Thursday, October 09, 2008

Rivalries, Misery, Hatred and Hideous Orange: A Memoir

There's something a little strange about being a Georgia football fan that a lot of our rivals don't quite understand. It's the sticky issue of having multiple hated rivals, but not one that is head and shoulders above of the rest in terms of the emotions raised by such a team. Some teams have just one hated rival, and nothing else really comes too close to that: Auburn fans hate Alabama worse than anyone else. South Carolina fans hate Clemson, and vice versa. Ohio State hates Michigan and vice versa. Some teams might have two hated rivals: Tennessee fans hate Alabama and Alabama fans hate Tennessee most of all, though each school does have a secondary hated opponent (Florida and Auburn, respectively) that doesn't quite approach their primary nemesis.  Kansas hates Missouri first and foremost, but each has a second rival (Kansas State, Illinois). Some teams have one hated rival, but are considered the one hated rival by a host of other teams - the perfect example is Texas and Oklahoma, who hate each other worst of all, but are considered the most hated rival by other teams, like Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Nebraska. There are even ladders of hatred: Texas is considered the most hated rival by Oklahoma fans, while Oklahoma is considered the most hated rival by Nebraska fans, while Nebraska is considered the most hated rival by Colorado fans, while Colorado is considered the most hated rival by Colorado State fans, while Colorado State is considered the most hated rival by Wyoming fans. The point is that for most fans of a particular football school, there is usually one clear answer to the question of who is the fanbase's most hated rival. 


But Georgia is different. If you ask 10 Georgia fans who the most hated rival for the program is, you might get 5 different answers. And the answers may be perfectly valid, but for different reasons.  

Sometimes it's geography that causes Georgia fans to hate a particular team. If you ask a Georgia fan in Columbus who the most hated rival is, there's an excellent chance he'll say Auburn. He might cite that the Auburn-Georgia series is the longest-running in the deep south, and it's always been a close rivalry (over 100 games and there's like a 3 point margin between the two in total points scored). But the real reason is that Auburn is just down the road from Columbus and a lot of the people this Dawg fan is friends with, lives near and works with probably went to Auburn (or are sidewalk fans). So Auburn is the biggest rival to this guy, because he has to hear all about War Damn Eagle all year long.  Same with a Georgia fan who lives in Dalton or Calhoun - they're probably more likely to tell you that Tennessee is the most hated rival because they live near Vol fans and get sick of hearing about it. Or a Georgia fan from Hartwell and is surrounded by Clemson fans. Or a Georgia fan in Valdosta who has to listen to bandwagon-jumping Florida fans. Or even a fan from Atlanta who took AP Physics in high school with a bunch of nerds who, for some bizarre reason, like Georgia Tech.  There might be one or two fans in Augusta who even think South Carolina is the most hated rival, but they're probably suffering from odd wind shifts from the Savannah River Site.  

Personally, I think timing matters more than geography. See, a real Georgia fan develops his hate early, in the formative years of his fanhood. And early learned hatred never leaves. I say this as the father of a young child - I know that teaching to hate requires patience and repetition. But I digress... timing matters. The period in which a person became a Dawg fan directly affects where their hatred will be directed. If someone became a Dawg fan in the midst of a long losing streak to Tech, like some of the really really really old Dawg fans, that hatred never leaves. If someone went to UGA in the early 1980s, they may very well still hate Clemson more than anyone else, because of the 1981 and 1982 games. Even the fact that we don't play Clemson annually cannot bury that pure, unadulterated hatred. And just a single year can be a line of demarcation for hatred. If you became a Dawg fan in the 1980-83 period, you might hate Clemson most, but if you became a Dawg fan in the 1984-88 period, you are probably in the camp that hates Auburn most of all.  

Florida might be the one team that isn't really tied to a time period.  Most Georgia fans hate Florida a lot, even though we owned them for long stretches. There might be a spike in Florida hatred among fans who came of age in the Spurrier period, but it was also during that period that our hatred of Tennessee emerged - and we also suffered a few ignominious (and subsequently vacated) losses to Georgia Tech (the Jasper Sanks "fumble", Tech fans wrecking our hedges).  

The 90s were a tough time to decide on a rival. Mainly because for the majority of the time, Georgia sucked. Well, not exactly sucked (we had 2 good seasons and a few other decent seasons), as much as Georgia was totally irrelevant and uninspiring, while competitors for "most hated rival" all mattered. And it just so happened that this was my personal coming-of- age as a Georgia fan. 

In the early 90s there was a Georgia Tech team that won probably the least impressive national title in history. Seriously, if one of (a) one loss, 5th down-beneficiary and phantom-block-on-Rocket's-return Colorado or (b) a Georgia Tech team that was an unbeaten team that actually played for a tie and whose best win was over 8-4 Virginia has to win a title, but unbeaten 2004 Auburn gets nothing, don't we have to place certain value on how good a title was? Then Bobby Ross left and Tech descended into terribleness with Bill Lewis, and we won 7 straight, leaving many of us to wonder whether lopsidedness affected whether there was an actual rivalry. But then George O'Leary, what with his Nobel Prize in Economics, 6 Honorary PhDs, Ponce de Leon Rd. McDonald's Employee of the Month Award and Order of Lenin (according to his resume), figured out how to take roided linemen from New Jersey and midget quarterbacks and turn them into a decent team (the trick: don't go to class!). That and hilariously inept referees led to a couple of the worst defeats I have ever experienced. Hating Tech became a lot easier in the late 90s. But you always knew in a 12 round bout they couldn't hang with you, even if they got a few punches in every couple of rounds.  And further, it's only a little fun to beat up on nerds.  After a while, no matter who you are, you start to feel a little guilty. 

