Sanford Stadium fans chant "Damn Good Dogs!" when a retiring Uga passes his spiked collar to his successor, and that's the title of Sonny Seiler's new coffee table book, which chronicles the 46-year history of UGA's bulldog mascots
merica always has a favorite animal. With the exception of Secretariat and an animated mouse named Mickey, it's usually a dog. In years gone by, Rin Tin Tin was king of the canines, then Lassie. But in the five years since Sports Illustrated put Uga V on the cover and proclaimed him to be the nation's No.1 mascot, the entire planet has gone gah-gah over Uga.
Co-authored by Uga's owner, Sonny Seiler (BBA '56, JD '57), and Georgia Magazine editor Kent Hannon, and illustrated with hundreds of feature photosmany from the Seilers' private collectionDamn Good Dogs! (Hill Street Press, 2002) will be in stores this fall. For information on how to order the book, go to www.hillstreetpress.com.
Picture Day, a football-related event which happens every August, is also a good indicator of Uga's local appeal. To accommodate the hordes of people who wait in line for hours to have their photo taken with Uga, Picture Day was moved to the Classic Center auditorium, where the lines are reminiscent of Disney World. "It's like waiting to get into Space Mountain," said one of the 1,000 people in line for a 30-second photo-op with Uga VI last August. Taken with young sons and daughters, many of those photos end up as family Christmas cards.
To understand how Uga became the icon of the Bulldog Nation, why the photo of him lunging at Auburn's Robert Baker was an ESPN highlight of the year, and why U.S. congressmen and Hollywood film directors feel compelled to get down on the floor and wrestle with Uga, this Damn Good Dogs! book excerpt should help.
This newspaper photo of Uga's first appearance at a Georgia football game on Sept. 29, 1956, caught the eye of University of Georgia officials who were on the lookout for a new mascot. Fortunately, the captionwhich incorrectly described Uga I as a "ferocious bulldog'didn't dissuade sports information director Dan Magill from recommending Uga I to Coach Wally Butts.
Sonny was a second-year law student at the University of Georgia in 1956. Born and raised in Savannah, he had married his college sweetheart, the former Cecelia Gunn of Columbus, Ga., the previous November. He and Cecelia lived in an apartment near the Chi Omega sorority house, where she was a member.
"We were excited to have a place of our own," says Cecelia. "It was just the two of us back then, and, like any married couple, we enjoyed our privacywhich was very quickly a thing of the past."
It started with a phone call to the Seilers' apartment. Cecelia expected to hear Sonny's voice asking what was for dinner. The call, in fact, had nothing to do with dinner. And though they didn't know it at the time, the Seilers' lives were about to be changed forever.
Gift that kept on giving . . . and barking
Sonny was sitting in his usual spot at the ticket window at Stegeman Hall when Cecelia answered the phone back in '56. But it wasn't Sonny who was calling. It was Cecelia's mother with news of a belated wedding present.
Uga I became such an instant fixture as the school mascot that he was issued his own student ID card.
Sonny begs to differ with his bride.
"I was just as thrilled as Cecelia," he says. "But we were your typical starving newlywedsonly I was in law school, so that made it worse. We didn't have enough money to feed ourselves, let alone a bulldog."
But difficult economic times weren't about to stand in the way of a present this special. Cecelia's sister Sara and her husband, Hersey Sumner, drove from Columbus to Griffin, Ga., where the Seilers picked up the new arrival.
"He was far from gift-wrapped!" says Sonny, who remembers the little four-month-old pup as clumsy and rambunctious. "To my dismay, he didn't look anything like what I expected. He was tall and gangly. What we had envisioned was a heavy, wide-shouldered bulldoglike the hood ornament on a Mack truck."
A mascot needs a jersey, too
In the 1950s, the most popular Georgia football car emblem was a fierce-looking white bulldog in a red sweater with a "G" on the front and a little cap on his head. Borrowing that idea, Cecelia went to the J.C. Penney store in downtown Athens and bought a red Buster Brown T-shirtchildren's size 8for Uga.
