Before Georgia Tech’s 1990 title, a ‘weird’ 1989 season set it up

Georgia and Georgia Tech play on Dec. 2, 1989 in Atlanta, GA. Georgia punter Joey Hester gets a block from fullback Brian Cleveland, 37, as Tech rushers seem to fill the air. (AJC FILES/AP STAFF PHOTO BY CHARLES KELLY).
Georgia and Georgia Tech play on Dec. 2, 1989 in Atlanta, GA. Georgia punter Joey Hester gets a block from fullback Brian Cleveland, 37, as Tech rushers seem to fill the air. (AJC FILES/AP STAFF PHOTO BY CHARLES KELLY).

Editor’s note: The year 2020 is big for anniversaries in Georgia college football. It’s the 30th anniversary of the 1990 Georgia Tech 11-0-1 season and share of a national title. It’s the 40th anniversary of 1980 Georgia’s 12-0 season and national title. The AJC will look back at both titles over the next several months. Today: How it started for Georgia Tech.

Before Georgia Tech could travel its memorable path to a share of the 1990 national championship, the Yellow Jackets had to achieve a much humbler objective in the previous season.

Early on in 1989, Tech just needed to win a game. This year, as the 1990 national champions observe the 30th anniversary of their triumph, it might be worth recalling how they laid the foundation the previous season. The 1989 Jackets completed their season with a 7-4 record, but the win-loss mark doesn’t even begin to explain how the season unfolded and that team’s role in setting the stage for the championship to come.

“I’m telling you, ’89 was a really weird year,” said Thomas Covington, a tight end who started on that team and the national championship squad a year later.

The 1989 Jackets were a team in a transition, in the third year of coach Bobby Ross’ tenure. The adjustment from former coach Bill Curry to Ross was pronounced, according to those who experienced it. As cornerback Keith Holmes described, the two coaches were “just completely different people, and it was shocking for people who had spent time around Curry.”

Holmes, who was recruited out of Birmingham, Ala., by Curry, said that Curry was more personable, someone who called players into his office to ask how they were doing. On the other hand, Holmes continued, if players were called to office by Ross, it was because they were in trouble.

“They’re just different,” Holmes said. “It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”

By the time he was a senior in 1990, Jerimiah McClary was a team captain and starting defensive tackle for Ross. But in 1987, Ross’ first season, he was just a redshirt freshman unhappy that the coach that he’d come to Tech to play for was no longer there, replaced by a coach with a contrasting style.

A few times, McClary expressed his dissatisfaction by not going to practice and hanging out at his dormitory, joined by others in his signing class. It wasn’t because of any particular aversion to practice, he explained.

“We practiced for coach Curry,” McClary said. “We never had the opportunity to play for him, but for that year (1986), he was our coach, and we saw that he was very different, and coach Ross came in with a different set of guidelines, and we were lost.”

McClary said the thinking about skipping practice was if they all missed it together, they couldn’t all be kicked off the team, until assistant coach Brian Baker showed up at the dorm and informed them otherwise.

“That was another thing that helped me realize, ‘Hey, I’ve got to make better decisions,’” said McClary, now a corporate trainer living in Snellville.

Frustrating start to Ross tenure

The frustrations and hurt harbored by the players recruited by Curry lingered and manifested themselves on the field.

“My freshman year (1987), I watched guys talking about what they were going to do after the game, and it was only halftime,” said Covington, the tight end who is now in the insurance business in Cobb County.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Jackets finished 2-9 in 1987. They were 0-9 against FBS (then Division I-A) opponents and lost seven of those games by double digits. In 1988, the Jackets improved to 3-8. The highlight was a 34-0 upset of No. 8 South Carolina, which at that point was 6-0. The final scores were generally closer than Ross’ first season, but Tech finished 1-8 against FBS opponents and winless in the ACC for a second consecutive year.

