This season marks the 60th anniversary of one of the greatest and most significant seasons in the history of Georgia football. In 1959, the magnificent Bulldogs fought and clawed their way to the Southeastern Conference championship and No. 5 national ranking with a 10-1 record, capped in style with a 14-0 Orange Bowl victory over Missouri.
Highlighting the campaign was the famed 14-13 triumph over Auburn, as Fran Tarkenton hit Bill Herron for a 30-yard touchdown, followed by Durwood Pennington’s extra point, with 30 seconds to go.
“Frances made the play up in the huddle to throw the ball to the left end, Bill Herron,” said Leebern. “When I heard the crowd react, I knew we had scored.”
Tarkenton to Herron is one of the greatest plays in Georgia history, and it marked the first time that the Deep South’s oldest rivalry was played in Athens since Sanford Stadium’s dedication in 1959. Up next was a 21-14 win over Tech in Atlanta, the third of four in a row over the Yellow Jackets. It was a time to celebrate. The Orange Bowl, the win over Mizzou on January 1, 1960, the first Bulldogs game ever to be televised, that was the punctuation of a most cherished season for the Georgia faithful.
Bulldogs everywhere were starving and tired, hungry and eager for a return to greatness. In this one season, Georgia got it.
“My fondest memory of the championship season was the camaraderie of the team,” reflects Don Leebern, standout starting tackle for the ‘59 Bulldogs. The experiences we shared have stayed with us always.”
The Fabulous 40s” featured SEC titles in 1942, 1946 and 1948, the consensus national title of 1942 and the Williamson Poll No. 1 ranking of ‘46. The Bulldogs of the ‘40s won Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls, as legendary coach Wallace Butts led a tremendous collection of talent, featuring Frank Sinkwich, Charley Trippi, Johnny Rauch, George Poschner, Joe Tereshinksi, Jack Bush and Joe Geri – just to mention a few.
But as things went up, and Georgia emerged as one of college football’s great powers in one decade, the Bulldogs would then sink to their lowest of times.
From 1949-1963, the year before young Vince Dooley was hired as Georgia’s head football coach, bringing with him Erk Russell and Brother Bill to reinfuse this once-proud program, the Bulldogs had nine losing seasons. The absolute low was the infamous drought, Georgia’s eight-game losing streak to Tech from 1949-56. From 1955-1963, Georgia went 1-8 against Florida, the lone victory a 21-10 triumph by, naturally, the Bulldogs of 1959. From 1951-1963, the Bulldogs Orange Bowl victory of ‘59 marked the lone postseason appearance for Georgia.
To paraphrase Dickens, Georgia went from the best of times to the worst of times. There were battles within. Should Butts stay or go? The Coach of the Decade in the 1940s was on the hottest of seats in the 1950s.
But there was 1959.
Georgia broke the drought against Tech in 1957. The Bulldogs beat the Jackets for a second straight year in 1958 but went 4-6, the program’s fourth consecutive losing season. There were signs though, and talent emerging.
Everything came together in 1959, with a pair of quarterbacks, Tarkenton and Charlie Britt leading the way.
The lone loss of the season came to the Gamecocks in Columbia, South Carolina in the third game of the year. Georgia opened the year with a 17-3 victory over Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide between the hedges, one of seven wins by double digits. Then came a 21-6 win over Vanderbilt in Athens.
Following the loss to the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs regrouped and went on an eight-game winning streak. Hardin-Simmons was dispatched 35-6 in Athens followed by a 15-0 win over Mississippi State in Atlanta. Yes, the Bulldogs had resorted to scheduling home games in Atlanta at Grant Field, attempting to draw from the alumni in the metro area. Hard to imagine now, isn’t it?
A tight game in Lexington went Georgia’s way, as the Bulldogs beat Kentucky 14-7, then returned home for a 42-0 rout of Florida State. Next up was the big three.
The victories of Florida, Auburn and Tech reinvigorated the Georgia people and showed that the game had not passed Butts by.
There was no way Georgia wasn’t going to finish strong.
“When we got off the plane from Athens, the team was taken to the Miami Marlin baseball stadium where we had a full practice,” Leebern said with a smile. “This was not surprising as this was Coach Butts’s style. He always said we had to win on conditioning and stamina!”
In the Orange Bowl, the Bulldogs put the finishing touches on this special season with a tremendous performance. The defense dominated, and Tarkenton threw a pair of scoring passes to Bill McKenney and Aaron Box.
Georgia would go 6-4 in 1960, Butts final season. A 7-6 win over Tech was his final game – Pat Dye’s blocked PAT the play of the game.
Johnny Griffith, a star player for Butts in the ‘40s, was named his successor, but there was so much infighting and turmoil that he never had a chance. He would coach for only three seasons, and then Dooley came aboard, inheriting some talented players. That Sun Bowl trip in 1964 was Georgia’s first postseason game since the Orange Bowl.
The difficult times of the ‘50s and the tough years that would follow make that great 1959 team incredibly significant.
This season was an oasis.
Georgia’s Orange Bowl win over Missouri was the lone meetings between the two schools until the Tigers, along with Texas A&M, joined the Southeastern Conference in 2012. The Bulldogs and Mizzou have met every year since, Saturday night’s match-up marking an eighth straight. So here on this 60th anniversary of such a memorable team, with that Orange Bowl foe in town, it’s a good time for the Georgia faithful to reflect upon a most special team that delivered when the Bulldogs needed it most.