Georgia Tech’s opponent has history of upsetting Jackets

Bobby Lamb remembers it like it was yesterday.

“It was Red 64,” he said.

In September 1983, Lamb was a 20-year-old sophomore quarterback at Furman. He had been elevated into the starting lineup after an injury to the starter the week prior. His Paladins trailed Georgia Tech 14-7 in the fourth quarter, hanging in with the Yellow Jackets, who were in their first season as full members of the ACC.

At the line of scrimmage, Lamb saw the defensive look that coaches had prepared him for – a safety blitz coming from the front side. Lamb checked to Red 64, and more mature Tech fans know the ignominious rest. Lamb hit Chas Fox for a 28-yard touchdown pass with 9:42 to play. A Tech interception set up Furman’s game-winning field goal in the final minute, the difference in the 17-14 stunner. The game held particular meaning for Lamb, an in-state kid who had won a state championship for Commerce High in northeast Georgia.

“When I play golf with some of those guys, or anybody that’s a Georgia Tech fan, they remember,” Lamb said. “They remember 1983.”

Lamb returns to Grant Field Saturday as coach of Mercer, again in the role of giant slayer. After a nine-year run as coach at Furman, Lamb was hired in 2011 to revive Mercer’s team, dormant since the end of the 1941 season. After two years for planning and recruiting, the Bears are in their fourth season, a member of the Southern Conference. Saturday’s game will be the Bears’ first against an FBS opponent.

“We’ve had a lot of firsts in this program,” Lamb said. “This’ll be one of our last firsts. It’ll be our first FBS game. Hopefully, we can play well and have a chance.”

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Lamb and the 1983 Furman team own a distinct, if unwelcome, place in Tech football history. In 30 games against FCS (previously known as Division I-AA) opponents, the Jackets have only lost once, to Lamb and those Paladins. (Furman did return in 1986 to tie Tech 17-17.)

History casts a different perspective on the loss, but the saltiness lingers, 33 years later. Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof, a sophomore on that team, was asked his memories of that game at a post-practice interview this week.

“Not good,” Roof replied with uncharacteristic curtness. “We about done?”

Al Ciraldo Jr., son of Tech’s legendary broadcaster, was at the game, spotting for his father.

“It’s not a wonderful subject to bring up,” said Ciraldo, who continues to spot for Tech radio broadcasts with Tommy Barber.

Bill Curry, who presided over the defeat, isn’t in the business of rating losses – “I hate all of them,” he said. But it was stinging. In his fourth season at his alma mater, the Jackets were 6-5 the year prior and appeared to be turning a corner. The Paladins delivered a purple-tinged rebuke.

“What I remember was – it was such a bad feeling – that they were better than us, and we got another stark lesson in what an established program looks like,” Curry said.

“It was a shock,” Ciraldo said.

The Jackets finished 3-8, improved to 6-4-1 in 1984 and then hit the peak of the Curry era, a 9-2-1 season that was Tech’s first nine-win season since 1970. Curry can trace some of that resurgence to that afternoon. He recalls telling his team after the game that Furman shouldn’t have been the better team, but was.

“The question is, what are we going to do about it?” Curry said. “It wasn’t a pleasant moment, but an impetus to take the next step.”

In hindsight, the outcome isn’t so surprising. Furman running back Stanford Jennings, who trampled the Jackets for 168 yards, went on to play nine NFL seasons. That season, Furman reached the I-AA semifinals and two years later lost in the finals to Georgia Southern. (Calling offensive plays for the Eagles was a 28-year-old Paul Johnson)

The Paladins beat South Carolina in 1982, Tech in 1983 and N.C. State in 1984 and 1985. Coach Dick Sheridan went on to N.C. State, where he retired with the second most wins in school history.

Three decades before FCS teams pulling rank on power-conference opponents became, at the least, not uncommon, Furman was providing the blueprint.

“They really had it going,” Curry said.

Now 53, Lamb is attempting to steer the Bears towards the same elite plateau that Furman once held. In four years, Mercer has gone from playing in a non-scholarship FCS league to competing in one of the preeminent conferences of that tier. The Bears were 5-6 last year but lost five games by seven points or fewer.

As he prepared the Bears for Tech, Lamb said he probably wouldn’t bring up his conquest on the same field they’ll bus up to Saturday.

“It’s too far in the past,” he said.

For Tech fans of a certain age, though, perhaps not far enough.