A legendary conversation: Trippi and Dooley on UGA, the Rose Bowl and championships

Georgia legends Charley Trippi, 96, with his Rose Bowl Hall of Fame trophy, and Vince Dooley, 85, share a laugh at the Trippi home on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, in Athens.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia legends Charley Trippi, 96, with his Rose Bowl Hall of Fame trophy, and Vince Dooley, 85, share a laugh at the Trippi home on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017, in Athens.

Peggy Trippi is looking for the letter that announced her husband’s enshrinement into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. She can’t seem to find it. (She has, however, lugged the three-foot trophy Charley Trippi was given at the induction ceremony into the sitting room.) “It said that he’d played 58 minutes in the Rose Bowl,” she says.

Says Vince Dooley: “I would have kept him in there for 59.”

Four days before Christmas, one week after Charley Trippi’s 96th birthday, the architects of Georgia’s first and second consensus national championships are seated on a couch in the house Trippi has occupied since 1960. Trippi was the shining star of the Bulldogs’ victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl of Jan. 1, 1943. Dooley coached the 1980 team to one of the giddiest unbeaten seasons ever recorded. And here they are, legend to legend.

Dooley, as he is wont to do, has a story. It involves Trippi, sort of. “I went to the 1946 Sugar Bowl,” Dooley says of the game played on Jan. 1, 1947. “I was 14. I had a ride (from Mobile to New Orleans). My dad gave me 50 cents. I couldn’t get in. I wound up sitting outside. Georgia beat North Carolina.”

That was also a Trippi team, the great halfback/quarterback/safety/punter having spent 1943 and 1944 in the Air Force. The 1946 Bulldogs beat Carolina 20-10 to finish 12-0. They were named national champs in the Williamson poll, but this was no consensus. They finished No. 3 behind Notre Dame and Army, the teams that waged the famous 0-0 tie in Yankee Stadium, in the Associated Press poll. Those two schools split the No. 1 ranking in every other survey. (There were 16 that year.) Trippi finished second in the Heisman voting to Glenn Davis, Army’s Mr. Outside.

But the greatest coach and the greatest all-around player in Bulldog annals haven’t convened to discuss the 1946 season. They’re together to talk about the Rose Bowl, where Georgia is bound for the first time since Trippi rushed for 130 yards, passed for 96, punted twice for an average of 49.5 yards and intercepted a Bob Waterfield pass. Georgia beat UCLA 9-0 to finish 11-1.

“It was a great event,” Trippi says.

And: “It was my first time (in California). It took a long time to get there.” (The Bulldogs traveled to and from Pasadena by train. The outbound journey, from Atlanta via Chicago, took four days.)

And: “We went out there to win. We were very fortunate to come out with the victory. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Trippi was named the game’s MVP, but only retroactively. No such award was presented in those olden days. One reason Trippi was so prominent was that Frank Sinkwich, Georgia’s Heisman-winning quarterback, had hurt both his ankles. Another reason was that Trippi was among the finest players anyone has ever seen.

It was only after the 1942 Bulldogs lost to Auburn 27-13 in Columbus on Nov. 21 that coach Wally Butts decided to use Sinkwich and Trippi in the same backfield. “They used to alternate,” says Dooley, who has written about that team in one of his many books.

The next opponent was unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Georgia Tech. Says Trippi: “Losing (to Auburn) got us mad. It got us ready.”

Dooley: “The winner of the Georgia-Georgia Tech game would be invited to the Rose Bowl.”

Trippi: “It was contingent on that.”

Dooley: “Charley had a great game.” (Georgia won 34-0.)

Trippi: “I couldn’t believe we were going (to the Rose Bowl).

Dooley has seen footage of Georgia’s victory in Pasadena. He has a vague memory of listening to it on radio. (TVs weren’t yet a household thing.) He would, however, play a part in that game rising, ex post facto, to become a title-clincher.

“Georgia never claimed the ’42 national championship until I arrived,” he says. “Alabama had been the AP champ. I went to the (College Football) Hall of Fame in South Bend and did some research. There were actually 12 polls that year: Six had Ohio State, and six had Georgia as the No. 1 team. To me, it’s a consensus. I told Claude (Felton, then as now Georgia’s publicist), ‘We need to claim this one.’ ”

While playing at Auburn, Dooley was once likened to Trippi. “I had a pretty good game at safety. (He also played quarterback.) Coach (Shug) Jordan said, ‘He reminded me of Charley Trippi.’ I thought, ‘That’s the biggest exaggeration I’ve ever heard.’ ”

(This from the man who once said of Vanderbilt: “They have the greatest kickoff coverage team I have ever seen.”)

Trippi is one of the two best players in Georgia history. (Apologies to Sinkwich.) Asked how the all-rounder from Pittston, Pa., stacks up alongside the tailback from Wrightsville, the man who coached the latter says: "Charley was different than Herschel (Walker). Herschel didn't do what he did. That's not to say Herschel couldn't have done it. But Charley DID it."

In his role as coach and athletic director emeritus, the 85-year-old Dooley is headed to this Rose Bowl. It will be his first. Trippi has been invited but, due to the distance, has declined. He is 96, and he has been hospitalized three times in the past few months. Should Georgia beat Oklahoma, he and Peggy do plan to be in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the national championship game.

As exemplary as Trippi’s work in the Rose Bowl was, this is no less impressive: He still cut his own grass. (“That’s if the lawnmower works,” Peggy says.) He uses a riding mower. Sometimes he asks his grandson to walk alongside – the backyard has a steep decline – to make sure he doesn’t fall off.

To be closing in on 100, Trippi looks positively robust. On this day, he’s wearing a polo shirt from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in which he’s also enshrined. He doesn’t hear all that well, but he’s bright-eyed and strong of voice. Asked, in the form of a not very subtle icebreaker, if he recalls the game of 75 New Years ago, he says: “You better believe I do!”

Dooley: “Georgia fans love to travel to places they’ve never been. That’s why Notre Dame (in September) was so big. And now they have Notre Dame and this in the same year. Like Charley, this is something they’ll remember all their lives.”