Win over Michigan in 1965 laid foundation for Georgia football’s future

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Vince Dooley will be in attendance Friday when Georgia plays Michigan in the Orange Bowl. It’s more than a little notable that he also was in attendance the last time the Bulldogs met the Wolverines.

That was in 1965, or 56 years ago.

Dooley was the Bulldogs’ second-year head coach when they ventured to Ann Arbor, Mich., on Oct. 2, 1965. Now 89 years old and recovering from a broken hip, Dooley’s memory remains sharp when it comes to historical events, especially when they involve games that he coached.

And that ‘65 season was incredible for a number of reasons. It started with a stunning 18-17 victory over defending national champion Alabama in the opener at Sanford Stadium. That one was decided on a famous flea-flicker play by Kirby Moore, Pat Hodgson and Bob Taylor in the final minutes to make the score 17-16. Then the Bulldogs went for two and won it.

Such was the style and attitude of those early Dooley-coached teams. A bunch of young coaches with a young team, they were bold and brazen and willing to try anything to win a game.

And that was the attitude they took to Ann Arbor in what was an extremely rare North-South matchup in the day.

“That was a money game for Georgia to go up there,” said Dooley, speaking by phone from his home in Athens earlier this week. “It was the second time Georgia went up to Michigan with no return game. During that time, we went wherever we had to get a game and make some money, trying to play off the crowd.”

The Bulldogs made the trip to Michigan Stadium – known as “the Big House” – under coach Wally Butts in 1957. Georgia returned to Athens humbled by a 26-0 loss in the third game of the season.

In 1965, the Bulldogs arrived with a little swagger in their step. They were coming off a 7-3-1 season in Dooley’s first year and finally got to activate some of the fabulous freshmen they signed the previous year and were 2-0 with wins over Bama and Vanderbilt.

But none of them – coaches included – had seen anything the likes of what they encountered that Saturday afternoon when they entered the Wolverines’ cavernous den.

“It was the biggest stadium we’d ever seen, bigger even maybe than Tennessee,” Dooley recalled. “I don’t know how many were there, but it felt like close to 100,000 people.”

Meanwhile, Michigan was 2-0, ranked No. 7 and coming off a Rose Bowl appearance the previous year. Overall, they were a much bigger team and considered one of the elite programs of the day. Georgia, still unranked at the time, was viewed as a small, scrappy Southern team and largely discounted by the local populous and press.

“They really kind of dominated us in the first half,” Dooley said. “But we hung in there and were down just a point at halftime. They kept punting us back and punting us back inside our 10-yard line. We got it on the 1 one time and on the 6 one time. The whole third quarter we were backed up. We’d be able to drive it out to midfield, then they’d punt us back again. They had a great punter, and we just kind of survived it.”

As the game wore on, though, that little, scrappy team from Athens finally started to make some headway. They had trained long and hard in the Georgia heat in preseason two-a-days and, as a result, began to assert themselves in the fourth quarter.

They forged ahead 9-7 in the fourth quarter as the result of Bobby Etter’s third field goal of the day, then broke the Wolverines’ backs with some nifty plays from quarterback Preston Ridlehuber late in the game.

“We sometimes never knew what he was going to do,” Dooley said with a laugh. “But in the fourth quarter, he rolled to his left, was totally trapped, then reversed his field and was able to run all the way down to about the 7-yard line. Then he threw a pass to Pat Hodgson for a touchdown.

“We were just hanging in there, but we did take control late in the fourth quarter because we were better conditioned. We were kind of a skinny, quick Southern team against a big northern team, and we were able to win it.”

Helping spur the second-half surge was another bold move by Georgia’s young and brash head coach. The Bulldogs ran a fake “quick kick,” with Kirby Moore throwing a third-down pass for a first down deep in Georgia territory. John Underwood wrote a great account of the game for Sports Illustrated that’s worth the search to read.

Back in Athens, Georgia fans flocked to Athens-Ben Epps Airport to greet the Bulldogs. They were flying back after the game in a pair of Southern Airways Martin 404s. Southern Airways was a domestic airline that regularly flew in and out of Athens in those days.

As the planes approached Athens, Dooley said they could see the red taillights of cars stretching for miles in each direction from the airport. Hundreds of students and fans had come out to greet them.

“Funny thing about that, a regular Southern Airways flight landed ahead of us,” Dooley said. “The fans are out there all excited and were shouting ‘damn good team, damn good team.’ And the plane taxis up and they roll out the stairs and a little old lady steps out first. And they started shouting ‘wrong damn plane, wrong damn plane!”

But they hung around for the right planes to arrive and the celebration, Dooley said, was glorious. In fact, the good tidings came from well beyond its state borders. Dooley said he received congratulatory telegrams from fans of teams from all over the South.

“There was still a feeling of the South against the North in those days,” Dooley said.

The tide would turn against the Bulldogs later in the year. Short on depth, injuries to Taylor and some other key players sapped Georgia of talent by midseason. After a 4-0 start, Georgia lost four of the next five to Florida State, Kentucky, Florida and Auburn. The Bulldogs beat Tech in Atlanta to finish 6-4 but missed out on a bowl game.

But the ‘65 team formed the foundation for Dooley’s next squad. The next year, many of those young players who had played at Michigan returned to Georgia and led the Bulldogs to the 1966 SEC championship.

Dooley, who would remain as Georgia’s athletic director for many years after retiring as football coach, tried to get Michigan back on the schedule, but this time for a home-and-home matchup. It never materialized and hasn’t after being revisited several times since Dooley stepped down in 2004.

Dooley is thrilled that the two storied teams finally get to meet five and half decades later. That it’s in the College Football Playoff makes it all the better.

“It’s a tough draw,” Dooley said of Georgia getting the Big Ten champions. “They are a fine football team. I saw them against Ohio State and they’re fundamentally good, they run the ball well, they play good defense. There’re not many run-first teams anymore, and they’re very good at it. They play good defense, too, so we’ll have to play very well to beat them.”

Georgia certainly did that October day in Ann Arbor. Dooley’s excited about seeing the two powerhouse programs finally meet again.

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