Auburn was another story in the 90s. There were pros and cons to hating Auburn in the 90s. On the one hand, Auburn plundered the state for good recruits and there was a pretty good streak of Auburn beating us in Sanford Stadium. 1997: coming off of a ridiculous upset of Florida, ranked as high as anyone could think, on a day so cold my mother and aunt sneaked a full pint of scotch into the game (no flask or ziplocks, just dropped the bottle in her purse and expected the security guards not to suspect middle aged women to pull a stunt like that), Daymeune Craig rips the defense apart, ruining any chance of an SEC title game appearance. 1999: Jasper Sanks can't use his massive ass to move the ball 3 feet with 9 blockers in front of him, and Mark Richt shows that he never had to manage the clock at his previous job. Such fun days. On the other hand, there were some pretty good moments for Dawg fans against Auburn in the 90s. We end their on-probation winning streak by refusing to unpile and line up. In '96, we win the SEC's first ever overtime game with a hail Mary at the end of regulation and a well-rested Robert Edwards annihilating the tired Tiger defense in OT.  Later in the decade it was kind of fun to watch them fumble around with Tater Tot. All in all, there were highs and lows, but Auburn wasn't exactly a team that my generation of Georgia fans truly loathed. They were kind of like us - sometimes OK, sometimes mediocre, usually dysfunctional, talented but oddly coached. It's too exhausting to hate something so much like yourself, so Auburn isn't the choice for most hated rival for a 90s era Dawg fan (unless you live in Columbus or Alabama, and then it's acceptable).

Clemson we only played a few times in the 90s, and the only memorable game was the day the Dawgs upset Clemson and the Braves clinched the NL West, going from Worst to First. Also, that win on October 5, 1991 was the last win over a ranked team in Sanford Stadium for the rest of the decade. Really. Nope, I'm not kidding. Zero home wins over ranked opponents between 1992 and 1999. That's how awesome it was to be a Dawg fan in the 1990s. So, anyway, Clemson's a good rival for the old school Dawgs, but it doesn't really work with people in my generation. 

South Carolina shouldn't really be considered among the others on this list. Regardless, in some ways the 1990s were the Golden Era of Gamecock football. They won their first ever bowl game. Steve Taneyhill had the sweetest hairstyle this side of the Pittsburgh Penguins' second line. They even had a winless season - and it takes real effort to have one of them! The Cocks were always annoying mosquitoes, but never enough to truly hate. Yes, the 2000 game was the definition of misery, but few Dawg fans hate South Carolina over that (plenty of bile is reserved for Quincy Carter and Jim Donnan in that one).  

But that leaves us to the hard ones: Tennessee and Florida. Both treated us like their whipping boys. Both became national media darlings for the games against each other and the stars who played for both, while we were out in the wilderness. Both gave me personally harrowing memories.  

For all this time, in my gut, Florida was the choice. I hated them purely and with white heat. Their offensive arrogance drove me mad. I never understood how it was that their receivers would be 10 yards away from our defenders. In those rare close games, if there was a time for a key penalty or turnover, it would always go in their favor. '92: the timely timeout that prevented Zeier's touchdown pass. But for the majority of seasons, the games were never in doubt. I was always negative on Florida, before I went to Georgia, because I particularly didn't like the state itself. Plastic and pastel still turn my stomach.  But in 1995, my freshman year, dislike turned to outright and open hatred. I was a pledge in a fraternity, and as is often the case, it is the pledges' duty to clean up after band parties or other social events the following morning. In 1994 and 1995, the old Gator Bowl was being renovated for the Jaguars, so Georgia and Florida played the games on their campuses. 1995 was the first visit to Athens for the Gators in something like 50 years. And though Florida was heavily favored, Georgia fans turned out in droves to see the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party come to Athens.  To this day, I still have never seen tailgating like there was on that afternoon. More food, more liquor, more people than ever before or since - and though I think Georgia fans have been steadily improving over the last 13 years at tailgating, this one day was an aberration. And then the game came, and it was an abomination. Florida could do no wrong, Georgia could do no right. And then Steve Spurrier thought he'd like to get some revenge for the beatings he took at the hands of the Dawgs when he played for Florida, and thus left in his future Heisman winner in the waning moments of a blowout to score on a trick play, just to say he was the coach of the team that scored 50 on Georgia in Sanford Stadium. So out of the stadium streamed 80,000+, to return to their potable tailgates and drown their sorrows in that sweet embrace of brown liquid. And just as the tens of thousands were drinking to forget, all of a sudden a baseball team from just down the road gave them a reason to drink to celebrate.  The Atlanta Braves won the World Series that very same night. And a town full of people already annihilated by alcohol and Florida's football team turned up another bottle, just to feel good about something. The next morning, however, would not be enjoyable. I cannot remember if it had rained overnight, but it seemed as if it had because of the way things had melted, spread out and settled. I cannot remember if it was actually an oddly warm October morning, but I believe I was wearing a t-shirt which got very wet. Sunday morning, tailgate cleanup.  The parking lot of the fraternity house was covered in a festering sea of an inch-deep curdling stew, which was primarily cole slaw but also included such delightful ingredients as crab dip, raw ground beef, bourbon, dog feces, soaking wet tortilla chips, broken beer bottles, and chicken bones. This is not something you would like to pick up at any time, but at 7:00 a.m. the morning after drinking until 3:30, this was particularly a bad time. We had around 25 guys working on the mess. It took until about 11 a.m. We used shovels to pick up the leftover slaw stew. We used hoses. We threw up as we cleaned. We were soaking wet, covered in filth. The topic of conversation that was first on our minds: how bad did Dawgs looked yesterday. With a handful of broken glass and chicken bones, I thought right there, that I would forever hate Florida with all of my might and with no other approaching the level of loathing I harbored for that team. They took away the purity and enjoyment of watching football, and replaced it with a memory I would always carry: a blowout followed by the most disgusting job outside of a peepshow. Florida took the fun out of football that day.  In fact, it wasn't until the next year at Auburn (the overtime game) that I would enjoy football again. The next year Texas Tech came to Athens on a rainy Saturday, and all I could do was look out at the same parking lot and think about how disgusting the cleanup would be for those current pledges. I didn't go to the game, and I don't even remember watching it. And all that time, Florida was en route to their national title. We were losing to Southern Miss at home and suffering through a new coach that might not have been up to the task in Division 1-A. This was malaise. This was not what football was supposed to be. This is how that mid-90s juggernaut Florida team made me feel.  

