UGA vs. Auburn: A little history behind the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry…
UGA is Auburn’s oldest rival in Basketball with the series beginning in 1908. Going into Wednesday’s game, UGA holds a 93-91 edge. The programs share many similarities. Their respective institutions are known more for national prominence and success on the gridiron rather than the hardwood. But, each program has had fleeting moments in the national basketball spotlight. Auburn has reached the NCAA tournament eight times in its history. The Tiger’s best tournament was 1986 when they reached the Elite Eight. UGA has been to the Big Dance twelve times with the pinnacle being the 1983 Final Four.
Most of the time the recognition of both programs has been because of the greatness of individual
players. Auburn has produced such collegiate greats as Eddie Johnson, Chuck Person, Chris Morris,
Mike Mitchell and Charles Barkley, who each went on to be NBA stars as well. Georgia has had its share of All-Americans and sent Dominique, Vern Fleming, Willie Anderson, Shandon Anderson, Jarvis Hayes, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and others to the NBA.
Each school has employed successful, nationally respected Head Coaches at times. Georgia has been led
most notably by Hugh Durham, Tubby Smith and Jim Harrick. Auburn’s Joel Eaves (former UGA Athletic Director) was the most successful basketball coach in the school’s history with a record of 213-100. He also developed the Auburn Shuffle. It’s not a dance, but an offshoot of the popular Wheel Offense of the sixties created by Garland Pinholster at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Eaves won the 1960 SEC championship utilizing his hybrid offensive style. Cliff Ellis, too, enjoyed some short lived success at Auburn’s helm and was SEC and National Coach of the Year in 1999.
The coach who arguably stands alone for a sustained run of success at either school is Sonny Smith.
Smith took Auburn to five consecutive NCAA appearances. His 1986 team lost in the Elite Eight to
eventual champ Louisville. He was SEC Coach of the Year in 1984 and 1988. Sonny was a flat out
recruiting genius. He had the magic touch when it came to getting names on dotted lines. Along with the aforementioned Barkley, Person and Morris, he kept up a steady stream of four and five star recruits pouring onto the Plains. And unfortunately, to the chagrin of the Dawgs, many of those great recruits, like Chris Morris, hailed from the Peach State next door. Many UGA fans are upset that Bruce Pearl has begun a similar trend over the past two years. Only history will record how that plays out.
Now Sit Down and STFU
The first three times I played away games at Auburn were played in the Auburn Sports Arena,
affectionately referred to as The Barn. In truth, to me, it appeared to look more like an airplane hangar from an old movie. It was constructed of corrugated metal and sat about 2,500 on bleacher seats that came right down to the playing floor. Poorly heated, loud and dark, it made for quite the home court advantage. There was one other factor that added to that advantage. Many of the Auburn football team would place themselves right behind the visitor’s bench, which consisted of metal folding chairs a few feet in front of the last row of bleacher seats. Let that image take hold in your mind’s eye. One can imagine the interesting behavior exemplified by that troop of Auburn’s finest.
One particularly cold night on the plains in February, 1968, my sophomore year, stands out in my mind. It was a biblical confrontation in the vein of Daniel in the lion’s den, or Sampson and the Philistines. One lone hero vs overwhelming odds. Fortunately for the Dawgs, the hero, Ray Jeffords, was on our
side. There is much to be said regarding Raymond Jeffords – born on the cusp of the Okefenokee Swamp
in Ware County, Georgia. Legend has it he fought alligators as a young man until all the gators wised up. I know for sure he was the toughest man I have ever known in my life, and I’ve traveled on four
continents, lived in several countries and witnessed more than my share of thuggery. Though he was actually a good guy in many respects, he could also be one of the meanest human beings you have ever seen when he felt put upon. Space limits us as far as an introduction for our current episode, but stay tuned to this blog for more adventures with Ray, if you happen to enjoy this one.
When we took the floor on that fateful night, we went right into our two-line layup drill so as not linger in front of the malignant mass of quite possibly overly lubricated, gridiron giants. I assume a large portion of that contingent hailed from rural villages scattered around the state of Alabama. I base my conclusion on their many references to animals and their waste matter. One particular fellow was louder and more profane than his companions. He was standing, screaming and seemingly frothing at the mouth. He appeared to be the leader of the pack based on volume and vulgarity.
As we proceeded with our warmup, I noticed Ray leave the rebounding line and come over to say
something to Tom Superka, a genial soul from Pennsylvania, who was immediately in front of me in the
shooting line. I didn’t catch all that was said, but did hear the words “step back”. Ray returned to the other line, and we went through another sequence of shooting a layup, then rebounding and passing and finally were back in the shooters’ line. We were probably about ten feet from the goon I just described, when instead of Superka moving up to receive a pass from, you guessed it, Ray, he simply stopped. Ray took three or four dribbles from under the basket and then a step or two with a windup of which Nolan Ryan would have been proud and hurled a fastball that caught his victim squarely in his raging face. The fellow flew backwards, spewing blood all over his cronies, like he’d been kicked by a south Georgia mule.
There was a stunned silence for several seconds as the crowd processed what it had just witnessed and then – pandemonium. Ray stood in front of the maddening crowd gesturing and beckoning them to step forward. I doubt many wanted to do so as Ray stood 6’5, 215 lbs., and was heavily muscled. Think Lil’Abner. The few security guards in the building rushed over and managed to restrain any who were brave, stupid or inebriated enough to try to get to Ray. The entire row of football players was moved to somewhere else in the gym and order was restored. I don’t remember who won the game, but I know who won the battle.
Auburn had tried hard to sign me coming out of Decatur High School. I ended up at UGA, but they did
sign two other Georgia high school players that year. Bob Wills from Atlanta and Barry Timmerman from Augusta both signed with the Tigers. SEC freshman ball was a bigger deal than folks today can imagine. Freshamn were ineligible to play varsity, so everyone wanted to see how well their highly touted recruits stacked up against the other school’s. The players and fans sure took it seriously. We played in front of sold out arenas in Knoxville, Nashville and Lexington. Some guy named Pistol was packing ‘em in for the LSU freshmen.
Auburn’s coach Bill Lynn was quoted in an article in the Auburn paper the morning of our freshman game as saying that he knew that he has signed the two best boys from Georgia. Auburn’s small arena was packed and noisy prior to our game. Our coach, Pat Stephens, who knew me from coaching in high school at Druid Hills, told us we were waiting until Auburn began their warm-up drills to take the floor. Stephens took me aside and asked if I had seen the article. I said yes, and he told me to show the crowd something. Our team walked on the court slowly. I led the way. Auburn’s team was watching, and the crowd was noisy, but watching us as well. I calmly walked over to the ball rack, took a ball in each hand, walked under the bucket jumped up and did a reverse slam with both balls. Ray had his way; I had mine.