Ninety years ago, Saturday, the “Roaring Twenties,” were about to suffer an all-time fissure that would not go away until V-J day Sept. 2, 1945, when the unconditional surrender of Japan took place.
Oct. 12 was a high time in Athens, Ga., in 1929, however, as the Bulldogs, from New Haven, Conn., came South to help the UGA ‘Dogs dedicate their brand-spanking, new stadium, which hovered auspiciously over an undistinguished creek which ran the length of the field. Little kids played in the creek underneath what is now “Dooley Field,” and big kids played on the field above the creek, bringing fame, glory and preeminence to the nation’s oldest chartered state university. For years, it was rumored that locals panned for gold in Tanyard Creek, but that bit of lore has been patently debunked — by the UGA geology department.
However, the largesse that comes from football competition in the fall of the year at Sanford Stadium brings a profit that would equal what a gold rush might generate if someone had struck the mother lode.
College football has become big business and the University of Georgia can compete with the best today, but consider the circumstances of the coming of Sanford Stadium and the ensuing opportunity that would be enhanced by a signature moment in history nearly a century ago.
To fully appreciate how it all came about, we hark back to Dec. 3, 1927. The athletic director was H. J. Stegman and the coach was George “Kid” Woodruff. The man of the hour, however, was the UGA President Dr. Steadman V. Sanford. With the Georgia team undefeated and visions of Pasadena dancing in alumni heads, the atmosphere in Athens was saturated with high hopes and anticipation.
At the time Georgia’s football field was the baseball field at the foot of Lumpkin Street. Old photos reveal a football field marked off in front of the wooden grandstand which seated only 6,000 spectators.
In 1902, Georgia began playing Tech annually at Grant Field, which provided for a larger gate. Imagine giving up home field advantage against your main rival every season. The Bulldogs posted a 6-10-2 record during these trying times.
When the Bulldogs met up with Tech in ’27, featuring small, but very fast backs, heavy rains fell during the week. However, according to Bulldog icon and historian, Dan Magill, Tech was taking no chances and watered down the field on the eve of the game, making the playing surface a quagmire. Tech upset the Bulldogs 12-0 and knocked Georgia out of the Rose Bowl. (Georgia got revenge 17 years later when Tech arrived in Athens with a Rose Bowl invitation on the line. The winner would be invited to Pasadena. Georgia, led by Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi destroyed the Jackets, 34-0.)
After the disappointment in Atlanta in 1927, Dr. Sanford was so incensed that he, according to another devout Bulldog historian, John Stegeman, vowed to build the biggest stadium in the South. Not only did he meet his own ambitious expectations, he orchestrated the building of the prettiest stadium. The stadium cost roughly $300,000 dollars to build and represented a landmark fund-raising effort by the University, perhaps, the best of all time.
Dr. Sanford went about the state, coaxing 300 fans and supporters to sign bank notes of $1,000 each to pay for the cost of construction of the stadium that would bear his name. The cogency and brilliance of Dr. Sanford’s brainchild is confirmed when you become aware that 12 days after the dedication of the stadium with the 15-0 victory over Yale, the stock market crash — Black Tuesday — took place and not a single one of those bank notes were called.
There is another impactful message inherent in the building of Sanford Stadium. When the Georgia people unite with enlightened and selfless leadership, there is no limit to what can be accomplished.
Sanford Stadium was built on two natural hillsides which gives it extraordinary beauty, especially with the privet hedge surrounding the field. That was the idea of a former Georgia business manager, Charlie Martin, who had gone to the Rose Bowl with his counterpart at Alabama in 1926. Martin marveled at the beautiful roses that circled the playing field at Pasadena. He wanted Georgia’s new stadium to have the same look that he saw at the Rose Bowl.
However, he learned that roses would not flourish in the Athens’ environment, which is why the decision was made to install hedges around the playing field. They were about three feet tall when Georgia hosted Yale in 1929.
Georgia won the Southern Conference championship in 1920, but the first hint of the coming of the glory that the little community of Athens so desperately sought began to gain traction when Wallace Butts became the head coach in 1939. His aggressive recruiting of players north of the Mason-Dixon line brought to campus legends such as Frank Sinkwich, Charley Trippi, John Rauch and others. Had it not been for World War II, there is no telling what the situation might have become in Athenstown.
Butts won three Southeastern Conference championships in the 1940s and national championships in 1942 and 1946, but the 1950s would not be good to him. With increased interest in the Bulldog program following World War II, Sanford Stadium needed expanding. Wooden bleachers were added to the original concrete stands, but were not often filled except when Tech or Alabama came to town. They became rickety and unsightly.
To enhance the gate, lights were added to perimeter of the stadium, nestled in the hedges. While the hedges retained their evergreen beauty, the light poles were ill-favored. An eyesore until Joel Eaves had them removed when he became athletic director and hired Vince Dooley.
The lights were a product of a need for gate enhancement, which is how the stadium came about in the first place. The success of Dooley’s early teams would make an ever advancing enlargement of Sanford Stadium. Originally, Sanford’s seating capacity was 30,000. Several enhancements and enlrgements followed:
1949 – 6,000 seats added to the South Stands (total capacity 36,000)
1964 – 7,621 seats added to the end zone (43,621)
1967 – 19,60 seats added by decking both sides of the stadium (59,000)
1981 – 19,000 seats added by enclosing the East End Zone (82,122)
1991 – 4,205 seats added to the West End Zone
1994 – 30 Sky Suites added (86,520)
2000 – 20 Sky Suites added (86,520)
2003 – 5,500 Seats added to upper north deck (92,058)
2004 — 688 seats added to north side suites (92,746)
The pure beauty of Sanford Stadium in 1929 brought about issues in the future. With any and all expansions, the attractiveness of the facility and the unobstructed views have always made it special, but access, bathrooms space and concession stands conflict with pedestrian traffic on the southside of the stadium. The only way to alleviate the problem, would be to tunnel under field street but at a near prohibitive cost.
Expansions have, nonetheless, increased the size of the facility to where it is the ninth-largest on-campus stadium in the country. There is the view by insiders that Georgia does not need any more seats in Sanford Stadium, but there is a pressing need for more premium seats. That is possible connecting the sky suites of the north and south sides with an expansion around the top of the horseshoe at the east end of the field.
All expansions have been tastefully done and the beauty of the stadium has never been compromised. The man, whose teams were largely responsible for the expansions, is Vince Dooley. His name now has been added to the stadium which brought considerable harmony among the Bulldog constituency.
Here again, expansive alumni support, coupled with positive leadership, has always been one of the University of Georgia’s most valuable assets. Sanford Stadium will always be confirmation of that salient fact.
The genius and legend of Dr. Sanford should always be lionized and forever remembered with the warmest of respect and affection. Likely there were many in 1927 who considered his new stadium concept as unlikely, perhaps foolhardy, as tunneling under Field Street.