Looking back at Tech, Tulane’s decision to leave SEC

Bill Curry peeked into a parallel universe, one in which Georgia Tech had never left the SEC.

“Bobby Dodd Stadium would be 80,000 seats, and it would be packed almost every week,” said Curry, a Tech man who was an All-American for coach Bobby Dodd and later the school’s coach. The stadium that bears Dodd’s name now seats 55,000, with sellouts infrequent.

Tech plays Tulane on Saturday in a non-conference matchup that will christen Tulane’s new Yulman Stadium. Had both schools not made decisions that were irrevocably course-altering and, in the opinion of some, disastrous, it could have been an SEC game.

Both were charter members of the SEC in 1933. Tech won or shared five conference titles. Tulane won or shared three. But Dodd and then-school president Edwin Harrison withdrew the school from the conference in January 1964 — 50 years ago — because conference members wouldn’t change a rule that limited the number of scholarships each school could offer in football and basketball to 140. Dodd felt constrained by the rule because he believed competitors ran off players who didn’t produce on the field, while Dodd kept any player he had put on scholarship.

“He said, ‘If you’re not a good football player, that’s not your fault, that’s my fault, because I selected you,” Curry said. “’I’m going to keep you no matter what, but you are going to go to class.’”

Meanwhile, seeking to de-emphasize athletics, Tulane withdrew in 1966. Like Tech, it became an independent. Cutting scholarships and tightening admissions left Tulane unable to compete in the SEC.

As independents, neither team flourished. After leaving the SEC, Dodd led the team to three consecutive winning seasons before retiring after the 1966 season. That season was Tech’s 16th consecutive in which it finished .500 or better and ninth in those 16 seasons in which it finished ranked in a major poll.

Over the next 16 seasons, to the point when Tech became eligible for the ACC championship in 1983, the Jackets recorded eight seasons of .500 or better and were ranked in a final poll twice. Pepper Rodgers, who played for Dodd, coached Tech from 1974-79. He found it awkward not to have a league title to pursue.

“It was a very, very tough schedule, and yet there was no incentive, except going to a major bowl, and at that time, there weren’t 400 bowls like there are now,” he said.

Tulane remained an independent until 1996, when it joined Conference USA. It now is a member of the American Athletic Conference. The Green Wave finished above .500 seven times in their 30 seasons as an independent.

At Tech, without conference revenues to share, finances grew challenging and facilities weren’t updated. Recruiting became a tougher sell and, perhaps not coincidentally, Georgia and coach Vince Dooley built a foundation that still remains.

Said Rodgers, “I never would have left the SEC.”

Curry called Dodd’s motives correct. From a business perspective, he said, “it was a very poor decision.”

Had Tech and Tulane stayed, what might have happened is only a guess. A number of factors surrounded Tech’s decline, including the arrival of pro sports in Atlanta, the integration of college football in the South, the population boom in Atlanta and the Southeast, the increasing strength of the SEC, stadium expansion and the rapid development of college sports into a business.

Until the arrival of the Braves and Falcons in 1966 and the Hawks in 1968, “Tech was the only show in town,” Curry said. He added that Dodd once told him the Braves would hurt Tech more than the Falcons, since the Braves would be the top sports story 162 days out of the year.

To remain competitive in the SEC, Rodgers said, “I think Tech would have had to make some major changes academically. I don’t think Georgia Tech would have done that. And so I think it would have been very difficult. The ACC’s tough enough.”

Rodgers was 7-10-1 against the SEC in six season, with a 0-4-1 record in his last season.

Curry, while acknowledging “this may be Georgia Tech arrogance,” said that “I don’t think we would be like Vanderbilt or anybody else. I think we could win. We’ve done it enough against tough competition.”

Curry was 2-16 in his first four seasons against the SEC, but 4-5-1 in his final three. Tech began ACC play in his fourth season.

“We’d have been more competitive on the field,” Curry said. Being in the SEC, and having the chance to play against the likes of Alabama, he explained, would have been the same draw it is today.

As for the coach presently in charge, coach Paul Johnson acknowledged the Jackets have had a tough time against Georgia. Tech is 1-5 against the Bulldogs in his tenure, although a Tech die-hard would note that three of the losses were decided late in the fourth quarter or overtime. But the Jackets are 3-2 against the rest of the league.

Said Johnson, “We’d probably be about .500.”