On Jan. 24, 1964, the direction of Georgia Tech athletics and the fortunes of one of the South’s premier collegiate institutions were forever changed. Head football coach and athletic director Bobby Dodd and President Edwin Harrison were at the annual SEC coaches meetings at the Americana Motor Hotel in downtown Atlanta. It was on this day they would pull Georgia Tech out of the Southeastern Conference.
Over the years, many have debated the reason for Tech’s departure from the SEC. Some will argue that Tech athletics had begun to slip and were no longer able to compete with the other conference teams. Others will point to a running feud with the University of Alabama as the cause. Still others will suggest that Tech wanted to be an independent all along, hoping to become the Notre Dame of the South. Tech was losing a lot of revenue generated from TV and bowl rights because of conference sharing rules. As an independent, Tech would be able to keep all the money it earned.
The true reason was over something called the 140 Rule — and Bobby Dodd’s determination to have it changed.
The SEC 140 Rule placed yearly caps on football and basketball scholarships at 45 and limited the total number of scholarships each school could offer to 140. Even with the normal attrition expected from academic dropouts and other issues, simple math shows that if a school recruited its full allotment of players each year it would be over the 140 maximum.
Instead of recruiting a smaller number of athletes each year to manage the 140 maximum, many SEC schools would simply cut the scholarships of players who had not performed to expectations. Atlanta’s afternoon newspaper, The Atlanta Journal, reported “Dodd’s chief complaint with the 140 has been the alleged practice of some schools ‘running off’ recruiting mistakes to make room for new signees.”
Dodd believed if he and his staff recruited an athlete out of high school based on his talents, the scholarship should be in place for the duration of the player’s time at Tech. It should not be pulled later due to a lack of perceived performance. In his autobiography, Dodd’s Luck, the coach stated his position. “We’d live with 10 boys a year, 20, 30, 40, 50, we don’t give a damn how many boys you let us take. But don’t tell us we gotta run ’em off.” As a result, Dodd was recruiting only 35 or so scholarship players a year while other schools were bringing in 45.
The State of Tech Athletics in 1964
Tech was an upper-tier member of the SEC in 1964 and had been since the conference’s beginning. It was a charter member in 1933 as well as a founding member in 1922 of the old Southern Conference that preceded it.
Jesse Outlar wrote in his Jan. 22, 1964, Atlanta Constitution sports column, “Tech is an elite member of the league, a famous name nationally known for high standards in the classroom and in athletic events. The SEC does not want to lose Tech.”
Of course football was the premier sport. Since 1951, Tech football was 6-3-1 versus Tennessee, 7-2-2 against Florida, 6-6-1 against Auburn, 7-6 against Alabama and 9-4 against state rival Georgia. Tech football had been ranked in the top 20 each of these years and had won the national championship in 1952.
Tech also had Dodd, a superior coach and recruiter. Dodd was renowned for exemplifying class and style on and off the field. Georgia Tech fans and alumni loved and trusted him as coach and athletic director.
Dodd believed the 140 Rule was putting Georgia Tech at a major recruiting disadvantage. He must have wanted the rule changed so badly he was willing to gamble the Institute’s athletics future over it. He had discussed this situation fully with his athletic board and with Tech’s president, Edwin Harrison. They reportedly agreed that if the 140 Rule was not abolished at the 1964 meetings, Tech would leave the conference.
Dodd had formally called for the abolishment of the 140 Rule two years earlier. The change had some support but eventually failed. He came closer in 1963. This time SEC commissioner Bernie Moore sponsored a motion to change the rule, but the issue was narrowly defeated in a 6-6 vote.
The Atlanta Constitution made reference to this earlier vote in its Jan. 24, 1964, paper. “Last winter, Alabama’s Paul Bryant had voted with Tech and five other league athletic directors to lift the 140 Rule. But the following day, Alabama president Dr. Frank Rose switched ’Bama’s support in the other direction to give the 140 measure another year of life.”
The league did drop the yearly total of signees from 55 to 45. After another year of politicking, Dodd is said to have been confident going into the 1964 SEC meetings that the 140 Rule finally would be altered.
However, months earlier a damaging headline from the July 21, 1963, Atlanta Constitution read: “Georgia Tech to Quit SEC Next January.” Articles like this and Dodd’s constant drumbeat to terminate the 140 Rule were beginning to ruffle feathers and generate independent theories. The Atlanta Journal also fueled the fire: “The 140 Rule has not been the only reason Tech has made eyes at independent status. Dodd has long been intrigued by the possibilities of a largely intersectional schedule.”