Worst of all, each year, at the end of October or the beginning of November, I start to feel that way again. This is because Florida has continued to punish Georgia fans since before that day in 1995 and long afterward. I watched Terrence Edwards' dropped pass that potentially cost Georgia a title shot in 2002. I heard the boos that night, but I didn't think it was his fault. It wasn't just Edwards' failure to send neurological signals to his hands to close them at the precise moment. It was a massive weight that every Dawg carried with him, and we all put it on his shoulders. We all knew the unbeaten run that year was too good to be true. We all had too many scars from the previous decade or so. We saw too much talent squandered. We saw too many mental mistakes taken advantage of by Florida. We knew that the moment was too big for us. We saw the golden ring, but we weren't ready to reach out far enough to grab it. And we walked out of the stadium with clenched fists, wondering when it would be our time.

Yes, we had a few moments. 1997 was a glorious afternoon, where Robert Edwards, Mike Bobo and Hines Ward gave us a taste of forbidden fruit, if only for a day. I remember when Robert Edwards turned the corner and ran toward the endzone for the clinching score (even though Georgia had been ahead by 13 or so, we knew Florida and karma could strike at any second). I don't remember him actually scoring, because I was standing in that endzone, the open end of the stadium where, in those days, oddly swaying and not-exactly-sturdy bleachers rose. As soon as Edwards looked like he was about to score, the entire weight of those endzone bleachers rose in the air at once, and came down in a spot slightly in front of where they took off. Several thousand of us ended up in a pile, a perfect, orgasmic pile. It was amazing. But walking out of the stadium, we merely celebrated the upset. We didn't think the series had changed for good. We just saw what was possible, not what should be expected. And we showed that over the next 4 years, losing games we could have won. We squandered three games against Ron Zook, incredibly.  2003 saw Chris Leak drive the field to take what must have seemed as rightfully his. In 2004, our win felt not just expected, but almost undeserved - as if it was Florida whose ineptitude allowed us to win, rather than because we took the game from them. 2005 will go down as a "what might have been", thanks to DJ Shockley's knee injury the previous week against Arkansas.

It wasn't until 2006 where we actually looked like a team that felt like it belonged on the same field as Florida. You may think I meant to write 2007, when the celebration in the end zone supposedly turned the tide in the series. No, I meant 2006. 2006 was a magical year for Florida. They ended up winning the national title. Fortune smiled upon them in half of their games, particularly South Carolina. But, for some strange reason, a freshman-quarterbacked Georgia team was right there, in the game, potentially with a chance to drive the field and win it (if not for an unlucky and accidental facemask penalty). For the only the second time in my fanhood, 1997 being the other, did Georgia enter the Florida game a decisive underdog, but somehow kept up with the Gators.  We looked like we belonged, even if the final score didn't go our way.  It was 2006, not 2007 that turned the tide. And the last two years may have made a difference in how I feel about the Gators. I still hate them with a white hot passion. I hate Urban Meyer's sanctimonious ego every bit as much as Steve Spurrier's smirking while spanking us. But instead of dreading Florida and expecting them to pound us into submission, now I expect two good teams to collide and neither to have a dramatic psychological advantage. Our team believes they can play with the Gators, and I believe in the team. It's still hatred, but it's not a hopeless hatred. And the hopelessness, I think, is what gave Florida a slight edge when it came to me absolutely hating a rival. Without hope, all I had was hatred. What purpose does hatred serve when there is hope?

Which brings me to Tennessee...

I never felt hopeless against Tennessee, I just hated them. In some ways, that is logically worse - since Georgia wasn't very successful against Tennessee, the fact that I thought we had a chance going into almost every single game but still failed should have made myself feel worse about Tennessee than Florida. But hatred isn't a logical emotion.  Tennessee got my hopes up and crushed them. Florida never got my hopes up, just drowned me in depression, before and after the game. So here's the question: if I am no longer hopeless about Florida, and the bulk of my hatred of them came from that place, do I still hate Florida more than Tennessee? Perhaps I should take another, more rational (rational hatred - now there's a concept I can get behind) look at the Volunteers, and think about whether I've been hating the wrong shade of orange all this time. 

Georgia didn't play Tennessee every year before the additions of South Carolina and Arkansas to the SEC, and that affects the rivalry in the eyes of many long-time Dawg fans. Sure, we all remember Herschel running over Bill Bates in 1980 and Larry Munson screaming "My God a Freshman!," but there's not all that much history to the series before the last 15 years or so.  However, the last 15 years or so include my personal coming-of-age as a Dawg fan. So while Tennessee as a rival might not stand up against Tech, Florida or Auburn in the grand scheme of things, to me the Tennessee story is plenty rich - and it started with a personal story.