"I cut a 'G' out of a piece of black felt," Cecelia recalls, "then sewed it on the chest of the shirt and gathered the sleeves and the waist with elastic. When we put it on Uga, he looked like he'd stepped right out of that car decal!"
On Sept. 29, 1956, prior to Georgia's first home game, the Seilers dressed Uga in his new jersey and took him to Sonny's fraternity for a pre-game party.
"We never intended to take Uga to Sanford Stadium that day," Sonny recalls. "But he created such excitement at the Sigma Chi house that, when it was time to go to the game, everyone agreed that Uga should go, too."
The ticket-takers were so enamored with his pugnacious attitude and the big 'G' on his chest that they waved Uga through the gate as though he were the team's official mascot. Which, of course, he wasn't. Not yet, anyway.
It's not clear who's escorting whom in this photo of Uga I and '62 Homecoming queen Emma Jo Jones. In those days, Sanford Stadium's famed hedges formed an archway at the east end of the field.
"I had placed stories in the newspaper saying the university was shopping for a new mascot," recalls Dan Magill, who found the bulldog he was looking for in newspaper photos from the '56 Florida State game, which served as Uga's audition for the job.
"We never took him on the field that day," Sonny recalls, "but he created a lot of excitement in the stands. Photographers took pictures of him and one ended up in the paperwhich attracted the attention of Dan Magill."
Never one to miss an opportunity for publicity, Magill had some photos made of Uga and, unbeknownst to the Seilers, he told Coach Butts that Uga would make a good team mascot. A few days later, when Sonny reported to work at the ticket office, his immediate boss, Virginia Whitehead, handed him a note that read: "Coach Butts wants to see you."
Sonny couldn't imagine what was up, but he feared it wasn't good. "I remember thinking, What have I done to get fired?" says Sonny, who went directly to Coach Butts' office on the second floor of Stegeman Hall. The look on Coach Butts' face put him instantly at ease.
"Sonny, Dan tells me you've got a white English bulldog that would make a good mascot for the team," said Coach Butts. "What would you say to us using him to create some excitement?"
Needless to say, Sonny was delighted, and from that simple conversation emerged a line of bulldog mascots that has now stretched into its sixth decade.
"I can still remember going out to a farm in Millen, Ga., to pick up Uga II," says Swann. "It was a large litter and the puppies were lying on a flannel blanket in the backyardbut they were big enough to run around and nip at my shoes. There were some brindle-colored ones, which was the first time I'd ever seen a bulldog that wasn't all white. The puppies were jumping all over me, and I remember being a little scaredespecially of the mama dog, who was being very protective of her puppies. My parents examined them all very carefullyand then handed me an all-white one. He was so small he could fit in my coat pocket! I sat in the back seat of the car and held him all the way home to Savannah. I can still remember that new-puppy scent!"
Uga II had just finished posing for the cover of a football game program at Picture Day in August 1967 when he collapsed with heat exhaustion. Sonny rushed him to the UGA vet school, where his temperature was measured at 107 degrees. An icy bath saved Uga II's life, but cost him his hearing later in life.
But moments later, those boisterous cheers were transferred to the energetic heir who bounded onto the field ahead of the future SEC champions. Uga II may have followed a legend, but he also had the good fortune to begin his tenure as mascot just as Vince Dooley was coming into his own as a football coach. In fact, if it hadn't been for a 7-6 defeat at Miami (Fla.), Uga II's inaugural season might have coincided with a National Championship. And though health problems prevented Uga II from serving more than six seasonsthe shortest reign of all the mascotshe was around for a pair of SEC titles. He made five bowl-game appearances, and Georgia's record in football was a sparkling 42-16-3 record (.713) during Uga II's reign.
Picture Day threatens Uga II's life
After clinching the '68 SEC title, the locker room celebrants included Uga's owner, Sonny Seiler and Uga IIplus (can you spot them?) Billy Payne, Kent Lawrence, and Bill Stanfill.
At this event in 1967, Uga II was dressed out in his jersey at Sanford Stadium just like the players. It was unbearably hot on the fieldin the high 90s and not a breath of air. A football program cover was being shot with Uga II surrounded by several players (see photo on above). It was late afternoon by the time the photo session finishedand, by that time, Uga II was almost finished himself.
