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It has been well over a half century since the Georgia football team brought to Athens a high that has been seldom experienced since. All championship teams bring about memorable emotions and the highest of regard, but what made Wallace Butts’s last championship team so special was that its success seemed so unlikely.
In September 1959 when the team gathered for pre-season practice, there was no anticipatory buzz in the air. The season would be different but nobody would have expected the upstart Bulldogs, as they turned out to be, to win the conference championship. Then to return to the Orange Bowl!How remarkable, how serendipitous!
If you talk to the players who were members of that team, they will tell you that there was something different when they reported for practice. There was a new coach on the staff, J. B. Whitworth. He made you tough, but he made you want to play the game with your heart and soul. His behindthe-scenes leadership, the former players all agree, was the glue that made that team stick together.
In the pre-season, not one sportswriter—not even Georgia alumni like Jesse Outlar of the Atlanta Constitution or Jim Minter of the Atlanta Journal—forecast Georgia to finish higher than ninth in the league, which was then made up of 10 teams. There were three heavyweight schools which got all the attention: LSU, Ole Miss, and Auburn.
On a rainy Halloween night in Baton Rouge, Billy Cannon returned a punt 89 yards to defeat Ole Miss, 7-3. That eliminated Ole Miss from the title chase. In Knoxville the next week, Tennessee, catching LSU flat after the victory over the Rebels, upset LSU when Billy Cannon was stopped on a two-point conversion, which would have won the game for the Tigers. The Tigers were eliminated. Georgia kept winning and nobody paid any attention until Auburn came to town on November 14th. Suddenly, everybody realized this game was for the SEC championship. Georgia upset mighty Auburn, 14-13. The chapel bell kept on ringing and ringing.
Looking back, you could see signs unforeseen that meant this was a precocious and talented team, led by quarterback Fran Tarkenton and All-America guard Pat Dye. The first game would send the signal that these Bulldogs had the right stuff. Alabama had just retooled, with Bear Bryant taking over as head coach. Bama beat Georgia in Tuscaloosa in a close game in 1958, 12-0. Georgia had the better team, but the better team does not always win.
Between the hedges a year later in the opening game, the Bulldogs were dominant, winning 17-3. They would not lose but one game from that point on—an inglorious day against South Carolina in Columbia, two weeks later. After defeating Auburn, the Bulldogs were invited to Miami to play Missouri of the old Big Eight conference in the Orange Bowl. On a hot New Year’s Day, Georgia was victorious, 14-0.
In those times, sophomores rarely played, but Georgia had a capable and talented halfback named Bill McKenny who was recruited out of Jacksonville. He would contribute to the success of the SEC championship team and would go on to become an All-SEC performer and alternate captain of the 1961 team.
The 1959 season and the 1960 Orange Bowl victory remain highlights for the soft spoken McKenny—whose actions, however, were very loud. He could play. He could produce. And he did. His senior year, 1961, McKenny led the team in rushing, receiving, and interceptions. A year later, in 1962, he joined his former Bulldog teammates Pat Dye, Lenny Vella, Nat Dye and Bobby Walden at Edmonton in the Canadian League. When football was over, he returned to Georgia and became a successful real estate agent.
McKenny was impressed with both Athens and Wallace Butts from the start. “Coach Butts never put any pressure on me to sign, but he told me he thought I would enjoy success in college. He, Jack Bush, and John Boyd took me to dinner, which was delightful. Coach Butts was a wonderful conversationalist. I knew about his success and knew that he really was an outstanding offensive coach. I also knew that, although he was credited with being a great passing coach, he believed in running the football. I liked the rolling hills around Athens, which was so different from Jacksonville. I thought the campus was the nicest and prettiest campus I saw in all my recruiting trips. It wasn’t hard for me to become a Bulldog after visiting Athens the first time.”
The Orange Bowl trip was memorable for the players, but Bill at least had seen the ocean, which was a novelty for some of the players. What he remembered is that Butts was bent on having his team in the best physical condition for the game with Mizzou. When the team got off the plane, they headed to a local high school field and immediately had a full-pads scrimmage. They practiced twice a day for the next two days, after having endured long scrimmage sessions in Athens for two weeks, before breaking for the holidays.
Fran Tarkenton became the big star of the game, throwing two touchdown passes, one to Aaron Box for 33 yards and one to McKenny for 29 yards. “Coach Butts put in a special play for Missouri. It was a banana route. The two ends went downfield and broke to the sidelines. I drifted through the line of scrimmage and ran a banana route through the space created by the two defensive backs. I was wide open. Catching that TD pass from Fran Tarkenton remains a big thrill to this day. I enjoy telling my grandkids about the play.”