For many years, Thanksgiving in this state meant the Bullpups vs. the Baby Jackets. Here’s a reminiscence of those days that a lot of you enjoyed back when I first wrote it in 2006. Happy Thanksgiving!
“Strong legs will run that weak legs may walk.”
For six decades, that slogan, reputed to have been coined by The Atlanta Constitution’s legendary Ralph McGill, summed up the annual Thanksgiving Day meeting between the freshman Bullpups and Baby Jackets to benefit Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital.
Back in the days before freshmen were eligible to play on the varsity, this game held every year at Grant Field was a really big deal, drawing national attention. In its heyday, it regularly drew crowds of 40,000 people willing to postpone Thanksgiving dinner in order to preview the stars of tomorrow. (More than a few probably spoiled their appetites with a post-game visit to the Varsity.) The game was even broadcast on the radio!
UGA’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Frank Sinkwich, who ran for more than 200 yards in the 1939 Scottish Rite Classic, once said that the freshman game he played at Grant Field was a greater thrill for him than playing in the Rose Bowl for the varsity. That ‘39 team was such a high-powered outfit they were dubbed the “Point-a-Minute Bullpups.”
After Vince Dooley introduced the red helmets with the “G” on the side, the tradition was that the Bullpups played their earlier games in plain red helmets, only getting the “G” for the special Thanksgiving Day game.
I only went to the Thanksgiving classic once, but I remember it well. It was the 1966 game and our Sunday school class came over from Athens because former AHS Trojans star Paul Gilbert was quarterbacking the Bullpups. After we took our seats in Grant Field, we loudly started comparing the venue with newly renovated and expanded Sanford Stadium, and the Jackets fans above us pelted us with popcorn boxes. Hey, when you’re 14 years old, that’s big-time fun!
Athens folks also were very excited about the Bullpups my freshman year of 1970 because another AHS hero, Andy Johnson, was battling Don Golden of Valdosta for the Pups’ QB job. I remember the freshman games earlier in the season that year drew larger crowds than the normal few hundred to Sanford Stadium because Athens businessmen were closing up shop early to go watch Andy play.
Back then, the Thanksgiving classic was a major media event, and a few days before the game the players would visit the kids at the hospital, which always made a big impression on both the athletes and the patients. The Shriners, who were involved in fund-raising for the hospital, entertained at halftime of the game. In years when the varsity teams played on Thanksgiving Day, the Bullpups and Baby Jackets usually met the Saturday before the holiday.
After the rule change in 1972 allowed frosh to play on the varsity, the annual Bullpups-Baby Jackets match lost much of its luster, and it became a junior varsity game in 1974.
After becoming a JV team, the Bullpups generally played only two to four games a season, mostly against junior colleges like Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, Tennessee Military Institute and Georgia Military College (aside from the annual meeting with the Baby Jackets).
Those JV teams featured some scholarship players, but they were mostly made up of bench-warmers and walk-ons. Some years in the late ’80s the Baby Jackets didn’t have enough players to field a team and had to enlist volunteers from the student body to fill out their roster.
From 1933 to 1993, the Bullpups-Baby Jackets game raised $6 million for Scottish Rite. Because it was a charity affair, even in later years as many as 50,000 tickets would be sold, even though only about 8,000 to 10,000 fans actually bothered to show up for the game once it was no longer an all-freshman showcase.
Georgia won the first game played in 1933 and the last two games played in ‘92 and ‘93. The score of that last game was 21-14, with QB Brian Smith leading the Pups before a crowd of 10,142. After that, the game was killed by the two schools because of NCAA scholarship limitations. The overall record in the Scottish Rite Classic was 28 wins for the Bullpups, 30 for the Baby Jackets and one tie. No games were played in 1943-44.
Interestingly, the Governor’s Cup went to the winner of the Scottish Rite game. That trophy was retired in a “legends” alumni game in 1994, the year after the last Bullpups-Baby Jackets meeting, and a new Governor’s Cup was introduced to designate the winner of the varsity game starting in 1995. The NCAA officially designated the varsity game as a “special event,” allowing Scottish Rite Children’s Medical Center (now part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta) to present the cup to the winner and give commemorative gifts to the players.
I miss the Bullpups. Considering how many incoming freshmen are redshirted anyway these days, it’s a shame that the JV game and all it did for the children’s hospital couldn’t have continued in some form, even if it was strictly the redshirts and scout team players participating.
I think they’d get something more valuable than just playing time from the experience.
(Special thanks to Mark, Tim, Carl, Dan and Joel for reminiscing with me about the Bullpups.)