"He wasn't used to the heat and I must confess to not checking him closely," Sonny recalls. "At the end of that prolonged posing session, Uga II suddenly dropped to the grass and rolled overpanting for his life."
Sonny and Uga II at Sanford Stadium before the upper deck was built.
The Seilers learned a valuable lesson that day. From that point on, they were ultra-conscious of the heat, careful never to let the dogs get overheated or dehydrated. But some damage had already been done.
"As Uga II got older," says Sonny, "we realized that his hearing was impaired. During his last two years, he was totally deafbut we never publicized it and both he and our family adapted to his handicap. He couldn't hear voice commands, but he could feel vibrations. By us stamping a foot, he would immediately look and come to us. In retrospect, veterinarians believe his unfortunate experience at Picture Day caused Uga II's deafness."
Uga III debuted on Sept. 30, 1972, with young Charles Seiler (AB '83) leading him onto the field for the first time.
Standing up to the LSU tiger
In 1978, Uga III's only trip to Baton Rouge, Georgia ran into an unbeaten, sixth-ranked LSU team. The Tigers are tough to beat on Saturday night in the Bayou, but thanks to Uga III Vince Dooley had an inkling prior to the game that this would be the Dogs' night. The moment made such an impression that Dooley recalled it on his Athens radio show 20 years later, as Georgia was preparing for a game in Baton Rouge against another sixth-ranked LSU team. Dooley's '98 radio commentary went like this:
"Later that year , we went down to play the Bengal Tigers in Baton Rouge. Just prior to the game, I was out on the field while the team was dressing and I noticed that out of the end zone came LSU's mascot, Mike the tiger, in a cage. The LSU fans went berserk, especially when the cheerleaders poked him in the ribs. They stuck a microphone up to the cage and he let out a big roar.
"They rolled the cage toward the 50-yard line, where the tiger normally stays during a gameand right in his path was Uga III, which really infuriated the tiger. He ran up to the front of his cage and let out a loud roarbut ol' Uga just sat there. That really made the tiger mad. He got up on his hind legs, rattled the cage, and roared even louder. When the tiger did that, Uga raised up, took two steps forward, and barkedat which time the tiger sheepishly retreated to the back of the cage."
With a packed gallery lending their applause, Uga III and Cecelia Seiler lead the 1980 National Champions through the Georgia General Assembly, where they were honored by state lawmakers for their perfect 12-0 season.
The Dogs took Dooley at his word, upsetting LSU 24-17 back in '78 and going on to a 9-2-1 finish and a No. 16 ranking in the polls. And 20 years later, with Uga III's grandson, Uga V, patrolling the sidelines and keeping Mike the tiger at bay, Georgia again beat LSU in Baton Rouge, this time by a 28-27 score.
Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!
"I knew I had to get Uga III out of the stadium before the end of the game," says Sonny, recalling the frenzy that ensued at the end of the 1980 Florida game in Jacksonville. "Uga was at the opposite end of the field with my son Charles, and I remember him saying later that Uga seemed in no hurry to leave the stadiumwhich was funny because it was warm and Uga's usually anxious to go by the fourth quarter. But not that day in Florida. Did he sense something big was about to happen?"
With 1:03 left on the clock, quarterback Buck Belue completed a pass to Lindsay Scott, the wide receiver-track star who made a jumping catch of Belue's pass in the middle of the field and set sail for the distant end zone. "As Lindsay streaked down the left sidelines, I was suddenly in the thick of the action because he was coming right at me!" says Sonny. "When he crossed the goal line, he was mobbed by players and Georgia fans . . . if you look closely at photos of that scene, you'll find me in the midst of the sideline pandemonium. It was the greatest play in Georgia history, and there was so much noise and commotion that it was all I could do to find Uga III and Charles!"
Feted at the Capitol
Recognition comes easyand from all directionswhen you're No. 1. One of Uga III's most unique and rewarding experiences came in January 1981, when he accompanied the 1980 National Championship team and Georgia coaches to the State Capitol in Atlanta to be recognized by the Georgia General Assembly.