“I can tell you early on, those first two seasons (1987-88), there was doubt, would we ever win a game?” said Holmes, the cornerback who is now a senior vice president for Cox Communications.

It led to 1989. The Jackets were picked to finish eighth in the eight-team ACC. Given that they had lost their last 14 consecutive conference games, it was hardly an unreasonable projection. Internally, though, there was recognition of the talent that had been assembled.

Linebacker Marco Coleman, who would go on to be a two-time All-American and a first-round NFL draft pick, was a freshman. Safety Ken Swilling, another two-time All-American in the making, was a sophomore. There were three other future All-Americans, cornerback Willie Clay, defensive tackle Coleman Rudolph and kicker Scott Sisson, and an additional five who would join the aforementioned five in becoming NFL draft picks (defensive end Sean Smith, linebacker Calvin TIggle, guard Jim Lavin, offensive tackle Mike Mooney and Covington).

“It seems like we were still trying to gel, trying to figure each other out with not only the team members that were there, but the new members also,” said Tiggle, the linebacker who had arrived in 1989 as a junior-college transfer. “You could tell we had a special team.”

Bumpy start in 1989

However, the Jackets lost their first three games of the season, losing at N.C. State, at home to Virginia and at South Carolina, extending their ACC losing streak to 16 games. Covington felt the struggle of that melding process on a much deeper level than did Tiggle, tying it to differing levels of commitment among players. He said he couldn’t understand why the team wasn’t performing better.

“It was like an identity crisis: Who are we?” Covington said. “How are we going to define this season? Because when we looked around the locker room, there was nothing but talent, and it was like, OK, all we have to do is go out there and put it together and play.”

The third loss of the season, at South Carolina on Sept. 23, was a breaking point. The game was played after Hurricane Hugo had struck South Carolina and knocked out power in Columbia, including at Tech’s team hotel. With no air conditioning, players slept in the hotel hallways and conducted team meetings by emergency lighting. After the Jackets lost a mistake-filled game to the Gamecocks, Covington recalled being in tears afterward. Still, Ross saw hope.

“We had been losing, but we were getting better,” Ross said.

Ticked-off Ross

Any good feeling evaporated at the start of the next week. On Mondays, Tech practiced at night because it enabled players to attend lab classes in the afternoon. During the Monday night practice after the South Carolina loss, Ross said he was alerted that some players had skipped tutoring sessions that day. The coach boiled over.

“I was really ticked off because we had been experiencing a lot of that,” Ross said.

Ross blew his whistle to end practice prematurely and led players back to the team meeting room. Ross laid into the team, pointedly telling players that he was fed up with them missing tutoring sessions and classes.

“I went through the cost of (the tutoring sessions), etc., and our big thing was, we’re not going to ask you to do anything in this program that isn’t in your best interest,” Ross said.

Ross then delivered an ultimatum. If players weren’t going to be accountable, he said, “there’s going to be some changes made, and it might be me being changed, and out of there.” That is to say, he was ready to resign over the matter. Speaking this week, Ross said it wasn’t a bluff.

“I was ready to resign,” he said. “I was frustrated; I really was. And I obviously didn’t want to, but there were just certain things to the program that I thought were very, very important.”

In “Focused on the Top,” a book about Tech’s 1990 season, former AJC staff writer Jack Wilkinson wrote that Ross told the players that academic responsibilities were as important to him as winning on the field.

“They’re important to winning football games,” Ross said in the book. “You don’t win doing things this way, I don’t give a damn how good you are.”

Ross and his staff left the room, giving the players the privacy to deliberate. Senior nose guard Jeff Mathis was particularly vocal, according to the book’s account of the meeting, expressing his disgust with the losing and the lack of commitment. The atmosphere was tense, with players sharing frustrations and challenging teammates.

“It was pretty much, ‘Hey, you either get right, you get with the program, or get going,’” said McClary, the former practice truant. “That was a pivotal moment for the whole team because now internal leaders had stepped up.”

