There were some of the most memorable moments, memories and victories in Georgia lore in 1976. America’s bicentennial was celebrated from border to border and ocean to ocean. It was an extra special year for the sons and daughters of Georgia, who savored a long awaited Southeastern Conference championship, the third under the watch of legendary head coach Vince Dooley and iconic defensive coordinator Erk Russell.
Having captured the conference title in 1966 and 1968, the Bulldogs had re-established themselves as one of the SEC’s elite and a college football titan. The decade of the 1970s turned into a series of great and disappointing years. In 1971, Georgia roared to an 11-1 record, but a loss to Auburn cost the Bulldogs a piece of the SEC championship. It also started a string of five straight league titles won by Paul “Bear” Bryant’s powerhouse Alabama Crimson Tide.
Following the grand season of 1972, the Bulldogs stumbled into mediocrity the next three years, going 7-4, 7-4-1 and 6-6, the lowlight of the latter a humiliating 20-point loss to “the enemy” on a frigid day between the hedges.
Barbara Dooley recounted that once, following that bleak Saturday, she was driving the kids to school, and there was a likeness of their dad being hung in effigy.
Times would turn though for Georgia in 1975. The “Junkyard Dawgs” were born, and Georgia again roared. The Bulldogs opened with a loss to Pittsburgh – a school that has haunted red and black greatness – and then won three in a row. A 28-13 loss to Ole Miss dropped the Bulldogs to 3-2, then Georgia caught fire. The Dogs won six straight, including the Shoestring play at Vandy, the famed “Richard Appleby-to-Gene Washington” victory over Florida and a trouncing of Tech on the flats. Unfortunately, that loss to the Rebels cost the Bulldogs the SEC title, but the triumphs over Florida, Auburn and Tech allowed the Bulldogs to “walk amongst champions,” according to Dooley.
A Cotton Bowl berth followed, but things didn’t go well in Dallas, as Arkansas defeated the Dogs 31-10. But the 1975 season returned the Bulldogs to prominence and hopes were high for 1976.
A talented Cal team, with the superb passing due of the brave Joe Roth – who played the ’76 season with cancer and passed away in February – and speedy Wesley Walker, gave Georgia quite a season opening test, but the Dogs prevailed 36-24.
Next up was a 41-0 clobbering of Clemson on the banks of Lake Harwell, and the Bulldogs were an impressive 2-0. There was a Titanic showdown on the horizon, and Georgia escaped a potential trap, topping South Carolina 20-12 between the hedges.
The scene was now set for one of the most highly anticipated showdowns in Sanford Stadium history. Alabama, with those five straight SEC championships, and the Bear were heading to Athens with another excellent team. But Georgia was up for the fight.
There were fans camping out on the famed railroad tracks as early as Tuesday night. The night before the game, with Bama staying at the great Leroy Dukes Ramada Inn, the Frogpound Lounge was rocking, the players’ phones were ringing and car horns were honking throughout the night.
October 2, 1976 stands as one of the grand days in red and black annals, as the Bulldogs stormed past Bama 21-0 to ascend to the top of the SEC and Number Four in the national rankings.
Athens was on fire. Milledge Avenue was shut down due to overflow crowds from the raucous fraternity and sorority parties, with hundreds of the revelers proudly taking part in the nationwide streaky craze.
Unfortunately a hangover ensued. The Bulldogs raced to a 14-0 lead in Oxford on a pair of long touchdowns. But Ole Miss came back to topple Georgia 21-17.
Which way would the Bulldogs go?
Georgia recovered to pummel Vanderbilt 45-0 in Athens, beat Kentucky 31-7 in Lexington and hold off Cincinnati 31-17 at Sanford Stadium.
Next up was Jacksonville. The Gators were hungry, as Georgia had dashed their dreams with upset wins the two seasons prior.
It was all Florida, with the Gators leading 27-13 at the half.
Then came one of the great comebacks in Bulldog history, keyed by Johnny Henderson’s stop on “fourth and dumb,” the signature performance of Ray Goff’s SEC Most Valuable Player season and Kevin McLee’s 198 yard rushing performance. Georgia ripped through the Gators 41-27 and moved a step away for the conference crown.
Without attempting a pass, the Bulldogs crushed Auburn 28-0 on the plains. McLee amassed 203 yards on the ground, churning through the Tigers behind the heart and should of this great Georgia team – the offensive line.
Left tackle Mike “Moonpie” Wilson, left guard Joel “Cowboy” Parrish, center Joe Tereshinski (a second generation Bulldog great, along with his brother, starting tight end Wally Tereshinki), right guard George Collins and right tackle Steve Collier formed what many Georgia fans consider the best offensive line in school history.
It was scary against Tech to close out the regular season, but Bill Krug came up with the big turnover and All-American Allan Leavitt booted the game-winner. The Bulldogs were 10-1, SEC champions and ranked No. 4 in the nation. It was the third SEC title of the Dooley/Russell era, and after the near misses of ’71 and ’75, especially sweet.
Mighty Pittsburgh, led by Heisman winner Tony Dorsett, proved to be too much in the Sugar Bowl, and the Panthers were crowned national champions.
That SEC title flag will fly forever though, and the memories of those incredible wins over Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Tech will never be forgotten. Nor will the revelry of those unforgettable weekends in Athens and Jacksonville in particular.
Georgia’s conference kings of ’76, the Bicentennial Bulldogs, will always be one of the red and black’s most celebrated champions.