Leaving the Gator Bowl after one of Georgia's nine victories against Florida over an 11-year span, Vince Dooley gets a police escort from state trooper Bobby Clifton with Sonny and Uga III in hot pursuit.
"When the clerk announced the team," says Cecelia, "Uga, Sonny, and I led the procession into the state house chambers to a standing ovation by the state representatives. A resolution was read commending the members of the Georgia football team on the National Championship."
"Speaker Murphy is a UGA graduate who has shown great affection for all of the mascots," says Sonny. "The Speaker has traveled with us to numerous bowl games, and he's never too busy to come over and give the dogs a friendly pat."
After Uga III's appearance at the Capitol, Speaker Murphy showed his droll sense of humor by telling the press, "This is the first time in the history of the Capitol that a dog has been allowed in the house chambers . . . a four-legged dog, that is."
Like a mighty oak that grows from a tiny acorn, bulldogs start out like toy versions of themselves.
Co-stars: Herschel and Uga
The Heisman Trophy is the most coveted prize in college football, and Herschel Walker could haveprobably should havewon it as a freshman at Georgia. With defenses crowding the line of scrimmage to try to contain him as a sophomore, Herschel managed to increase his rushing yardage to 1,891.
Unfortunately, Southern Cal's Marcus Allen set an NCAA record with 2,342 rushing yards in '81, relegating Herschel to second place in the Heisman balloting. Fortunately, sustained excellence has a way of winning out, and on Dec. 4, 1982, the Downtown Athletic Club in New York announced what the college football world had known all alongthat Herschel Walker was the finest player in the country.
The Heisman banqueta black-tie affair that attracts past winners plus 1,200 invited guestswas scheduled for Dec. 9 at the New York Hilton. Traditionally, the recipient invites two teammates. Herschel selected defensive back Daryl Jones and fullback Chris McCarthy, who had blocked for No. 34 during his Heisman-winning season. There was one other guest who got a special invitation: Uga IV!
Heisman trip to New York
Outfitted with a soft cast to protect his injured left leg, Uga IV gave no quarter in this wrestling match with Georgia Tech's mascot.
"One glance around the room was like a trip back into football history," Sonny recalls. "I'm talking Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis of Army, Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart of Notre Dame, Doak Walker of SMUplayers I worshipped as a kid."
But the man of the hour was Herschel Walker, who was surrounded by sports writers from all over the nation and by still photographers, whose flash bulbs lit up the room.
"Uga IV was working the room pretty good himself," says Sonny, "when the president of the Downtown Athletic Club took him by the leash and walked him right into the massive ballroom, which was all set up for the banquet."
Sonny was both heartened and somewhat astonished that Uga IV was being treated like the rest of the honored guestswhen suddenly he had a distressing thought: When I walked him in Central Park, Uga did nothing . . . what if he misbehaves right here at the Heisman banquet!
Herschel Walker finally got his Heisman in '82, and Sonny and Uga IV were there at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City to share the moment with himUga being the only mascot ever to be so honored.
"Despite his infamous reputation among Bulldog faithful," says Sonny, "I still have a soft spot in my heart for Steve because of his kind and friendly recognition of our mascot."
Uga knows how to party!
The Heisman dinner was a splendid affair. Multiple courses were served while introductions were made from the head table. The dessert was baked Alaska, which was served tableside as Herschel was presented with the trophy. When the banquet ended, Sonny and a group of Bulldog faithful from Savannah were in the mood to partyand they weren't about to leave Uga behind.
"We took Uga IV with us for a night on the town," says Sonny, "and we ended up at Studio 54, which was all the rage back then. A bouncer the size of Herschel stopped us at the door, and not even Uga's presence was enough to get us past him." The next day, an Associated Press photo of Herschel, Uga, and Sonnyall three of them in black tie (at left)was featured in major newspapers around the country. Uga IV was heralded as the first and only mascot to attend the Heisman banquet, and the photo made it into Chevy Chase's "Weekend Update" segment on "Saturday Night Live."
