Dan Magill, ‘greatest Bulldog ever,’ dead at 93

Dan Magill, legendary UGA tennis coach and resident sports historian, passed away overnight Sunday at an Athens hospice facility. He was 93.

Magill was Georgia through and though. He famously was the first baby born at Athens Regional Hospital and, except for stints in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and as the high school sports editor at the Atlanta Journal, he spent his entire life in “the Classic City.” It was the University of Georgia that kept him there, a place and a people with whom he said he had a “lifelong love affair.”

“I have spent my life on the campus of the University of Georgia and in the town of Athens, and it has been a wonderful life,” Magill said in 2005 as he accepted John Holliman Award for Lifetime Achievement from the university.

Magill had a 60-year association with Georgia, working in three main capacities for the athletic department. But his unofficial job was as resident historian. He made it his mission to tell anyone who would listen the stories of sports greats past and present. Inevitably, he became one himself. The greatest, many say.

“He is the greatest bulldog of all time, bar none,” said Athens radio personality Jeff Dantzler, a Magill protege who shares his passion for UGA history. “You’re talking about a guy that was a Hall of Famer as a sports information director who, in his spare time, managed to become the winningest coach in college tennis ‘and’ create the Georgia Bulldog Clubs, something that had never been done before.[Vince] Dooley, Herschel [Walker], [Charley] Trippi, they were great athletes and coaches. But Dan Magill bled red and black through and through. He was a true treasure.”

Magill dedicated his life to Georgia athletics. He first served as a bat boy for the baseball team while still in grade school, managed the tennis courts as a teenager and in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s went on to become simultaneously sports information director, men’s tennis coach and executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club of America, the group he founded.

“The ultimate Bulldog,” said Dooley, former Georgia coach and athletics director. “The true Bulldog spirit of the Georgia people.”

Magill knew the last 10 UGA presidents personally and almost every all-star athlete that came through the school in his time.

“All the way back to John Morris, star catcher on the 1886 baseball team,” Magill once said.

Magill explained his deep-seated feelings for the University of Georgia in the foreword of his book, “Bull-Doggerel.”

“I can still hear the music of the crack band of mighty Yale, the scourge of the East, when the team came to Athens for the dedicatory game of Sanford Stadium in 1929,” Magill wrote in 1993. “As they marched from the train station up College Avenue to the Georgian Hotel, captivating the cheering crowd when they burst into ‘Dixie,’ it was then that I began my love affair with the University of Georgia, one which has not waned. Since that day it has been my good fortune to share in Georgia’s glorious triumphs on the athletic fields and to know the truly great men associated with Georgia sports for a century.”

As UGA’s sports information director, he was known for bestowing quirky nicknames on Georgia’s star players. When the Bulldogs signed a German kicker in the late 1960s, Magill christened him “The Bootin’ Teuton.” He made running back Jimmy Poulos “The Greek Streak,” kicker Bobby Walden “The Big Toe from Cairo,” and, of course, he was responsible for “Herschel Walker Goal-Line Stalker.”

For decades, Magill took special care of sports writers and broadcasters, making sure they were aware of every fact and detail regarding his Bulldogs. In the old days he allegedly even went as far as writing the stories of certain scribes that may have had a little too much “spirit” before games.

Publicity was a perfect vocation for Magill, who had shown a penchant for promoting even as a young man. That was evident as early as the 1930s when he organized “The Great Snake Fight” between a king snake he had captured and timber rattler his boyhood friend Herschel Carithers had caught. They sold tickets for 10 cents apiece and unleashed the two mighty serpents in a crudely-fashioned ring Magill set up in the middle of the UGA tennis courts, then on North Campus. The snakes never “mixed it up” but a close strike by the rattler that caused the young Magill to jump “five feet in the air and plum out of the ring” kept his patrons from demanding a refund.

Magill built Georgia’s tennis program out of the hard red clay on what was once known as “Ag Hill.” He grudgingly took over before the 1955 season after he was appointed by athletics director Wally Butts to be the one-man search committee to find a successor for the retiring Prof. Albert Jones. Unable to find one, the tennis-playing Magill appointed himself, intending to handle it “only a year or so” as a stopgap.