1995 was my freshman year at Georgia. This was back in the glory days before the school was on the semester program. Under the quarter system, Fall session didn't start until toward the end of September, and Spring session continued all the way through May (which, as an aside, was by far the best month of the year in Athens - warm weather, less clothes, midterms are over, exams not yet begun, the NCAA tennis tournament is in town... I'm getting pissed-off-nostalgic now, so I digress). In 1995, Vince Dooley had given Ray Goff an ultimatum regarding the "significant improvement" of the football team. Goff got the message, and in preseason camp he had taken the best athlete on the team, Robert Edwards, and moved him from defensive back to running back, and further restructured the offense around a strong running game - back to the successful system of the 80's and in direct response to the aerial attacks preferred by Florida and Tennessee at that time. The opener against South Carolina was promising. South Carolina, if I recall, was actually favored (or at least the line was close) and had a decent team returning. Robert Edwards changed things entirely. His afternoon was incredible. Toughness, breakaway speed, and a nose for the endzone. That afternoon he scored 5 touchdowns and tallied a ridiculous amount of yards. He looked like the stars of old, the guys who made UGA (and not Southern Cal) known as Tailback U in the 80s and early 90s. The next weekend against Peyton Manning and Tennessee looked to be a tougher task, but Georgia fans were pretty excited to go to Neyland Stadium with their new-found talent. And Edwards didn't disappoint. The first half was exhilarating. Edwards carried the ball with confidence and toughness, breaking loose in the secondary multiple times. It seemed like the question was "how are they going to stop us" rather than "how are we going to stop them". We dominated time of possession, keeping Manning on the sidelines. Then, on a long run down the right hand side of the field and with the endzone in sight, Edwards was tackled awkwardly. He got up and tried to stay in the game, even carrying the ball a few more times. Then halftime came and the bad news: Edwards had a broken bone and wouldn't return. The shooting star had fizzled out.  Georgia stayed in the game, but the running game faltered and the strategy of running downhill and working the clock failed. Manning led a comeback and the game was tied. Georgia was hanging tough and had the ball, using short passes and weak runs to get to about midfield.  With time short and facing a third down, Georgia needed to complete a pass to burn more clock and get into better field goal position. The pass hit Brice Hunter in the numbers and fell to the ground. Tennessee got the ball back, drove with Manning's skill, and Jeff Hall drilled a long field goal to send Georgia home with a loss.  Edwards would be out for the season, Georgia's confidence would disappear. It was a thoroughly depressing result. And I was an immature 18 year old who didn't react well to losses. I watched the game with a group of close high school friends. We all were going to away to college that week and it was pretty much the last time we'd see each other together for a while. A little more than half were going to Georgia, so most of us were rooting for the Dawgs. But not all. One of my best friends was on her way to UCLA, and though she would become a Bruin, her family were all Volunteer fans. We were close friends and she was on her way across the continent. After Hall hit the field goal to win the game, I think I just turned, didn't say anything, got in my car and drove home. I spent the rest of the night finishing up packing and loading the car. The next afternoon, I had moved into Russell Hall.  I didn't even say goodbye to some of my closest friends. That loss had affected me and I didn't respond like I should have, and it hurt friendships. I blame my own immaturity for that, but it was also hard not to think things might've been different had Edwards not gotten hurt or had Hunter caught that first down. 

But those thoughts were only temporal. Over time, I started to realize that while the '95 loss to Tennessee was something I didn't handle well and it was bad for me personally, it may have been a blessing for the Georgia program. If Georgia wins that game and Edwards stays healthy, Georgia may have won more than the 6 games it did that season, and Ray Goff might have been given a longer tenure at a job he simply wasn't capable of performing at that high a level. The '95 Tennessee game adds to my hatred of the Vols, but only in a personal, immature and stupidly selfish way. Realistically, it was a tough loss but ultimately not that terrible for the program.

I have little recollection of the 1996 game. That should tell you how insignificant Georgia football was in Donnan's first year. We had already lost to Southern Miss and South Carolina, and eked by a weak Texas Tech team. We knew it was a rebuilding year, and we knew Tennessee was good. I think they threw the ball all over us, but I don't know for certain. This game surely didn't make me hate Tennessee all that much more, except for one thing. I remember there being a lot of Vol fans at this game, and I remember them singing Rocky Top all game long and all the way out of the stadium. Rocky Top echoes very loudly down the North Side ramps from the upper deck and it is annoying. This was the first experience I had with this sensation, but it would not be the last. Also, I noticed that Tennessee fans had, in their hands, pre-printed fans or placards in bright orange that had the number "6" on them. They had printed out these cards knowing full well that they'd win the game. No worry of bad karma. It was that certain. I'd see those same cards in 1998. 

1997 was my first visit to Knoxville. I boarded a bus at 6:00 a.m. I reached into a ice-filled trash can and cracked open a Pabst Blue Ribbon at 6:45 a.m.  I drank Natural Light at my fraternity's UT chapter most of the afternoon. I got to the game early, shockingly. My seats were in the endzone, and pretty close to the field. Tennessee's players were stretching close enough to yell at.  We yelled at them. We thought we had a pretty decent team thus far that season. We were unbeaten. We had just pounded Mississippi State 47-0.  We thought we were ready to take the next step. Tennessee was loaded - senior Peyton Manning was a Heisman candidate, Jamal Lewis was their young back who had shown flashes of talent. My buddy Woodrow was sitting next to me - a big follower of recruiting. The previous year, Jim Donnan had made the decision to recruit Jasper Sanks out of Columbus - supposedly a huge talent, but with suspect grades and personal issues - rather than Jamal Lewis out of Douglass High in Atlanta. For the entire warmup period, Woodrow (with a booming baritone) bellowed "WE DIDN'T WANT YOU JAMAAAAAAAAALLLL!!!!! WE GOT JASPER COMIN'!!!!!!! WE DON'T NEED YOU JAMAAAAAAAAAAAL!!!". At one point, I believe Jamal Lewis looked up in our direction. He then proceeded to completely and unabashedly sodomize our defense. I think he had 4000 yards and eleventy touchdowns. Jamal Lewis had more yards that day than Jasper Sanks had pounds when he finally showed up the next year. Woodrow knew it was his fault too. On I think the 22nd touchdown Jamal Lewis ran for, coming right at our endzone, Woodrow hurled his nearly-full enormous Beam and Coke towards the field. It didn't make it.  Immediately two security guards came right up to our row and pointed, incorrectly at The General, who was sitting with us. The General was hilariously (and honestly) defiant. He stood inches away from the guard asking him if he threw the cup, pointed his index finger and yelled "NOOOO WAAAYY!!! NOOOO WAAAAYY!! NOOOO WAAYYYY!!" about as many times as Jamal Lewis scored that afternoon. Many of you may already know this about The General: there are times when he is Unabomber Insane. He has these blue eyes that somehow become bunsen burners, sending torching heat at you. Then his face and neck turn bright red. And also, he looks very much like he is, carefully, thoroughly and with the most excruciating pain accompanying, going to disembowel you. The guard walked away. Neither Woodrow nor The General was ejected. I was, all of a sudden, sober. Tennessee scored again. We left, returned to the fraternity house, and I was convinced to haze some Tennessee pledges (which I have to say, I didn't particularly know how to do). The Tennessee fraternity had some great band playing and we were convinced we were going to win, so the bus didn't plan on leaving until something like 2:00 a.m.  After the game, we were not all that happy about this. Vol fans were celebrating their win over us, and then Florida proceeds to crap the bed against LSU, opening the door for UT to go to the SEC title game. I believe we returned to Athens just under 24 hours after we left. It was a completely memorable and completely disastrous day.  And while I think the stories were fun, I will say that watching a guy from Georgia that we could've recruited do that to us did make me hate Tennessee a bit more. Also, seeing Neyland and all that orange in person is something you don't forget. It burns into your cornea. And that makes you hate them.

