Editor’s note: This article by Mark Bradley recalling the events of Christmas Day 1995 was originally published online on Dec. 21, 2013.
On Dec. 25, 1995, Claude Felton was packing the car for a holiday lunch with his in-laws when he got a call from John Shafer, the No. 2 man in Georgia’s athletic department. “Merry Christmas,” Shafer said. “Are you sitting down?”
Minutes earlier, athletic director Vince Dooley was informed by Glen Mason, who was introduced as the Bulldogs’ new football coach at an Athens news conference Dec. 18, that he decided to stay at Kansas. And ho-ho-ho to you, too.
Dooley was with his in-laws in Birmingham, Ala. Putting down the phone, he walked into the next room and told his wife Barbara, “We’ve got to go.”
Said Barbara Dooley, who in April 1980 saw a family vacation in New England spoiled because a high school senior named Herschel was signing a letter of intent on Easter Sunday: “You have got to be kidding.”
Said Vince Dooley: “We have GOT to GO.”
They piled in the car for the four-hour trip back to Athens, Barbara driving, Vince making calls. At the Anniston exit off I-20, they pulled into the Holiday Inn, where a kindly desk clerk allowed Vince to use a land line in a vacant office to dial Huntington, W.Va., and offer another man the job Mason had held for seven days.
To this day, Dooley insists he has never been told the real reason Mason reneged. (Speculation has long held that moving out of state would have complicated child custody for the just-divorced Mason.) Still, it’s worth noting that Mason would leave his beloved Kansas for Minnesota barely 51 weeks later.
But enough about Mason. For Georgia insiders, the memory of that Christmas is of a holiday spoiled and salvaged. By nightfall, Felton — who gathered at the Butts-Mehre building with senior staff to meet Dooley at 5 p.m. — issued a release announcing that the Bulldogs had hired Jim Donnan of Marshall as coach.
Said Donnan of hearing Dooley’s voice on the phone: “Well, I knew he wasn’t calling to wish me a merry Christmas.”
Said Dooley: “If we had not had the backup and if there had been a void and a vacuum, that would have been embarrassing.”
Dooley had interviewed Donnan in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 17, the day before he chose Mason. (Dooley’s rationale: Mason was “a little smoother.”) But Donnan was, on the record, the better coach. True, he would last only five seasons before being fired — over Dooley’s objection — by president Michael Adams, but Donnan had four winning seasons at Georgia. Ray Goff, the man he succeeded if you don’t count Mason, had three winning seasons in seven years.
Christmas 1995 began with truckload of coal being dumped into the Bulldogs’ collective stocking. It ended with them feeling rather festive. Donnan wasn’t the jolliest of elves, but as a product of later-than-last-minute holiday shopping, he beat the heck out of a fruitcake.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.