Magill coached the men’s tennis team for 34 years, leading the Bulldogs to 21 SEC outdoor and indoor titles and national championships in 1985 and ‘87. He retired in 1988 as the winningest coach in NCAA Division I tennis history with a staggering 706-183 record.

“Dan was something special,” says Manuel Diaz, a former Georgia player and assistant coach who succeeded Magill in 1989 and has led the Bulldogs to four more national titles. “He was the foundation for this program and for college tennis.”

Indeed, Magill made Athens the “Mecca of college tennis.” When the NCAA went to a team format to decide it’s national championship in 1977, Magill volunteered to host the tournament. He won over the NCAA and UGA by assuring both parties the event would not lose money. He enlisted the Athens tennis community to underwrite the project.

Georgia went on to host the tournament 21 times — including the first 13 in a row — and the Bulldogs won five of their national titles on their home courts. Not only did the tournament never lose money, Magill used the event to help build Georgia’s tennis facility into what is today considered the finest anywhere, with 16 courts and a lighted stadium with a seating capacity for more than 5,000 fans.

“It was his vision for what could happen with an NCAA tennis tournament,” said Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who as a boy helped Magill conduct tournaments and maintain the tennis courts. “The tennis facility was a labor of love for him. He started it from the ground floor, he raised the funds to do the majority of the work, he did that landscaping. It was his passion.”

Said David Benjamin, director of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) and former tennis coach at Princeton: “Dan Magill was without any doubt the most extraordinary individual ever to coach collegiate tennis.”

Even Magill was not immune from controversy, however. His abrupt retirement as director of tennis in 1995 was the result of a squabble with the university over the interpretation of the Title IX Act. The women’s tennis team was seeking equal access to the tennis stadium and facilities and Magill did not believe the law applied. He was hurt when the university and athletic administration did not back him.

But Magill did not disappear from public view. He maintained his office in the ITA Hall of Fame building, which is part of the vast tennis complex he built, and he went there almost every morning before succumbing to mounting health problems three years ago. As curator of the museum housed there, he would conduct personal tours for visitors.

And Magill was always present whenever Georgia was hosting a tennis tournament, especially the NCAA. He was not hard to spot, with his signature white straw hat, red-and-white striped jacket and red-and-black print pants. Magill managed to pull off as dapper the clashing ensemble.

Magill had passions other than the Bulldogs and tennis, including table tennis and gardening. As ever, he excelled at them all. His bountiful garden on the expansive grounds of his home on Woodlawn Avenue in the Five Points area of Athens was so impressive that it once was featured on a show on the Home and Garden network. Magill always said he had been gardening since he was a toddler when his mother would tether him to a tree so he could help plant flowers in their hillside patch.

Way before he was a celebrated coach of college tennis, Magill was a tennis and table tennis player. Sharpening his skills on the tables of the Athens YMCA, Magill would go on to earn national titles in table tennis. In fact, it’s one of two things for which he is represented in the Guiness Book of World Records — the longest table tennis point (118 minutes in 1936) and fastest two-finger typist (148 words per minute).

Magill played tennis into 90s. He won the Southern Senior Clay Courts title in Savannah in 2004 and continued to play doubles along with former Georgia football coach Jim Donnan well after that.

Magill told his many stories with in high-pitched drawl, but fast, not slow as is the Southern stereotype. It was a voice imitated by many but mastered only by Magill.

“It was a badge of honor to imitate the way he talked,” said WSB television sports anchor Bill Hartman III, a lifelong friend who grew up next door to Magill. “His signature phrase was, ‘it’s a great day to be a Bulldog.’”

Not today. Today it is a sad day.

Magill is survived by his wife, Rosemarie Reynaud Magill and three children: a son, Hamilton III, and daughters Shannon and Mollie. A private funeral will be held Thursday at 10 a.m. A celebration of Magill’s life is scheduled for noon Thursday at the Athens Country Club.

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