While Georgia has not been the place, historically, for high moments when it comes to basketball records and championships, the lore of the past often causes flashbacks that can bring about knee-slapping hilarity. The Bulldogs might not be able to show off when it comes to seasoned results and highlights, but they don’t take a back seat when it comes to colorful characters.
In its day, Woodruff Hall, which eventually became a laughingstock, was a showcase arena when it opened in 1923. When Jim Whatley, who also coached football and baseball, was the basketball coach, he beat Adolph Rupp and Kentucky 71-60 in January 1951. Rupp swore he would never play in Woodruff again, but he did, albeit it in 1964.
Whatley, a fine player at Alabama (a 6-foot-6 center), was one of the most colorful coaching personalities ever to take up residency in Athens. Once he went out on the court to berate an official over a call with which Whatley was in passionate disagreement. The official, who was not amused, refused to be intimidated by the bigger, imposing man who was lacing the conversation with verbosity. The ref subsequently pointed his finger at Whatley and said, “I am going to give you a technical for every step it takes you to walk back to your bench.” With that, Whatley dropped down on his hands and knees and crawled off the court.
Before Whatley, the coach was Ralph “Shug” Jordan (also a football assistant) who would become the head football coach at Auburn in 1951. In the fall of 1947, the Georgia basketball players, organized by Joe Jordan, the sensational guard, went to see Coach Jordan, reminding him that the team had been invited to play in an early December game at Madison Square Garden but couldn’t practice. Woodruff Hall, in the off season, was used as a storage dump. Coach Jordan asked Coach Wallace Butts, who was also the athletic director, if he would ask the physical plant to clear out the arena so the basketball players could practice.
Nothing happened and there was no movement on the second request. On the third trip in to see Coach Butts, Jordan was rather explicit about the lack of respect the basketball team was getting. “Damn Ralph,” Butts exclaimed, “You don’t have to go up there for another three weeks.” Those were the days when the football coach usually was the athletic director who was always preoccupied with coaching the football team.
Red Lawson became basketball coach in 1951 when the program experienced its greatest challenge. There were seasons in which the basketball Dawgs won as few as three games. Lawson had no budget, no full scholarships, virtually no talent and was given to entertaining the press by cracking jokes about Woodruff Hall: “The only basketball arena where wind is a factor.”
For years, Lawson’s teams suffered and languished in the SEC cellar. One night on a bus trip over the mountain from Knoxville to Lexington, the chartered bus pulled into an all-night rest stop. Red had a handful of dimes that he dispensed to each member of his team, saying, “OK boys, go inside and freshen up.” That is how deplorable the budget was for basketball.
I have seen some down times at Georgia, along with some bad teams, but never has a team been done in by its own hand as was the case when Georgia Tech played in Woodruff Hall in 1960, Tech winning in overtime. It was a seesaw battle and just as time expired on the clock in regulation, Tech called time out.
It is possible that I am the only living soul who knows what happened that night. Georgia’s antiquated clock was operated manually but the last 60 seconds, it had an automatic buzzer that sounded once time had expired. There was only one problem. The clock started two seconds early, which meant that the buzzer sounded two seconds early. Even so, it was essentially operated manually. When the buzzer engaged just a smidgen at the very last second — inaudible to most everybody including the officials at the scorer’s table — it meant that time had expired. The game was over, but, alas, it wasn't officially.
After the timeout, Tech inbounded the ball to its great star, Roger Kaiser, who dribbled at least three times before getting off a Hail Mary shot that went into the basket to force the extra period. All that action took at least five seconds. The time keeper finally realized what was going on and stopped the clock. The officials rushed the scorer’s table, but the timekeeper could not explain what had happened. The basket was allowed to count but not without vehement protesting by Georgia Sports Information Director, Dan Magill.
The timekeeper was Col. E.B. Smith, Lawson’s boss, a man who could never have been accused of showing partiality under any condition. In one of the most bizarre circumstances I’ve ever experienced, poor Red Lawson was cost a game that would have been one of the highest moments in his career.