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Tech Football At A Crossroads: Family Video Of The 1961 Gator Bowl

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Bobby Dodd returns to bowl season, the Ramblin' Wreck makes its entrance, and Tech prepares to leave the SEC.

The Jacket offense huddles before the 1961 Gator Bowl.The big-eared man with his back to the camera is Bobby Dodd.
The Jacket offense huddles before the 1961 Gator Bowl.The big-eared man with his back to the camera is Bobby Dodd.

Rusty Tanton, a Tennessee mandug up and YouTubed some 8mm footage shot by his grandparents of the 1961 Gator Bowl, featuring Bobby Dodd's 7-3 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Tech lost the game 30-15 to the 7-3 Penn State Nittany Lions

The Tanton family footage is fascinating, its lack of audio enhancing the sense of intruding a forgotten era. Neither team's offense will feel unfamiliar to the modern Tech fan, though Dodd was a much, much bigger fan of punting than Paul Johnson is. A field position obsessive, Dodd often punted on third down. 

Highlights: halfback (A-back?) Joe Auer clunking along for a 70-yard touchdown run, giving Tech a two-score lead they'd soon relinquish, and Auer's recovery of a bobbled pitch, reversal of field, and touchdown to put Tech within five points with about seven minutes to go. 

This is the Yasujirō Ozu (you know, SILENT FILM?) of fifty years of Georgia Tech football history, before and after 1961, crammed into twenty minutes of family video, the post-Clint Castleberry Cliff's notes. More on that after the first part, which begins during pregame warmups.

The Return of "the Bowl Master"

After hacking together one of the best runs in college football history in the early '50s, including two undefeated seasons, Tech's third national title, two SEC titles, five top-ten finishes, six straight bowl wins (modern equivalent: six straight BCS bowl wins), and the longest Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate winning streak ever, Dodd's program ran out of gas.

From 1957 to 1960, the Jackets averaged only five wins per season, and hit the SEC cellar twice.

During Dodd's run, the Southeast was Tech country. In the late '60s, four pro teams that could barely feed themselves elbowed into the city. Tech was squeezed out of the national spotlight, eventually relegated to third-place Peach State football status. At the kickoff of the 1961 Gator Bowl, the Yellow Jackets only had free reign of the Empire City for five more short years. Dodd would step down as coach by then.

He'd been talking about retiring for three years already. But on his way out, he returned to four bowl games. This game, though disappointing, marked the opening of the Bowl Master's encore.

Halftime and the second half:

The Ramblin' Wreck's Bowl Debut

At the 0:57 point in part two, the Ramblin' Wreck putters cautiously onto the field. It moves much more confidently these days, but little else has changed about Tech's halftime distractions.

Though Tech has maintained an infatuation with one or another dilapidated Ford since 1916, the Wreck first led the football team onto the field in September, 1961. The Jackets beat the seventh-ranked Rice Owls, and a tradition was born.

This video was shot only three months after the Wreck's successful maiden voyage. Pre-1961 non-football footage is also floating around, but this could be the oldest surviving footage of the Wreck taking a football field. You sort of wish the moment had involved a modicum of swagger, but there she is.

The End of Tech's SEC Era

Dodd had long feuded with Bear Bryant and the SEC's Mississippi schools over conference rules on oversigning, fluctuating substitution restrictions, and so on. He always claimed his 1956 team was his best team ever, and that it was limited to a 10-1 record by the SEC's suddenly reintroduced one-platoon rule that forced his relatively small players to play offense and defense.

Some bigger SEC programs used their preseason camps as tryout periods, but Dodd refused to cut any player who played hard. Which only added to Tech's roster development challenges

Though Dodd denies it was the final straw, Tech's 1961 game against Alabama certainly dumped napalm on the fire. The Tide's Darwin Holt launched elbow-first into Tech's Chick Granning, who was trotting out a fair catch. Holt ended Granning's football career, and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say Granning's head was obliterated from front to back. Dodd was furious and implored Bryant to suspend Granning, which didn't happen.

Holt forgave Granning, but Dodd stewed for months. Recruiting woes mounted, and two more years of having his rule suggestions shot down settled the matter. After upsetting Bryant's #1-ranked 1962 team, Tech left the SEC in '63 and went independent, counting on the Gold and White nation conceived during the first half of the century to keep the program nationally prominent. It didn't happen. Tech football was thus doomed to almost three decades of wilderness wandering until coach Bobby Ross turned a squishy ACC schedule into the 1990 National Championship. Are we paying attention here, BYU fans?

The Granning-Holt incident, which set in motion the most impactful decision in Tech's post-war football history, occurred only 49 days before this video was shot. In the photo at the top of this article, a big-eared head coach from west Virginia listens as an assistant prepares his linemen, but the head coach's wheels are turning.

In the back of his mind, one of the greatest football men of all time is considering the biggest mistake of his life.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.