Against the Wind

Against the Wind

“It seems like yesterday
but it was long ago …
I’m older now but still running
against the wind”

Against the Wind – Bob Seger 1980

Derek Dooley was an unhappy camper. Literally.

The site was Jekyll Island, circa late July to early August of 1984 or so, on a hot Friday morning. Derek and about 100 of his closest buddies were running against the wind – against the wind of the Atlantic Ocean blowing along the coast of Georgia’s Golden Isles.

Yellow football helmets, adorned with bright red stripes down the middle and a “C” on the sides, lay stretched in a zig-zagged pattern in ten-yard intervals far into the sandy distance as the Clarke Central High School football team suffered through the world’s longest “hat” drills.

It was the last morning of Clarke Central’s annual football camp, but instead of readying for the traditional scrimmage that marked the end of a grueling week, a little good-natured “conditioning” was being doled out by legendary Gladiator head coach Billy Henderson (pictured below).

Seems young master Dooley and a few compadres and team leaders had been observed sneaking back into the team hotel after curfew the night before (names omitted to protect the guilty – but let’s just mention that one is now the head baseball coach at a major university in Athens). Presumably the wayward band had been trying to rendevous with some visiting Clarke Central co-eds staying on nearby St. Simon’s Island.

A young staff member at the time coaching mostly 9th and 10th graders (C and B teams in CC vernacular), I stood on the beach with a few other coaches including Chuck Conley, Greg “Curly” Neal, and the late, great Ben Scott, as the sad Glads trudged by. An unparalled needler, offensive coordinator Scott jeered and snapped pictures with an old Polaroid camera as Dooley and a cluster of the perpetrators passed us … I’ve still got a snapshot in a shoe box somewhere of the “salutes” the players gave us while we heckled them.

It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago.

The old Clarke Central Gladiator tight end is now a young head coach at Tennessee, and this week his second Volunteers team welcomes the Georgia Bulldogs to Neyland Stadium in a pivotal game.

Bulldog coach Mark Richt has been running against the wind himself of late.

Coming off a 6-7 record in 2010 and an 8-5 mark in 2009, Richt has gone from universally respected and mostly revered among Georgia fans to a coach who might not be able to afford many more stumbles.

A disastrous loss to Boise State in the season opener and a sloppy home defeat against South Carolina put the Dogs into an 0-2 hole record-wise, but – more significantly – sent hope among the program’s fans plummeting and Richt’s reputation among the faithful spiraling down.

The team steadied itself with consecutive wins over Coastal Carolina, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, but this week’s game in Knoxville is huge.

In the short term, a win places Georgia squarely in the midst of the SEC East race, and in normal years would solidify the Dogs as the division favorite. Their schedule is by far the easiest among division contenders. The Dogs do not play Alabama, Arkansas, or LSU from the West, they get Auburn at home, and nemesis Florida looks vulnerable. Throw in Auburn’s upset of South Carolina last week, and a trip to Atlanta and the SEC title game is there for Georgia’s taking.

More broadly, beating Tennessee in Knoxville would send a message that the Georgia program is actually on sound moorings. The Dogs signed a terrific freshman class and many of the “dream team” are now contributing (especially running back Isaiah Crowell and receiver Malcolm Mitchell). Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham may be finding his bearings at the college level in his second season from the NFL. Heck, there’s even word that a new Uga mascot may be unveiled soon to replace interim stalwart Russ.

But – first comes this trip to the banks of the Tennessee River.

Derek Dooley was a young man runnin’ those many years ago … now he and his Vols are searching for a win.

Mark Richt and his Dogs must have one or he may find himself surrounded by strangers he thought were his friends.

The losers of this game?

They’ll be riding against the wind the rest of the 2011 season.

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