During my senior year at Georgia, perhaps the greatest lesson I learned was that we, as Georgia football fans, never learn from our previous miseries. Year after year, it seemed we were always overly optimistic about the new additions to our team, and overly dire in the losses suffered by other teams. We're losing a senior QB who just put in one of the greatest passing performances ever against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl? Who cares? We can definitely replace him with a guy who has been out of football for 3 years! We just lost one of the most physically gifted running backs in a decade in Robert Edwards? Relax! Jasper Sanks is coming! Mid-90s Georgia fans were supremely talented at convincing ourselves to expect greatness. And when something even subtly hinted that our delusions could become true, like a road win against a then-top-5-ranked LSU team (ignore their subsequent 4-7 record and coach firing), look out for Dawg fans to become flat earth believers. And so we arrive at the 1998 Tennessee game. We have deluded ourselves into thinking we're a top 10 team, with a freshman quarterback in Quincy Carter who is destined for greatness. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the Tennessee team that had been killing us annually was mostly the result of Peyton Manning. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that his replacement, Tee Martin, would shrink from the big stage. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the injury suffered by Jamal Lewis the previous week meant that Tennessee had nobody to run the ball (because we have collectively forgotten their other highly talented backs). We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the fact that College Gameday had come to Athens and built their set on our Tate Center meant that we had truly arrived. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that by packing Sanford Bridge from end-to-end just so the Sportscenter live throw to the Gameday crew on Friday evening would look cool, our team would become a national power. The next day reality reared its ugly head. Georgia's typical red zone inefficiency showed itself. Quincy Carter debuted his trademark "you know what the one thing we really don't need to do here? Throw an interception!". Tennessee apparently had depth at running back and Tee Martin made no mistakes. And that was that. We all believed we would win that game. We all thought we were the better team. We were all wrong. And being wrong kind of sucks. Tennessee fans sang Rocky Top and it echoed down the North stand's ramps. They carried placards that had the number 8 on them, preprinted. Bastards. That fall, I was living in the fraternity house and 6 of us shared a common area. 5 of us were seniors and trying to live up the last of the glory days. We had pretty much given up on the frat-tastic social scene and instead we were just trying to have fun, no matter how ridiculous. After the Wyoming game, we hosted a crazy latenight where everyone ended up with costumes on and women danced with toy guns against greek columns.  Before the game, we expected something similar to happen after we beat the Vols. Well, neither happened. We wanted to take our minds off the game and tie one on. That, however, was not possible.  The year before we had taken a bus to Knoxville and hung out with the UT chapter of our fraternity. This year, those guys returned the favor. And camped out. They took over our living area to watch Florida play. They did not leave. We drank, hoping they would become less obnoxious and intruding. Didn't happen. We couldn't outright tell these morons to get out, because one of our roommates was trying to hook up with one of these terrible Vol fan girls that came down. Eventually my roommate Dr. Tealpants ordered some chinese food, and the loveseeking roommate realized that the Vol girl was terrible. The next thing I know, the Vol girls are in the driveway in some Sebring convertible, blasting a "Cotton Eyed Joe"-like remix of Rocky Top. Dr. Tealpants, the soon-to-be Mrs. Dr. Tealpants and said loveseeking roommate responded to the music by hurling moo goo gai pan at them from an upstairs window. Earlier in the night Tealpants and I had thrown tailgating chairs in trees and drank Mimosas, because it was all we had left in the cooler. Another memorable and disastrous night. The Vol fans were imposing enough to make me hate Tennessee just a little bit more, but the game itself made me hate myself and Georgia fans as a whole - because we truly believed things could change.

