkable modern-day stories of college football. Here’s to the Hall for keeping his legend fresh and ongoing.

There was a Georgia Tech flavor about the evening with longtime Yellow Jackets announcer Wes Durham, he of the mellow voice, moving the program along with alacrity. Inducted was Homer Rice, the school’s longtime athletic director, and the mop-haired Bobby Cremins, the New York Irishman who sounds like a New York Irishman should sound. The former Georgia Tech coach had played at South Carolina, a free ride that was part of the American dream experienced by his grateful parents. It’s another of the immigrant stories that remind us that those who come, assimilate and produce will always be welcomed on our shores.

Former Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, a man who exudes power (and not to be overlooked, a modesty and class that is exemplary), and pro golf’s Hollis Stacy, a Savannah girl, are now members of the Hall. If you are passing out kudos, they get an extra helping.

Both were eager to be elected to their home state Hall after having received the ultimate honor — Frank will be enshrined this summer at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Hollis joined the World Golf Hall of Fame two years ago.

They honored Georgia with their presence. No fuss, no entitlements — just happy to be with us. You have to like that.

Jim Hughes, the perennial championship-contending high school football coach at Thomasville and Colquitt County, saw his beaming family stand tall with his selection, but none was happier than a U.S. senator who left a vacation in southern California to be with his friend on his big night.

“This,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, “is a great day for me. When you honor a coach who has done so much for his community as Jim has done for two of them, then you are honoring the countless young men whose lives he has influenced for the better.”

James Brooks, the Warner Robins running back who often brought fans in stadiums in Auburn, Ala., San Diego and Cincinnati to their feet, was included in the Hall’s latest class. Then there was Chester Webb, who was the best of his time when he played basketball in Statesboro (when his jersey read “Georgia Southern Teachers” or “Professors”), as well as Scott Woerner, who had a sense about playing defensive back and returning punts for the University of Georgia that was uncommon. If you watched him, he gave electricity to the atmosphere of the stadium when he took the field. He now lives in Sautee, where he is a teacher by profession and an MVP in life. It’s something we should think about.

Chester Webb! I can hardly remember a nominee more deserving, nor an election more appreciated by the towns which love him best — Statesboro and Elberton. The Honors Court has made sure he has not been forgotten, and that should bring a standing ovation in every nook and cranny in this state where there is athletic competition.

Halls of fame are often remembered more for those whom they leave out than who they honor. This year’s class for the Peach State gets the highest of marks and so does the Honors Court.

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

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