The Georgia-Alabama game, forty years ago between the hedges, left Bulldog partisans on a high that lasted well into the following week which was to bring about a consequential effect on the next Bulldog game which happened to have been a road trip to Oxford, Mississippi.
I can remember post game celebrations over the years that resulted in signature parties, but for a home game hoedown, with unprecedented revelry, anyone with any knowledge of Georgia history in the last half century would have to conclude that the post-game celebration of 1976 has to be a cake taker.
The only thing comparable that comes to mind was the Ben Epps Field episode in 1965 when the team flew home from Ann Arbor Michigan with a Big Ten conquest that so overwhelmed the populace that you could not make your way to the airport. As the two Southern Airways Martin 404s, which returned the team home from Ann Arbor, banked to align with the runway lights, you could see cars bumper to bumper all the way into downtown Athens.
The difference was that Alabama in 1976 was a home game which was played at 1:00 p.m., standard for the times. The post-game party began early with a resounding crescendo that had no stopping point, lasting deep into the next week. Traffic on Milledge Ave. came to a standstill, with the celebration spilling out into the streets. Countless students, who are now moving toward their dotage, remember the “Alabama Aftermath,” as the most memorable of their campus years. “There has never been anything like it,” says John Addison, former Co-CEO of Primerica, who was in high school senior and a guest of upperclassmen friends for the weekend. “It made me so anxious to enroll in Athens that I could not get Georgia “off” my mind.
Jeff Lewis, linebacker on the team, remembered that a farmer entered the Five Points intersection in a pickup truck pulling a trailer loaded with hay. When he finally reached the dead end at Prince Avenue, his trailer was devoid of hay. He had no recourse with respect to recouping his loss. Even a lawyer could not have helped.
The 1976 season—following the serendipitous success of 1975 in which Georgia was the surprise team of the SEC, contending for the SEC title—was one of promise from the start. Dooley had brought in Bill Pace to campus in 1974 to install the popular Veer offense. There were seasoned veterans in the offensive and defensive lines, the best ingredients to build a team and a contender. There were two different, but quality quarterbacks, Matt Robinson and Ray Goff, both of whom experienced playing time. As the seasoned progressed, Goff would take over the offense.
The Bulldogs developed a devastating offense, averaging almost 30 points per game (29.4). The only regular season loss was to Ole Miss in Oxford where the ‘Dawgs lacked the performance edge and lost, owing to uncharacteristic mistakes, 21-17. It was hard to come down from the high of shutting out a championship caliber Alabama team which was a much better team than Ole Miss.
There would be no more losing that (regular) season as Georgia came from behind at the half in Jacksonville to win 41-27. Auburn fell with Georgia 28-0, allowing for a share of the conference title, without attempting a single pass. A hard earned victory over Georgia Tech, 13-10, at home on the foot of Allan Leavitt brought about the state championship, concluding on a high and celebratory note.
Goff, the captain and SEC player-of-the-year, remembers the competency of the offensive line, the togetherness of the team, the disappointment of the Sugar Bowl against Tony Dorsett and the Pitt Panthers and the euphoria that erupted after beating Alabama 21-0.
He knew the crowd was ready for Alabama when the team busses parked behind the stadium and the “track people” were at an all-time high. Fans descended uncontrollably on the team, back slapping and tearing at the player’s clothes.
The backs and receivers wore tear-away jerseys, much to the delight of the fans. They literally tore the clothes off the backs of the offensive skill players who had to redress as soon as they got into the locker room.
Bulldog players were as revved up as the track people along with the rest of those in attendance inside Sanford Stadium. Alabama, though never getting a score, owing to an Erskine Russell defense primed for peak performance, would not go quietly.
The Tide kept it close for three quarters with Georgia having to earn every yard by prevailing in an intense jaw-to-jaw encounter that included the brilliant halfback pass of Sophomore Jeff Pyburn that set up a key score. It was one of the most masterful performances ever in Sanford Stadium against a competent opponent.
In the Sugar Bowl Pitt dominated the game, having the good fortune of preparing for a one dimensional offense. The Bulldog O-line while holding the upper hand during the season was not as successful as the national-champions-to-be in New Orleans. Pitt head coach John Majors, who later was called home to Tennessee, and his staff had a month to figure out the Georgia veer which they did, shutting down the Bulldog option.
Nonetheless, it was a good year. It was Dooley’s third SEC title with three more to come, plus a National Championship. It was an end of a highly regarded playing career for Goff, who set out to follow his dream of coaching which materialized with him being named head coach of the Bulldogs in January 1989.
That became a bittersweet experience for him. The high times that came with being a Georgia boy who chose his home state university because he planned to live in the state, understanding that while he was not the first choice for the head job, originally, he could not turn down the opportunity.
At age 33, there were demands on his time that he was not prepared for. High schools and Rotary Clubs were all calling. He showed up for the most part whenever there was a beck and call. He simply could not say no. On top of that, it was fun. Everywhere he went, he was welcomed with open arms. The state was his oyster.
When the honeymoon was over, Ray quickly realized that doting alumni can become doting critics if you don’t win enough. Eventually, he was replaced. Even though he had always been philosophical—that coaches can expect to be hired to be fired—it was tough for him to take when Dooley, who had given Ray his head coaching opportunity, delivered the crushing news that it was over.
In November 1995 Goff was out of a job, having reached the point to where he was making $112,00—good money then, but nothing like what would be thrown at coaches a couple of decades later. Even today with bountiful business success as a Zaxby’s franchisee, he still laments that he did not get done what he aspired to do as Georgia’s 23rd head coach.
“I love Georgia and I love the Georgia people,” Goff says. “I wanted to win big for them.” Embracing a que sera, sera fait accompli stance, he comprehends that his good fortunate in business is a fulfilling consolation.
He owns multiple Zaxby’s franchises and finds the business model, founded by Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley to be productive and rewarding. “Those guys know what they are doing. We have been fortunate,” Ray says, “and we are grateful.”
He could have added as an afterthought that no blitzing linebackers or fumble snaps can ruin his day. Whenever his balance sheet is good or bad, he doesn’t have to meet the press for a critique.