I entered law school at Georgia in 1999. The first year of law school is supposed to scare you and make you work harder than you ever have and learn a lot about yourself and become a better critical thinker and indoctrinate you into the most miserable life you could possibly foresee (and love it!). I worked harder than I ever had (though not as hard as I eventually would), but I also thought I wouldn't fall for the fear of failure law school imposes on so many.  Or, to be more specific, it wasn't until after I got my first semester grades that I thought I could get by without fear. One way I convinced myself that I wouldn't become a paralyzed 1L was by continuing to live it up on football weekends, and when my buddy Napoleon IV had an extra ticket and a place to stay (with another friend at UT Law), I jumped at the chance. I was leaving right after Professor Brussack's Civil Procedure class on Friday afternoon.  Because I had been packing for the trip and running other errands I normally did on the weekend, I did not prepare for class. Brussack only called on one person each day, so it was a 1/75 chance I'd get called on, and regardless, I was on the road to see the Dawgs in an hour anyway. Of course, Brussack called on me. It was one of those personal jurisdiction cases (I think Burger King or International Volkswagen or something) and I was an embarrassing failure. I tried to be funny as I misstated the facts and completely missed the point of the case. I  failed at that too.  Apparently personal jurisdiction isn't good fodder for comedy. Nonetheless, I was on the road.  We got to Knoxville, grilled out and hit the strip. Here's where things got strange. We end up in kind of dive bar somewhere (can't remember names now). I'm not hammered - just drinking beer to save up for tailgating. Further, I'm wearing (a) a white polo shirt with jeans and (b) a bright Tennessee-orange colored CB&T hat. There is nothing readily apparent, save for having all my teeth, that would reveal me to be a Georgia fan and not a Tennessee fan. I even had an orange hat on! Nonetheless, and for no reason at all, a Vol fan decides he would like to fight me.
Probably my animalistic sexual appeal to rocky-soil women. He shoves me, asks me why I thought Georgia fans could drink in a "Vol Bar" (no lie). I respond by saying "well, yeah, I am a Georgia fan, but how did you know?". I may have used that teeth line, which would have merited his actions, but I cannot recall. The dude was bigger than me, and I have never been in a fight, being a mild mannered law student by day and a dashing raconteur to the ladies by night. Things did not look good. Next thing I know, out of nowhere, the one guy I knew from UGA who will probably end up jailed for murder shows up and asks what the problem is. Things calmed down. I remained confused as to why I was targeted, or even why someone would want to prevent anyone else from enjoying libations. We ended up leaving and I think we drank in an Applebees or Chili's or some other famous Knoxville watering hole. That evening made me hate Tennessee a lot. And the game wasn't much better. It rained. It rained a lot. I was very wet. Tennessee got a lead, we kind of came back, and then just when we thought we had some kind of a chance, UT returned our kickoff for a TD and the game was over. We left, and walked for what seemed like 50 miles in the rain. Then we ended up at Krystal. The rain stopped. I saw a drunk driver rear end a cop car (awesome). At like 3 in the morning I think I watched The Big Lebowski for the first time. Almost got into a fight, Dawgs got beat. SEC title hopes over. This weekend was perhaps the peak of my Tennessee hatred.  

The 2000 Georgia football team was the team Jim Donnan had waited 55 years to coach. And he was absolutely right. Something like 15 players on that defense ended up playing in the NFL. The only problem was that he was the coach. South Carolina had already pretty much ruined our season. No, check that. Quincy Carter and whoever called the same play for 4 of 5 interceptions in Columbia had already pretty much ruined our season. We were still outrageously talented, but we had little to play for. However, this season was not a vintage Volunteer team. Georgia played boring football, took advantage of Tennessee miscues and ended up winning in a thoroughly uninvigorating fashion. That did not stop Georgia students, myself included, from rushing the field and tearing down the goalposts. Yes, we were that starved for success that we stormed the field for a win over a 2-2, unranked opponent in a game we were favored and wasn't even that thrilling. That's how much we needed to feel success. It had been 15 years and 9 games since we'd beaten Tennessee. Running on the field and tearing down the goalposts wasn't the cool, or even the appropriate, thing to do, but catharsis rarely is cool or appropriate. Pieces of the goalposts went off in various directions, dragging up Lumpkin to go downtown. I ended up back at my old fraternity house, proudly wearing a "Yes, I'm a creepy old guy no longer in college" grin. We finally got that dance party we wanted in '98. Music was blasting, people were dancing. And the next thing you know, one arm of the goalposts arrived. We started dancing with the goalpost over our heads. It was a weird football-centric conga line. I cannot imagine ever having that happen to me again, but what happened next probably will never happen to anyone ever again. A buddy of ours, who once almost got a DUI on a riding lawnmower, decided that with the goalpost right there, it would be a good idea to fire up a chainsaw and cut the post up.  To give everyone a little souvenir.  I was absolutely annihilated, along with everyone else, but seeing the rainbow of sparks fly when the chainsaw metal hit the metal of the post provided an incredible moment of clarity. This was such a bad idea that, as drunk as I was, I thought it was a bad idea. But what was I going to do, stop the drunk guy using a chainsaw to cut through metal? So he started cutting. I did not know this before, but the goalposts are actually hollow inside. They're basically a long, metal PVC pipe. Also, the hollow area on the inside is shockingly close to the diameter of your standard koozy.  And so as our friend cut up pieces, people started using their souvenir small ring of the goalpost to hold their beers. I am not kidding about this. It most certainly happened. Or at least I hallucinated it. I would appreciate corroboration, but I never got a goalpost koozy. Maybe it was all a dream. No. I am pretty sure it happened. An outrageous night. And the outpouring of unnecessary emotion goes to show: we all really hated Tennessee, and we were going to celebrate, even if they weren't that good.

