UGA’s ‘Silver Dawgs’ ready to show off for Notre Dame

If you’re walking around campus Saturday and you look at all disoriented, don’t be surprised if someone in a wide-brim straw hat comes up and says, “may I help you?”

If they do, they’re probably a “Silver Dawg.” And helping is what they’re there for

The Silver Dawgs – or, officially, the UGA Hospitality Team – were an advent of Georgia’s trip to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame in September 2017. That game has found its way into the pages of UGA football history not just because the Bulldogs won 20-19 at Notre Dame Stadium, but also because as many as 40,000 Georgia fans descended upon the Notre Dame campus that day.

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In the aftermath, both Notre Dame and UGA officials were flooded with correspondences from Georgia fans complimenting the Fighting Irish on the hospitality they encountered there. Several mentions were made of the “green-coated” and “blue-jacketed” hosts that seemed to be on every corner to answer questions or direct fans wherever it was they were looking to go, whether it be a restroom or Knute Rockne’s statue.

Whatever the questions, the Notre Dame hosts seemed to have the answer.

Bill Barstow, a retired UGA professor and former athletic association board member, was among those attendees impressed with the warm reception they received. So he proposed to the board that the Bulldogs do something similar for their home games in 2018. And the Silver Dawgs were born.

“I’m sure we’ll learn a lot in the first year,” Barstow said at the time. “But the goal is to be better than Notre Dame by the time they come here in 2019.”

Fast forward to Friday, and the Silver Dawgs are at DEFCON 1. On Thursday night they held their organizational meeting in advance of Notre Dame’s historic return visit on Saturday. And, if pregame estimates are accurate, as many as 60,000 additional people – more than 150,000 total – are expected to be on UGA’s campus and in the small town of Athens.

Ready or not, Silver Dawgs, here they come.

Barstow said they definitely are. But as far as that prediction two years ago that they’d be “better than Notre Dame,” he’s not sure if that has been achieved quite yet.

“Let’s say it’s still a goal,” said Barstow, who can usually be found on Field Street on the south side of the stadium before and after Georgia games. “I can assure you we’ll be every bit as hospitable as they are. Maybe we’ll beat them at that. But in terms of having the numbers of greeters, we haven’t seen that yet.”

That’s not surprising, actually. Notre Dame’s hospitality team, which has been in place a number of years, includes 850 individuals, most of whom are volunteers or students, but a number of which are either hired or already on the school’s payroll.

Two years into it, Georgia’s Silver Dawgs remain a volunteer force of “just over 100,” according to Barstow, and most of them fall into the category of retired UGA employees or professors and retired local alumni.

Les Lee, who usually is stationed outside Gate 9A on the south side of the stadium, is a UGA alumnae and is retired from a career in Athens-Clarke County government.

“We’re just welcoming group for the stadium and the University of Georgia,” said Lee as she handed out pompoms and helped direct ticket-holders to the proper entry gate before Saturday’s game against Arkansas State. “We welcome everybody, whether they’re for the Bulldogs or the opposing team. People are always so happy to see us.”

Lee was interrupted by a spectator in mid-answer. “You’re in Section 137. You’re going to go down the steps and in Gate 9 and that’ll get you right in where you need to be,” she told the visitor.

Even then, Lee’s mind was already on this weekend’s game with Notre Dame. The Silver Dawgs been meeting and talking about it all year.

“Bill has been telling expect tens of thousands more people than usual,” she said.

And that corroborates what UGA and city officials have been citing this week. Though nobody seems to know for certain how many people will actually show up, everybody seems to be in agreement that it’s “more than ever.” Interestingly, many apparently are coming without tickets either in the hopes of finding a way into the stadium or just enjoying the tailgates and the spectacle.

To help everybody find their way around, Silver Dawgs not only are stationed around the stadium four hours before kickoff but around town all weekend. Starting Friday afternoon, they will be present in the lobbies of surrounding hotels, at landmark locations such as the UGA Arch, the Chapel Bell and the Tate Student Center, and at the entrance of university buildings in the vicinity of the stadium.

On Friday afternoon, Barstow was assigned to be at the UGA Chapel. They were opening it at 4 p.m. for Notre Dame fans who might want to come inside one of the oldest buildings on campus (1832) to see the largest indoor painting of St. Peter’s Basilica.

“That was absolutely something we all picked up on while we were (at Notre Dame),” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said. “Everybody took notice and said, ‘that’s something can do.’ And Bill and his staff have done a good job with it.”

Georgia brought back other takeaways from the Notre Dame experience in 2017, such as providing a 24-hour, secured entrance area into Sanford Stadium so that people can see inside and take pictures of the 90-year-old facility. UGA also has added historical graphics, paintings, plaques and statues to the west end plaza now surrounding the Bulldogs’ locker room where people can stroll around and take in the exhibits.

The Silver Dawgs are also rolling out some new props for Notre Dame’s historic visit. In addition to pompoms, the hosts will also be handing out “QR coded” cards to anyone who asks. These cards feature a bar code that, when scanned into one’s smartphone, provides maps and information about important places around campus, as well as advertisements to dining.

Barstow said the Silver Dawgs have learned a lot in one-season-plus of existence and remain a work in progress. But he hasn’t lost sight of his original goal to “be better than Notre Dame” at hospitality, and he believes they will be eventually.

“If we become a permanent force like I believe we can, we’ll certainly increase our numbers,” Barstow said. “You know, their school (enrollment) is only 10,000 or something like that, so I think we’ll only get bigger with time. We started out as just a group of retired folks. … But other people saw it and wanted to be involved and it’s now opened up to everybody. The one thing I can say is people really enjoy doing it, and that makes me feel good.”

The goal for Notre Dame on Saturday, he said, is to “just be as kind and helpful as they were to us.”

And to beat them again, of course.