'Virtual G-Day' provides welcome distraction for Georgia Bulldogs

This was how many Georgia football followers spent Saturday afternoon, watching coach Kirby Smart and others follow the replay of last year's Notre Dame game via video conference calls and social media. (By Chip Towers/chip.towers@ajc.com)
This was how many Georgia football followers spent Saturday afternoon, watching coach Kirby Smart and others follow the replay of last year's Notre Dame game via video conference calls and social media. (By Chip Towers/chip.towers@ajc.com)

It was a gorgeous day in Athens on Saturday, as it was most everywhere in Georgia. It was a sunny 73 degrees at 2 p.m, with a fairly steady breeze that made it feel cooler than that. That would’ve been when G-Day kicked off Saturday had the world not been in the grip of a pandemic.

Instead, the Bulldogs gave us “Virtual G-Day.”

It was a nice attempt at giving UGA fans the distraction of a joyful football moment and hope for the future. The SEC Network replayed the 2019 Georgia-Notre Dame game in the time slot that G-Day would have been shown. Coach Kirby Smart tweeted thoughts from his Twitter account and briefly joined the Bulldog Radio Network crew’s Facebook live broadcast to share some insights about that team and a few about the current one.

It certainly was better than nothing. It was even quite entertaining, at times. But it was nothing like a live sporting event. In some ways, it left many wanting more.

“I’d rather be in the stadium with 100,000 of our friends, but this is nice,” Smart said while talking to UGA’s broadcast crew of Scott Howard, Eric Zeier and Chuck Dowdell during the second quarter of the Notre Dame replay. “At least I know the outcome today.”

Explore>> Kirby Smart’s best tweets from ‘Virtual G-Day’

Georgia won 23-16 just like it did on Sept. 21, 2019. But there were some interesting observations from Smart and the other guests on the social media feeds and some moments of levity.

As he has mentioned several times since that night, when a state-record crowd of 93,246 attended the game, Smart reiterated how important the whole affair was to Georgia’s recruiting efforts. The Bulldogs would go on to sign the nation’s No. 1-ranked class in 2020.

“It impacted recruiting probably more than any other one thing,” Smart said. “Everybody who was there that night fell in love with the place.”

UGA alums Mary Catherine and Warren Kolbert watch 'Virtual G-Day' via their electronic devices from their living room in Richmond, Va. (Photo by Mary Catherine Kolbert)
UGA alums Mary Catherine and Warren Kolbert watch 'Virtual G-Day' via their electronic devices from their living room in Richmond, Va. (Photo by Mary Catherine Kolbert)

The most activity took place on the live interactive session on UGA Athletics’ official page. The broadcast crew welcomed six guests, including CBS television analyst Tom Hart, Hall of Fame kicker Kevin Butler, just-graduated kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, radio play-by-play man Jeff Dantzler and Uga X.

Yes, Georgia’s English bulldog mascot joined the live video feed. Dressed in his game-day attire, Uga didn’t answer questions, but his owner Charles Seiler did answer a few.

Dowdell opened the live commentary on the game replay with one of the cheesiest lines ever offered: “It’s the Dawgs, it’s the Fighting Virus, I mean, Fighting Irish. Let’s get it on!”

Hart shared about some unknown firsts for the CBS coverage of that game, including the use of shots from drones stationed on the perimeter of the stadium.

Butler nicknamed Blankenship -- who scored 11 points in the this game, also beat Notre Dame with a game-winning kick in South Bend in 2017 and broke all of Butler’s UGA kicking records -- “Rodrigo, the Leprechaun Slayer.”

Butler also shared the memory of standing next to UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity during the national anthem and turning to see tears stream down the AD’s face after military jets passed overhead shortly before kickoff.

Late in the replay broadcast, Smart credited Scott Sinclair, Georgia’s strength-and-conditioning coordinator, for helping the Bulldogs score the come-from-behind victory. Sinclair has been tweeting out daily workout regimens both for players and UGA fans.

“Our conditioning is second to none,” Smart tweeted. “@coach_sinclair gives us an edge in the second half. Who is following his workout plan every day?”

Smart also tweeted special kudos to Blankenship, defensive backs Divaad Wilson and J.R. Reed, quarterback Jake Fromm, receiver Lawrence Cager and linebacker Tae Crowder, among others.

Of course, discussed throughout was the reality of having to miss spring practice and the intrasquad game that would have punctuated it on Saturday. Smart would not predict if or when the 2020 season might be played. But he acknowledged the adverse effects of missing spring ball, particularly with the Bulldogs having to rebuild the offense and find a new starting quarterback.

Smart said Georgia is doing as much as it can via video conferencing with players, including graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman. The NCAA recently expanded the use of that technology from four hours a week to eight hours. But Smart added that UGA is entering the final-exam period of the semester, which prevents the coaching staff from meeting with players at all.

“We’re trying to do everything we can legally,” he said of minding those NCAA parameters. “A lot of this is us just saying, ‘hey, here’s your homework,’ and trusting that they’re getting it done. … Honestly, this is really bad timing for us. If we had Jake (Fromm) back we’d be thinking, ‘man, we’ve got a big advantage.’ But that’s not what we have and we’re doing the best we can.”

A 'Virtual Tailgate' organized by Steve Burnett of Roswell -- aka 'Bassin' Dawg' -- was attended by dozens of Georgia fans, including the parents of current players Chad Lindberg and Mekhail Sherman. (Photo by Chip Towers/Chip.Towers@ajc.com)
A 'Virtual Tailgate' organized by Steve Burnett of Roswell -- aka 'Bassin' Dawg' -- was attended by dozens of Georgia fans, including the parents of current players Chad Lindberg and Mekhail Sherman. (Photo by Chip Towers/Chip.Towers@ajc.com)

Fans seemed to enjoy the distraction. Several organized “virtual tailgates” via teleconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Google Hangouts. More than 30 participated in one organized by Steve Burnett of Roswell, aka “Bassin’ Dawg.”

Among his participants were the parents of incoming Georgia freshmen Mekhail Sherman and Chad Lindberg and former UGA receiver Justin Scott-Wesley.

Emily Lindbergh, who has both of her offensive linemen sons at home during the pandemic, said she’s “going to Publix and Costco every other day” because they’re eating so much.

Said Burnett of his tailgate: “It was great, for the most part. We would have had more but, since we had no password, we had some hackers early that messed things up for five or 10 minutes. But it was great to hear from the players’ parents on the different challenges and uncertainties.”

Several thousand people engaged in the Facebook Live discussion and Smart's Twitter feed grew to more than 301,300 after starting the day just under 300,000.

It was still stressful for Smart to re-watch the game.

“These games against Notre Dame went down to the wire,” he said, referring also to the 20-19 victory in 2017. “They took years off my life.”

But, as Smart said toward the end of his Twitter session: “There's nothing like Saturday in Athens.”

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