2001: New coach, new starting quarterback, new everything. Low expectations. 2001 was the year Georgia fans learned their lesson. We all got too excited the previous year, and when we went 8-4 and had to play in some bowl called the Oahu Classic, which may or may not have actually been a legitimate bowl game, we all took our lumps. The lesson: never again would we overhype our team... until the next time we overhype our team. But not this year. We all had reasonably low expectations. And that's why, even though I was a frequently-drunk, mostly lazy third-year law student, I made no plans to travel to Knoxville to see our young pups play against a better (on paper, at least) Tennessee team. Also, if I wasn't going to be able to drink in a "Vol Bar", I wasn't going to go.  So I watched it on TV with my roommates hungover from the previous night. If my memory serves, the air in the room smelled bad, but that may be because the air in our den always smelled horrible. There may have been a small nugget tray there. Nobody was drinking anything by gatorade and flat coke.  Regardless, it was an early game.  Georgia played pretty well, especially on defense early on. We exchanged punts, took advantage of field position and used some special teams skills to take a lead. Tennessee had the ball with about a minute to go and wasn't looking too potent, but my roommates and I had seen just one stinking 1 Georgia win over the Vols in our 6 years in Athens (and even before), so we knew the other shoe could drop. Then one of those Travises (Henry or Stephens, I can't remember) catches a screen pass and takes it all the way in for a TD and the lead. We get the ball back with like 45 seconds left and down 4.  Some of us may have stopped watching already.  We know that we have no chance in Neyland Stadium.  They stupidly squib kick it to us, so we have the ball in decent field position. Then our unproven QB starts hitting our tight ends over the middle. We've all given up, but then we look up and we have the ball on like the 4 yard line with 6 seconds or so to go. How did this happen? Who is this team? Then Verron Haynes sneaks out of the backfield unmarked and Greene gets it to him. We just smashed their faces. In our living room, we didn't know what to do. We weren't drunk (still hungover). Only dudes there, and not many of us. We yelled for a minute, but then when we stopped it was really quiet. Like, too quiet. Were we supposed to hug each other or just exchange high fives?  We had all this adrenaline in us for a minute and then didn't know what to do. We all just kind of looked at each other. We'd never experienced something like that sober and inhibited. The Dagger and I went outside and threw a frisbee for a few minutes and then maybe played a game of foosball. Weird. I think we started drinking again not long afterward.  We had lost 9 in a row to Tennessee, and now we'd won 2 in a row. It felt weird. It felt good. The manner of beating them felt really good.  We gave them the thought that they still owned us, and then we took that thought away. This was comeuppance. Maybe not 9 years worth, but still pretty damn good comeuppance.

In 2002 Georgia fans were stuck with a difficult choice about their own optimism. Should we think positively about our team, since we have just about everyone that matters back and our coaches look much better than they did under Donnan? But if we do hype things up, will that make us feel worse when they inevitably lose? It left us in a precarious position. Georgia fans, especially after the trauma of the 90s, are not particularly good at having confidence. So when Tennessee arrived in Athens with a team that, for the first time in a long time on paper, was a real step below Georgia, what were we to think? We'd won a game we probably shouldn't have in Columbia and we'd looked really good in the other games. What if we were the real deal? What if this was the season that all those miserable days behind us had been building us up for? My old roommate and I, I believe, took different approaches to this team, and the result of the Tennessee game showed it. The Dagger waited for the other shoe to drop. He was sure that Tennessee was going to beat us and start a real slide. I didn't feel great about Tennessee, but I thought we should win the game. And further, I thought the past failures didn't mean this year there would be one (at least with Tennessee, with Florida I thought it was hopeless). So when Georgia played a solid and steady game, taking advantage of Tennessee miscues and inadequacies and ended up winning a relatively uneventful game, I wasn't all that surprised. I thought we were on Tennessee's level - we'd beaten them 2 straight and the previous year was a brutal way for them to lose. The Dagger, on the other hand, was near tears at the end of the game. He couldn't believe that Georgia actually didn't fall into the trap. It was the first moment he thought Georgia actually had a chance to do something special that year. That's Tennessee hatred.  Being near tears after an uneventful win because you thought something really really crazy could've happened right until the final zeroes... that's traumatic hatred. Even though I didn't feel that way at the time, I understood it. And it was good to beat Tennessee. The sound of "not hearing Rocky Top every 5 minutes" is beautiful.

Things can change in an instant. The gaping mouth of the Tennessee fan watching a sure touchdown right before the half turn into a fumble return for a touchdown and basically the end of the game for a shell-shocked UT team. That's all you need to say about 2003. We expected a battle. One bounce of the ball turned it into a rout. An unexpected rout. And a hilariously enjoyable rout. Schadenfreude makes hatred fun. And I knew I really hated Tennessee when I couldn't tell if I was happier that Georgia won in this fashion or that Tennessee was the recipient. One other thing that shows how things can change quickly: my 4 undergrad years at UGA ended in 1999. I watched 4 losses to Tennessee. The Wrangler is 5 years younger than me and entered in 2000.  In his 4 undergrad years at UGA, he watched 4 wins against the Volunteers.

If there is a spectrum of hatred and how it applies to the chances of success against said hated opponent, it probably goes from hopeless-hate, doubtful-hate, simply-hate, confident-hate, and finally overconfident-hate. In some ways, the virulence of actual hatred works inverse to the chance of success. It's easy to hate when you don't have a chance, but easier to laugh at when you know you'll win (and laughing at is related to, but not pure hatred). From 1996 to 2004, Georgia fans probably experienced the entire spectrum. Unfortunately, 2004 was our overconfident year. We were experienced and talented. We had just pounded the defending national champions. We were ranked in the top 5. We had everything going for us. Nobody playing on the team had ever experienced a loss to Tennessee. We thought we owned them. And then the narrator from "Behind the Music" breaks the bad news. Tennessee still had some talent. Tennessee still could play defense. And Tennessee was tired of losing to a team that they once owned. Tennessee played great, and we didn't have answers until it was too late. When Greene's pass in the endzone to Leonard Pope fell incomplete, the giddy optimism that "this might really be our year" ended. Our overconfidence had led us to forget how much we hated Tennessee. We had our eyes on Florida and Auburn. We didn't hone our hatred enough. And it cost us dearly. Arguably the best team of my time as a Georgia fan didn't even win the SEC East. This is the lesson I learned: even when you're good, you have to remember how to hate. 

And from an overconfident level, we returned to simply hating Tennessee in 2005, and what resulted was probably the toughest, most hard-fought game of this series. Georgia played a man's game that day, running Thomas Brown over and over again, killing the clock and wearing down the strong Volunteer defensive line. It was a beating Georgia gave Tennessee, but not on the scoreboard. It was a reminder: we still hate you, and we won't forget. This is the kind of game I think of when I think of how I'd really like to beat a good team that I hate. Bareknuckled. Bloody.  