Wednesday, January 22
The SEC meetings were a three-day affair. Wednesday would be a day for settling into the hotel and the typical meet-and-greet sessions. Thursday would be full of meetings pertaining to rule changes. Topics would be discussed behind closed doors by coaches, athletic directors and school representatives. These meetings would result in nonbinding recommendations to each member institution’s president. On Friday, the presidents would formally vote on all issues on the agenda.
The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution both reported that the SEC executive committee planned to introduce legislation to lift the 140 Rule. It was expected to pass by a narrow margin at the meeting of school presidents on Friday. Dodd apparently was growing confident with each bit of good news.
SEC commissioner Bernie Moore told The Atlanta Journal, “I don’t think the league is so sold on the rule that it would be willing to see Tech go just to keep it.”
Thursday, January 23
On the morning of the rule-change debate, Dodd was quoted in The Atlanta Journal. “If the Southeastern does not throw out the 140 Rule, then I will recommend to our president and to our athletic board that we get out of the conference. This is not an ultimatum or anything resembling an ultimatum. The fact is that this is a bad rule, and we cannot live with it any longer.”
Sports columnist Outlar quoted an SEC delegate as saying, “I know some athletic directors consider Tech’s position as a challenge. If we had voted a few weeks ago, there’s no doubt that the rule would have been rescinded. Now I’m truly convinced that the league won’t change the rule. I know some schools have changed their votes in the last few weeks.”
Some wondered if Tech was just looking for an excuse to leave the conference. Benny Marshall’s column in The Birmingham News reported that one observer said, “What it sounds like to me is that somebody is saying, ‘If you don’t play like I want to play, I’ll pick up my marbles and go home.’” Marshall quoted another, “Coach Dodd wants out. Dodd might figure that the hostility he can arouse with this approach gives him ammunition for doing what he badly wants to do, go independent.”
Marshall concluded, “Thus is the water made muddy, and the feeling grew last night that removal of the limit — which might have passed — might now be doomed to failure because a great deal of anger has moved in behind the general good humor.”
Still, Tech had its supporters in the conference. Auburn and Georgia wanted badly to keep Tech in the SEC. One could assume that former Georgia Tech assistant Ray Graves, now the coach at the University of Florida, still had a friendly ear to Dodd as well.
But Dodd did have his enemies. The western schools in the conference resented Dodd for refusing to play them. Alabama had no love for Dodd or Georgia Tech. The Alabama series had recently been canceled because of the Holt-Graning incident. Most sources agree that Tech’s Chick Graning had been a victim of a deliberate cheap shot in the ’61 game, resulting in a broken jaw, the end of his playing days and a lot of bad blood between Tech and ’Bama.
Of the other 11 SEC schools, Tech was currently only scheduling home and away games with five of them. This was by Dodd’s design. Many competitors viewed Georgia Tech and Dodd as elitists. The Birmingham News’ Alf Van Hoose wrote, “Since Georgia Tech hasn’t been the chummiest sort recently in the fraternity, spiteful human nature reared its ugly head.”
An earlier Atlanta Constitution column by Outlar reinforced this opinion. “It’s no secret that some of the brethren resent Georgia Tech’s ultimatum. And Bobby Dodd and the Engineers haven’t conducted their campaign in a diplomatic manner,” he wrote.
The Atlanta Constitution concurred, “It’s common talk that some of the league’s western members hold no fondness for Georgia Tech. There are reports of ‘alignment’ voting rather than at all times votes on the basis of issue.”
Compromise or Divorce
The Thursday headline in The Atlanta Journal read, “Opposition Builds Up Against Tech Stand, Emotions Run Hot.” The accompanying story rumored of “some sort of a compromise to keep the league intact.” The article went on to quote an observer, “There is admittedly a lot of bitterness and a lot of emotion. But the SEC needs Georgia Tech, and frankly, I think Georgia Tech needs the league. Regardless of what the athletic directors and coaches do, the issue must still go before the presidents on Friday.”
Rumors of compromise proposals swirled. The Birmingham News relayed Alabama president Frank Rose’s statement from Thursday afternoon, “The presidents have been meeting all day, and we’re going to meet again tonight. I think we’re going to have a compromise that will keep Georgia Tech with us. We’re trying to work it out. I don’t think anyone wants Tech to leave the Southeastern Conference.”