Uga appears in both the book and the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, courtesy of his owner, Sonny Seiler, who was the attorney who got antiques dealer Jim Williams acquitted in the Midnight murder trial. Early in the film, Uga V (who is playing Uga IV) is taken for a walk by Williams (below, at right, played by Kevin Spacey) and writer John Kelso (played by John Cusack).
"Uga acted on instinct," says Sonny. "It wasn't that he wanted to bite Baker so much as catch him."
Georgia fans roared, and CBS made the most of the incident.
"The Georgia defense might want to consider dressing Uga!" said announcer Sean McDonough, as the replay was shown. "Uga was a little more feisty than the Georgia defense in that first series," said color man Mike Mayock, who later asked the rhetorical question:
"Is he the best mascot you've ever seen, or what!"
A photographer from the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser also captured the Uga-Baker confrontation and the image (see photo below) became a collector's item. The paper received so many requests for reprints that the negative eventually wore out.
Sports Illustrated cover dog
In April 1997, just four months after Uga V's run-in with Robert Baker made ESPN's plays-of-the-year reel, a group of Sports Illustrated editors was trying to decide what to put on the cover of their special college sports issue. Senior editor Craig Neff explains their predicament:
Taken by a Montgomery Advertiser photographer, this photo of the Uga V-Robert Baker incident, was reprinted so many times the negative wore out.
Uga V's striking cover photo (see photo below) relegated gold medalist Strug and UCLA to the contents page, and SI paid further tribute to him in a "Best Mascot" box with text that was brief and to the point: "If you can't appreciate the swaggering gait and Churchillian physiognomy of Uga V, the Bulldog's bulldog, you must be a cat lover."
Uga goes Hollywood!
When Sonny Seiler looks out his office window at Bouhan, Williams & Levy in Savannah, he sees tour guides stopping their trolleys in front of 447 Bull Street to tell passengers that he is the attorney who got antiques dealer Jim Williams acquitted in the Midnight in the Garden of Evil murder trial. When the book was made into a movie, director Clint Eastwood hired Sonny as a legal consultantand later asked him to play the judge in the film. But who would play Uga IV, who made it into John Berendt's bestseller because of his never-ending devotionand Sonny'sto UGA?
On a chilly Saturday morning in mid-April, Eastwood flew to Savannah to visit Williams' mansion and to try to convince his sister, Dorothy Kingery, to let him film scenes there. He also wanted to size up Uga V's acting ability.
"Uga had a classic, old-school, college-sports look," says Sports Illustrated senior editor Craig Neff, explaining why SI put the Georgia mascot on the cover of its 1997 college sports issue. "He brought a smile to the face of every SI editor who saw the photo."
At which point, Sonny's wife Cecelia Seiler delivered a classic rejoinder:
"Mr. Eastwood, Uga is already a celebrity."
Having played a starring role in Jim Williams' real-world rollercoaster ride through the judicial system, Sonny had initially hoped for an inconspicuous role in Eastwood's filmas a juror perhaps. Shortly before filming started in May 1997, Eastwood asked Sonny a leading question:
"Have you ever done any acting?" "Whenever I go to court," said Sonny.
When a Hollywood legend, says, in effect, "Make my day by playing this part in my movie," what's a fella to do? So Sonny Seilerdiehard Georgia football fan, patriarch of the Uga mascots, past president of the State Bar of Georgia and the UGA alumni Associationjoined the Screen Actors Guild.
Uga V did too. And his performance in the film was letter-perfect. Shortly after the opening credits, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) and writer John Kelso (John Cusack) take Uga for a walk in Forsyth Park (see photo above), where Williams indoctrinates Kelso in Uga's lore:
Williams: No matter what you and I ever do in our lives, Mr. Kelso, neither of us will ever be as famous as Uga, the university mascot of the Georgia bulldogs.
Kelso: Is that right?
Williams: Uh, huh.
At the Savannah premiere of "Midnight," Uga V arrived by limo, posed for paparazzi, and appeared on stage with all the stars.
On the way home, Sonny recalls Uga V looking up at him in the limo, as if to say:
"That was fun, boss! When can we do it again?"
Jack Kingston (AB '78) and Bob Barr, Uga VI's recent appearance at a legislative reception in Washington made headlines as far away as London.