2006 was a game of two halves. The first half Georgia played way above their heads. Tereshinski was more efficient than he had a right to be.  We played the kind of game that was successful in '02 and '05. Then the second half started and it became a reverse of 2003. Special teams debacles. Interceptions and fumbles. In an instant a grinding game that we're very much in becomes a whirlwind blowout. Looking back, Georgia probably didn't have the advantage in talent in the game, but there was still no reason to give up 51 points. They bit us good and deep. And it stung. Walking out of the stadium, hearing Rocky Top again, it made me wonder whether we were on the right path. We were young, but what if we also weren't that good?  Tennessee reintroduced doubt, and that reinforced hatred. 

For the end of 2006, Georgia went on a pretty good run that made us all pretty optimistic entering 2007. We hung with Florida, pounded a much better Auburn team, beat Tech and came back against a pretty good Virginia Tech team. We shutout South Carolina and though we hadn't really been killing other teams, the defense looked outrageously good. Tennessee came in with Fulmer on the hot seat and needing a big win. Tennessee looked more prepared and executed exactly what they wanted to do. I was intensely frustrated with Georgia's response. We looked lackadaisical. We looked predictable. We looked like a Donnan-coached team. I was mad. And I had a 5 month old daughter taking a nap as I watched the game. She decided she didn't want to sleep. This was frustrating as well. I needed to think. What did this game mean to me?  I knew I couldn't let a poor performance of my team affect my personal life, like it did way back when. I was 30 years old. I had a kid. I had to figure it all out. And the Dawgs did too.  They were talented, and capable of beating anyone in the country. But they lapsed and let Tennessee beat them senseless. It was a wakeup call. What would they do? What would I do? Would Georgia keep doing what they've been doing and hope that things would change on their own, or that luck comes their way one time? Or would they shape things up and take control of the situation - embrace their id, play with more reckless abandonment, have a little fun out there? And what about me? Would I throw myself into worry and depression with each Saturday?  Would I allow my personality to get affected by this game, and, God forbid, let that affect how I engage with my family? Or would I take a step back and look at things in a different way? Instead of expecting something terrible to happen and driving myself crazy when it does, why not embrace the fact that I don't like other teams and let that be all it is? Why not always hope for something good to happen to the Dawgs, and if it doesn't, why not rely on hatred of that team to move past it? Instead of internalizing hatred and frustration, throw it out there and have fun with it, but let it go. Loosen up and quit worrying. That was the lesson of last year's Tennessee game. And Georgia went on an incredible run afterwards. For me personally, the lesson was "don't get so frustrated about losing this game - remember you've always hated those bastards, so be comfortable with that hatred and go play with your daughter." You wouldn't believe how much of a difference there is just by thinking a little differently.

And now we're here in 2008. I'm comfortable with my hatred of Tennessee, and, after taking a step back, I realize that my history of hating Tennessee is probably every bit as tortured and deep as my history of hating Florida. So how should I feel about this weekend's game? Well, I'm not going to worry about getting angry or frustrated if we lose. I want to win, and I'll be happy if we win. If we lose, I'll hate Tennessee no more than I already do. And that's a lot of hatred. So here's what I want: I want to beat them; I want to stick the knife in their gut and twist it; I want to hear silence instead of Rocky Top; I want next week's news to be dominated with "Will Fulmer be Fired?" stories; I want Tennessee fans to wonder if it was Cutcliffe that was all the brains; I want every top recruit looking at Tennessee and Georgia to think the Volunteers are a sinking ship; I want the Vols to switch quarterbacks 4 times because of obvious ineptitude; and I want Georgia to let them know they've been beaten really badly. Make it show. Make them bleed.  And if those things don't happen, I'll still hate them.  

That's the liberating thing about embracing hatred - it's always there to comfort the fall. When things are hopeless, hatred is key to just remaining a fan. But when things are good, and bad things happen, hating makes it easier.  

5 comments:

The General said...

Regarding the 2002 game that you call "uneventful," I would have agreed with that assessment until watched Munson's Greatest Calls (Vol. 4) on the plane headed to Arizona State. I was surprised that the game was included on the Munson reel because I couldn't really remember much about it. I think the 64oz cup I drank my Beam & Cokes out of in those days probably led more to my hazy memory, because it actually was a very "eventful" game. For example, how many games have we had two blocked kicks? The first was a punt blocked by Reggie Brown, resulting in a safety. The other block was Boss using all of his 46-inch vert to swat a Phillip Newman (of Walton HS) FG try. The Bailey block is immortalized in a framed photo on my office wall. You can just make out myself, TC, Coonce, and others in the stands in the background. A buzzer-beating Billy Bennett made it 8-0 at half. The Vols mounted a considerable comeback in the second half. Were it not for the sure hands of Burt Jones on a UT onside kick and a 4th down conversion by Tony Milton, we might not have pulled it out. Final score was 18-13. Not a whole lot of scoring, but still an exciting game with a lot of the same magic we needed to beat South Carolina and Auburn that year.

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The Drizzle said...

You should've waited a few years for law school. By his final year, Brussack wouldn't have cared if you didn't even know the name of the case. He was too busy telling us about his tae kwon do class.

Anonymous said...

Great post there. I can corroborate the goal post coozy as we all had to chug a beer out of it. General, my favorite quote of that day was, "hey, I only had one". Only nit picking here is that Donnan was the coach at the North Avenue Miracle, not Richt.

OhEssYou said...

Oh man. This is brilliant. As an Ohio State fan, its really interesting to see this sort of discussion over rivalries. I mean, obviously Ohio State is obsessed to the point of obessesive obsession with Michigan in a way that no other powerhouse school is. I'm pretty drunk, but good job LD. We've disagreed before, but this article is wonderful.