Others weren’t as diplomatic. Outlar quoted a delegate as saying, “If Tech wants to get out of the league, I think Tech should get out.” Another source told Outlar that if “Tech intends to leave unless the 140 Rule is changed, the rule won’t be changed.” Outlar concluded, “The SEC in general apparently prefers to see Tech walk out the door unless the Engineers exhibit more togetherness.”
At the end of Thursday’s athletic directors and coaches meeting, the 140 Rule had in fact prevailed. Tech now knew its options. Give in or leave. Furman Bisher’s column summed it up: “This is almost like your parents getting a divorce. Nobody really wants it, but a form of obstinacy sets in for which there is no compromise.”
Dodd left Thursday’s closed coaches meeting before the session officially ended. When an Atlanta Constitution writer asked how the meetings were progressing, he reportedly smiled and mused, “I guess that would depend on which side you’re on.”
A frustrated Tech official discussed the 11th-hour standoff with Outlar. The quote appeared in his Friday column. “We do not have a desire to pull out of the conference just for the sake of pulling out. We haven’t intended to sound like we’re issuing ultimatums. Unfortunately, a news story got out in advance that may have sounded that way to the rest of the conference, but we were simply explaining our position, not demanding any kind of action or else.”
Even though the coaches and athletic directors had decided on Thursday to keep the 140 Rule in place, the presidents still would have the last word on the subject on Friday. They could refuse the recommendation. The presidents had worked into the night in their own secluded meeting hoping for compromise. President Harrison listened to all proposals but did not commit to any compromise. He, like Dodd, had been clear from the beginning that the 140 Rule must be overturned.
Rose of Alabama had gotten an agreement from the member presidents to drop the number of freshman recruits from 45 to 40, but after much debate, the 140 Rule was not going to be erased. That was final.
“Tech Probably Will Enter the Exit” was Outlar’s take on Friday, the final day of the SEC meeting.
Friday, January 24
The presidents’ meeting was called to order. But before discussion and voting on the rule could take place, President Harrison stood up and approached the podium.
“Georgia Tech’s interest is best served by withdrawal from the conference,” he said, announcing that the Institute would leave the SEC effective June 30.
“We chose to withdraw before these deliberations to assure that our decision would not be considered as reflecting disapproval on any specific action taken by the conference,” Harrison told The Atlanta Constitution after the meeting. “Circumstances related to Tech’s technologically oriented educational programs and the admissions requirements associated with these programs were primarily responsible for my action.
“Tech’s entrance requirements have had the effect of requiring that more of the scholar-athletes are capable of doing the level of work necessary to remain at Tech through graduation. These circumstances make a limit on the total number of athletic grants-in-aid impractical. Our action neither indicates nor implies criticism of other institutions or of the conference, but rather acknowledges a uniqueness of our situation,” Harrison said.
The Birmingham News quoted Harrison as saying, “I was convinced that there are some institutions convinced Tech was saying ‘play the game our way or we’ll pick up our marbles and go home.’ That is why our announcement was made before any vote was taken. There were other problems also. Institutions are different. Their problems are different. There is not another school in America like Georgia Tech trying to play football.”
The Atlanta Journal reported, “Among the veteran newspapermen covering the SEC meeting, there was an air of stunned disbelief and deep regret.”
“Tech Withdraws from SEC, Doesn’t Wait for Vote on 140” was the headline in The Atlanta Constitution. Anyone reading this could make the assumption that Tech quit before having its case heard before the presidents. Only insiders to the private Thursday meetings would have known that Friday’s vote was simply a formality.
Marshall, of The Birmingham News, threw this dagger: “Tech’s president confirmed a suspicion that the 140 Rule, which had been held up as ranking villain, might not have been. ‘There are other problems,’ he said before proceeding to an old and somewhat arrogant conclusion, which is that Tech recruits athletes with superior minds, they don’t flunk out and therefore Tech cannot live within a limit. Eleven other Southeastern Conference schools might, but not Georgia Tech. The image must be maintained, and now these people have told the world once more, ‘We’re out because, really, we’re better.’”
‘In Dodd We Trust’
On Saturday, Outlar had this to say in The Atlanta Constitution: “Only time will tell whether Georgia Tech made a sound decision. It says here that both sides lost the game. The conference will miss Georgia Tech, and Georgia Tech will miss the conference.”
