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February 7, 2011

Loran Smith: Brinson recalls Butts' comeback

When old friends come around in winter, the good times in life are quickly recalled and underscored. Recently, after learning of a friend’s arrival time at the Athens airport, I busied myself with activating a fire so that the flames would be licking the upper regions of the fireplace by the time he arrived.

We chose a couple of golden oldies for background music, which created reminiscing compatibility from his days on campus. Light hors d’oeuvres were prepared. The bar was open for his choice of drink. With good friends, there is nothing that surpasses a fire, a libation and engaging conversation.

Vernon Brinson is an old friend, a past president of the Sugar Bowl and a successful New Orleans businessman. He is always eager to return to Athens, where he lettered in baseball and has been a longtime supporter of various Bulldog projects and programs.

Years ago, when he was here for a football weekend, we hosted a hamburger cookout and invited the Georgia baseball coach. Before the evening was over, Brinson had committed to underwriting the cost of a batting case for baseball. For all I know, it may still be in use. When the coach left, Brinson said, “I’ll do more when I can.” He followed that up by endowing a scholarship in memory of his Bulldogs coach, Jim Whatley.

“You always remember the good times you had in college,” Brinson said. “Coach Whatley was good to me. When I endowed the scholarship, it was my way of saying thanks to him and the University of Georgia.”

Brinson believes that any graduate who does not feel indebted to his alma mater is a person with the wrong slant on life. He has always supported the football program and just recently made a commitment for a significant gift to the Butts-Mehre expansion.

Relaxed and upbeat by the fire, he expressed his confidence in Mark Richt, recalled his appreciation for the success of Vince Dooley’s teams, but became sentimental when he recalled the time spent with Wallace Butts who made it to the top in the 1940s, fell on hard times in the 1950s, but was able to make an inspiring personal comeback after his tenure ended at Georgia.

Coach Butts was, as they say, generous to a fault. He resigned as athletic director in February 1963 and was flat broke. A group of businessmen in Athens, led by his longtime backfield coach, Bill Hartman, signed $1,000 notes at the old National Bank of Athens for Butts to live on. Subsequently, after winning a $460,000 judgment in a lawsuit against the Saturday Evening Post, which wrongly accused Butts and Bear Bryant of trying to fix a game, he had little left. Most of the money from the verdict went to paying off legal bills and accumulated debts.

Butts opened up an office on Milledge Ave. and got into the sale of credit life insurance, principally to automobile dealers, which led to a close relationship with Brinson. Brinson had taken ownership of an Oldsmobile franchise in New Orleans and was to become the biggest dealer in the state of Louisiana. He had met the former Georgia coach while he was on campus in the late 1950s, but really didn’t know the colorful Butts, who was known as “The Little Round Man.”

Butts began calling on Brinson, who began a business relationship with the former coach. At that time, Brinson had a bulldog which he named Wally. His sons, Mike and Steve, who were to become Georgia graduates, adored the family pet. Brinson invited Butts to his home for dinner, but didn’t know how the coach would react to a dog named Wally.

The evening was a blast. Coach Butts, who had enormous personal charm, lit up when Vernon told him the dog’s name. Coach Butts, who was fond of animals, played with the dog and entertained Mike and Steve with colorful stories, a staple of his engaging personality.

There is an interesting sidebar to Brinson’s relationship with Butts. He helped the coach in business. With Brinson providing advice and counsel, Butts met with a professor on the faculty of the business school and developed a training program for the agents who worked for Butts.

Before long, Butts was a very successful businessman in his own right. He traveled the Southeast, calling on customers and making friends of the car dealers with his insight into college football and by recalling humorous incidents from his coaching days.

Butts’ warm personality was essentially his calling card. People wanted to do business with him. It was a natural for him to speak to booster clubs as he moved about, which was also good for business. At the time of his death, he was enjoying as much business success as he did as a coach in the 1940s when he became the “Bowlmaster.”

A man who always picked up the check, coach Butts, when he got on his feet in business, went back to his friends who signed those $1,000 notes and paid them all off.

With interest.

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

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