The 125th anniversary of the oldest football rivalry in the Deep South is shaping up to be a doozy. Georgia might not want to review the book for inspiration.
Saturday’s meeting pits No. 1 Georgia against No. 10 Auburn – only the fourth time they’ve faced each other as mutual top-10 teams. The other three occasions – 1971, 1983 and 2004 – were each won by Auburn and cost the Bulldogs a pair of shots at the national championship the first two times.
“When both teams have been great historically, Auburn has won,” said Douglas Stutsman, whose book “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry: Auburn vs. Georgia” was published in June.
Stutsman, a former reporter for The Augusta Chronicle, took a deep dive into what most principal figures have long considered a “friendly rivalry” between neighbors that dates back to Georgia’s first football loss in school history in 1892.
“Ray Goff said it was like fighting your brother in the backyard,” Stutsman said of the former Georgia quarterback and head coach, who like many considered the annual Auburn affair as something less bitter than Florida or Alabama rivalries for the respective schools. “When you get through fighting, he’s still your brother.”
There is a lot to digest in 125 years of sustained competition, from the first meeting on Feb. 20, 1892, in Atlanta, 39 meetings in Columbus, Ga., from 1916-58, “Sugar falling from the sky,” the “Blackout” game right up through Kirby Smart’s first win against the Tigers last year in Athens leading into this year’s much anticipated showdown.
Some might say the rivalry was best captured in one iconic frame of Uga V lunging at Auburn wide receiver Robert Baker during Georgia’s wild four-overtime win at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1996. The picture was reproduced so many times that the original negative literally wore out.
Stutsman’s research reveals that the rivalry is deeper than results of the game. It might be fair to call Stutsman’s book a labor of love/hate for a lifelong Auburn fan (his parents and siblings went to college there) who grew up in in Athens, Ga.
“That’s why I love this rivalry so much,” he said. “That’s pretty much the foundation on the book, growing up among a million Dawg fans as the lone Auburn fan.”
The spark to write a neutral account came after he too gleefully cheered Georgia’s 2014 loss at South Carolina in front of his girlfriend (now fiance) Margaret Story – the granddaughter of Sonny Seiler who owns the unbroken line of Uga bulldog mascots.
“I was so excited that South Carolina won and was just going crazy,” Stutsman said. “She looked at me and said, ‘This is not gonna work.’”
So in a good-faith effort to learn to appreciate Georgia for the sake of the relationship, he dove into researching the rivalry that had defined much of his life. He would spend weekends poring over microfilm archives in the basements of the university libraries in Athens and Auburn.
“I kind of got obsessed with it and it became fun,” Stutsman said.
Then came countless interviews with many of the living characters in the rivalry, particularly coaches Vince Dooley and Pat Dye.
“In my mind what sets apart Auburn-Georgia is the connections between the two schools,” said Stutsman, who every time he walks into the Seiler home in Savannah is greeted by portraits of Dooley, Erk Russell and Joel Eaves – all legendary Georgia coaches and Auburn grads. “You can make the argument that aside from Herschel Walker and Frank Sinkwich, the three most important figures in Georgia football all went to Auburn.”
On the flip side, the two most important coaches in Auburn history were Shug Jordan and Dye, both deeply connected Bulldogs. Dye, of course, played for Georgia after graduating from Richmond Academy. Jordan, whose name is on the Tigers’ stadium, was a longtime assistant under Wally Butts at Georgia before Auburn came calling.
“The ties are really unparalleled between them than just about any other two schools in the country,” he said.
Those interconnections never got more complicated than in 1980. In the most glorious season in Bulldogs history, a month before Georgia beat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to cement its perfect season and national title, Coach Dooley was set to leave the 11-0 Bulldogs and return to The Plains and likely set up a dogfight over whether Russell or Dye would take over the Georgia reins.
“Could you imagine if Twitter was around when word got out that an 11-0 team was about to lose their head coach a month before the national title game,” Stutsman said.
Rumors were flying that Dooley had already accepted the job. When he and Barbara left to meet with Auburn officials, the cries of their youngest son, 12-year-old Derek, were ringing in their ears. All four of their kids grew up Georgia fans. That influenced Dooley’s decision to stay, after asking his seniors if they would accept him back.
“If I had been at Georgia five, six, maybe eight years, I would have jumped the Chattahoochee to go back to Auburn,” Dooley said. “But I thought about my family and all those players. I told myself, ‘I’ve been here too long.’ My roots at Georgia had become deeper than my roots at Auburn.”
If you’re looking for clues in what this 125th anniversary edition of the rivalry means to the bigger picture, there are plenty of historic morsels to chew on. Three times Auburn has delivered Georgia’s only loss in the season – 1942, ’71 and ’83 – costing the Bulldogs national titles each time.
“A lot of people view the one in 1971 as the No. 1 game of all time,” Stutsman said of a battle of unbeatens in which the Tigers prevailed 35-20.
Even the “consensus” 1942 national championship Georgia claims was tarnished by a shocking loss in Columbus, Ga., to an Auburn team that lost to a Florida team the Bulldogs had beaten 75-0. Because of that loss, Georgia finished No. 2 behind 9-1 Ohio State in the final Associated Press poll, which was the only one that really mattered.
“A lot of people in Georgia look back on 1942 and say they were national champions, but in reality that upset at the time was huge and cost Georgia the national title,” Stutsman said after reviewing the reports that reflected the thinking of the Bulldogs at the time by calling it “the worst fate that has befell the state of Georgia since Sherman.”
Hyperbole aside, this year’s No. 1 and championship-aspiring Bulldogs hope to avoid drafting a similar chapter of regret when the next reprint comes out.