Commissioner Moore told The Atlanta Constitution that Georgia Tech and the SEC would both “live to regret” their history-making parting. Moore revealed to the paper that he had tried twice to have the 140 Rule lifted.
Joe Pittard, the oldest member of Tech’s athletic department, said, “It’s difficult to believe. But a lot of things are.”
SEC coaches weighed in as well. Former UGA coach Wally Butts stated, “Both Tech and the SEC have suffered a loss. Something will be gone from the Georgia-Georgia Tech series now, I don’t care what anyone says. And though I suppose the series will always go on, I can sure say that Georgia needs Georgia Tech.”
Auburn’s Shug Jordan told The Atlanta Journal, “From an Auburn standpoint, we deeply regret it. I personally think it was entirely unnecessary. I feel the conference should have made the rule flexible enough for everyone to live with.”
Kentucky’s coach, Charlie Bradshaw, had a different take. “I am sorry to see them withdraw, but it is bad to be put in a position where we must compromise to keep people in.”
Most Tech people were supportive of Dodd’s departure from the SEC. The old phrase “in Dodd we trust” held true. Lum Snyder, a Tech football standout from the ’50s, told The Atlanta Constitution, “I support Coach Dodd and the school 100 percent. I probably don’t know about all their reasoning, I came over a while back to get Coach Dodd’s views on the matter. When he explained the feeling on this 140 business, I went home thoroughly in agreement.”
Dodd said in the Jan. 27 issue of The Atlanta Constitution, “Only a few letters and wires have been received so far, but all have expressed support on the move. Most have been from prominent alumni. Just about all of them have expressed the theme that ‘we have enough confidence in Georgia Tech to believe the decision was right.’”
A Technique editorial on Jan. 31 also was supportive. “President Harrison’s decision to withdraw Tech from the Southeastern Conference is nothing short of great, so far as the school is concerned. Tech’s athletic program, at present, is operating far above the conference average, and our continued alliance with the conference serves only to restrict our program and pull down its quality,” the student newspaper said.
“The important thing is that we will be free to run our programs the way we want, and not the way Georgia or the University of Alabama want us to run things. The fairness and reputable treatment of athletes at Georgia Tech is known around the nation as well as the conference. Once free of conference hindrances, our athletic programs can only improve,” the Technique said.
In the same issue, Dodd said, “I’d like to clear up the financial aspect once and for all. While we have lost a lot of money through sharing of TV rights over the last eight to 10 years by remaining in the SEC, it wasn’t a factor in our withdrawal. Our primary reason was the 140 Rule. Actually, we will continue to take fewer boys than the average SEC school, but we’ll try to graduate all of them instead of taking 50 to 60 each year, then dropping half.”
The Atlanta Touchdown Club held its Silver Anniversary Jamboree on Jan. 25. Air Force Academy coach Ben Martin was the guest speaker. He predicted Tech would soon become an independent king. Dodd, who also was in attendance, said, “I won’t ever try to predict our future. I reiterate that we leave the conference with mixed emotions.”
If Dodd could have predicted the future, one could argue that he never would have pulled Georgia Tech out of the SEC. The years that followed as an independent were mostly lean ones for Georgia Tech. From 1964 to 1982, Georgia Tech’s football record was 104-100-5. Compare that to Tech’s SEC football record of 206-110-12 from 1933 to 1963. As an independent, Georgia Tech saw its facilities become worn and outdated, surpassed in size and quality by most of its Southern competitors.
Georgia Tech would officially begin competing in the ACC in 1983. As a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Tech’s athletic fortunes rose again. With victories and championships in a variety of sports have come financial contributions and greatly improved facilities.
Arguably, the level of national prestige that Tech football enjoyed as a member in the SEC has never returned. Even with all its current success, here’s a startling comparison. In 1963, the enrollment at Georgia Tech was about 6,300 students, and there were roughly 50,000 living alumni. In 2011, the enrollment at Georgia Tech is more than 20,000,
and there are more than 120,000 living alumni. Atlanta’s metro population has more than tripled. Yet Georgia Tech’s average football attendance for 2010 was less than it was in 1963.
Georgia Tech athletics forever changed on Jan. 24, 1964.
Mitch Ginn, Arch 82, M Arch 85, is the owner of the residential design firm L. Mitchell Ginn & Associates in Newnan, Ga.