"When we tried one of Uga V's jerseys on Uga VI," says Cecelia, "he looked like a sausage!"
The pre-game, changing-of-the-collar ceremony created a media frenzy with photographers jockeying for position as though covering a heavyweight title fight. UGA president Michael F. Adams waded through the phalanx of lenses and knelt at Uga V's side. He removed the spiked collar from the most famous dog in America and fastened it around the considerably broader neck of his impatient son.
"When we did the collar exchange," Adams would say later, "everybody had tears in their eyesSonny, Cecelia, Vince, and me."
Traditionally, a female cheerleader leads the mascot onto the field ahead of the players prior to kickoff. But with the outsized Uga VI taking the field for the first time, a change seemed to be in order. "They said a girl couldn't handle him," said female cheerleading captain Shannon Massey (BSEd '00, MEd '02).
Uga VI is so big that female cheerleaders were told they couldn't handle him on the leash.
Photographers had surrounded both dogs, and nowas Uga V retreated to the sidelinesthey trained their lenses on Uga VI as he took up residence in his air-conditioned doghouse. Up in the stands, even South Carolina fans were impressed. "Nice-looking dog," said Paul Pickens. "You have a good thing going. Everyone knows about Uga."
Bulldogs are way life for the Dooleys
For someone who can talk for hours about bulldogs, Vince Dooley has never owned one. He can't explain why, but the reason may lie in not wanting to get so close that a bulldog would become just a dogas opposed to Uga, who enjoys a somewhat mythic persona in Dooley's mind.
"I am a dog lover," says Dooley. "But Uga is more than just a dog. He brings new meaning to the word mascot. For proof, I refer you to the Savannah premiere of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"which I attended. Movie stars are getting all this applause as they walk down the red carpet. And now here comes Uga V . . . in a limousine. When he got out of that limo and people saw him in his little black tuxedo, they went nuts! I think he got the loudest applause of anyone."
The applause that's not always audible, says Dooley, but always applicable, is for the Seilersparticularly Sonny, who has energized the whole mascot thing from day one back in '56.
"Sonny is . . . well, Sonny . . . you could write volumes about him," says Dooley. "The letters I've gotten from him over the yearssending me newspaper clippings that promote Georgia in a positive way, congratulating us on recruiting, keeping me abreast of Uga's scheduleyou could start a library with them. Sonny's a fine attorney, but he does so much for us that I sometimes wonder how he has time to practice law!"
Presidential seal of approval
"I don't know how Uga is as smart as he is," says President Adams, who is sipping coffee in his office on North Campus. "But before I had been announced as president, that photograph of him that you see on my wall arrived in the mail. It had Uga's paw print on it and an inscription from him addressing me as 'Boss Man.' So, literally, from before my first day in office, my first communication from the University of Georgia came from Uga. That's how efficiently Uga operates."
Cecelia and Sonny Seiler were recently honored by the UGA Athletic Association for 46 years of service to their alma mater.
"I can't even begin to describe what Sonny and Cecelia and Swann and Charles mean to UGA," says Adams. "I have stood with them in freezing cold in Nashville, in pouring rain in Knoxville, and in blistering heat in Jacksonvilleand I've never seen them even appear not to be enjoying it. They are a remarkable family, and the emotions tied to this relationshipbetween this dog and his family and their alma materare truly unprecedented." When Adams says Uga is something special, he speaks from experience. He has years of NCAA committee work under his belt, and at each one of his stops in higher education he's been keenly aware of the impact a mascot can have on school spirit.
"We had a dressed-up Wave at Pepperdine that, to be honest, looked like a Smurf," says Adams. "I love Ohio State, but their Hairy Dawg counterpart, Brutus Buckeye, is definitely not Uga. And the Kentucky Colonel at Centre looked like Colonel Sanders. So there is a real advantage to having a living, breathing mascot who can make appearances, as Uga does. Plus, we are a nation of dog-lovers and football fansand Uga looks like a middle linebacker!
"There's a certain power in that, but what I really like and respect about Uga is his quiet strength. He is the centerpiece and the rallying point of the Bulldog Nation."