Ross’ tirade served its purpose. He got the team’s attention and commitment. Ross said it was about 45 minutes before Mathis, defensive tackles Willie Burks and Sean Smith reported back to him, a long enough wait that Ross said he wondered if players were actually having trouble deciding what they should tell him.

“They said, ‘Coach, we’re not going to have any more trouble with going to class and tutorial sessions,’” Ross recalled. “And so that was a big hurdle for us. It really was. It was a huge hurdle.”

Mathis followed it up with a players-only meeting that weekend, during the team’s open date.

“We know we can win, and we’ve got to get to the point where it’s time to prove it,” Mathis said in an AJC article at the time. “Everyone’s tired of losing.”

While memories have grown a little fuzzy, multiple players remembered either the Monday meeting and/or Mathis’ players-only meeting as being pivotal in the path of the season and program.

“Sometimes you need to have some internal combustion to propel things forward, like the Model A Ford,” said Lavin, alluding to the Ramblin’ Wreck.

A footnote to Ross’ Monday-night challenge: The staffer who had informed Ross of his players’ absences was the team’s academic advisor – a former Tech player named Todd Stansbury, the school’s current athletic director.

“Todd did an outstanding job for us,” Ross said. “So happy to see him there as the AD. He’ll do a bang-up job. He’s a detail-type guy.”

The rally starts

The next Saturday, bent on turning the season around, Tech played Maryland at Bobby Dodd Stadium and managed to fall behind 14-0 and 21-7. It looked like 0-4 and a 17th consecutive ACC loss were beckoning. Boos from the stands littered the air.

But redshirt freshman quarterback Shawn Jones led the Jackets to 21 second-half points – beginning to show the form that would drive Tech in 1990 – while Covington caught two touchdown passes and running back Jerry Mays contributed 136 rushing yards. The 28-24 win was Tech’s first after falling behind by 14 points since 1968.

Such was Tech’s exuberance and relief that the team carried Ross off the field and fans tore both goalposts down.

“I just remember this change from fear and uncertainty about ‘Can we win?’ to certainty, a belief that we can win and a certainty that we will win,” Holmes said.

Winning at home against lowly Maryland, which would finish the season 3-7-1, was one thing. Next up was a road trip to No. 14 Clemson, a 20-point favorite. The Jackets hammered the Tigers 30-14, spoiling homecoming for the Clemson faithful.

After the game, McClary remembered, Ross was late to the locker room.

“He came in full of sweat,” McClary said. “He looked like he’d ran the whole stadium.”

As McClary recalled, Ross had remembered an elderly Tigers fan who had badmouthed Tech to him two years earlier, a 33-12 Clemson win in Ross’ first season.

“He was looking for this lady to repay the favor to her,” McClary said. “He said, ‘I’ve been up just about every ramp in this stadium and I wanted to let her know that we’re back. I wanted to let her know that we don’t suck.’”

After a 5-20 record in Ross’ first 25 games, Tech had now won two in a row. But it was only the beginning. The Jackets finished the season winning seven of their last eight, including a 33-22 win over Georgia to end the season.

“I still to this day don’t understand why we didn’t get a bowl bid having beaten Georgia and they were 6-5 and we were 7-4,” Ross said before assuming the likely answer to how the Bulldogs had secured a Peach Bowl invite even before losing to the Jackets – ticket sales.

Regardless, the run would carry into 1990, when the Jackets finished 11-0-1 to share the national championship with Colorado – the most recent FBS title won by a team from the state of Georgia, as Tech fans are happy to point out.

The seeds were planted in 1989, a season that began with turmoil, a threatened resignation and boos from Tech fans, only to finish with surging confidence, a formidable defense and an offense led by the emerging Jones.

“We had been experiencing losing and the contagiousness to that,” Ross said. “But now we’d started winning. Now, winning is contagious, just like losing. It just picked up.”