Last week was, without a doubt, the suckiest weekend for football since the NCAA quit allowing football games to end in a tie, thus eliminating forever the only suitable ending for a Florida-Tennessee game: a 3-3 tie in 38-degree drizzle. True, I had been saying all week long that Texas Tech was due for a win over the Longhorns, and since I don’t bleed burnt orange like most folks in Austin do, I wasn’t losing sleep over that upset. Georgia-Florida? I’ve done it before, and again, I will quote the one of the late, great Lewis Grizzard’s most famous columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constipation:
Frankly, I don’t want to talk about it.
This weekend, though, we’re kind of taking a football holiday. Georgia-Kentucky is not being televised here, and I’m just not too terribly pumped about any of the other match-ups being offered. I’ll check the scores on my Yahoo page from time to time, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. The desire to blog while the marinated chickens are being saturated with 250-degree mesquite smoke has taken priority.
Over our traditional Saturday in the country lunch of Mrs. Saucedo’s tamales, fresh from her cooler outside the Bellville Meat Market, we were all re-telling our favorite tales from the gridiron. Now is as an appropriate time to share as any during the all-too short college football season. The first two involve one of the most colorful characters ever to grace a sideline: former Georgia Tech (ecch!) coach from 1974-1979 Pepper Rodgers. Take a minute to check out the website that I just tagged. It’s pure Pepper, believe me.
Anyway, Pepper had everything the Georgia Tech faithful wanted in a coach: tutelage under their resident pigskin deity Bobby Dodd. Pepper also had everything we Georgia fans wanted in a Tech coach: a complete inability to win against the Dawgs. What isn’t as widely known was that Pepper also played baseball. A story about Rodgers’ legendary ego is a classic. It may have been published before, and if so, let me know the credit, and I’ll give it. Anyway, the story goes:
Pepper was at bat, and (as so often happens), the catcher was trying to psych him out. “So you’re the great Pepper Rodgers,” said the catcher. “They say you think you’re something. They say you think you’re God’s gift to baseball. They say you think you’re special. Well, you ain’t.”
Without taking his eyes off the pitcher, Pepper replied “Know what they say about you?”
“What?” asks the catcher.
“Nothing,” said Pepper, as he belted a line drive for a go-ahead RBI base hit.
Before he came back to become the head coach at Tech, though, Pepper came through the ranks at UCLA, first as an assistant, then as the Bruins’ head coach. Pepper picked up a few habits in “LA-LA Land” that caused some consternation among the Old Gold and White’s Old Guard, such as wearing loafers without socks, and allowing a bit of flightiness to enter that self-hallowed brain. In fact, Pepper had become downright eccentric, which is the term we in the South use when someone has either too much money or position to have his sanity called into question.
Back to the story: one evening early in his tenure at what we Dawgs call the North Avenue Trade School, Pepper was slated to address a group of well-funded Tech supporters on the “rubber chicken circuit.” Pepper left his office in midtown Atlanta without incident, headed to whatever hotel conference room across town where the dinner was scheduled. Arrival time arrived, no Pepper. Thirty minutes passed, still no Pepper. Keep in mind, this is still two decades before cell phones became commonplace. No one has any idea of what’s happened to the man of the hour.
After 45 minutes, the kitchen staff is beginning to worry about maintaining the quality of their hotel dinners (as if they had cause to worry about the quality getting any worse to begin with). It was decided to go ahead and serve the guests. Pepper will surely arrive during the dinner, and he can speak during dessert. The salad was served, eaten, and removed: still no Pepper. The “Boneless Chicken Mariott” was served, eaten, and removed–still no Pepper. The dessert was served, eaten, and removed, and yet again, the keynote speaker had failed to show.
Just as the organizers, seeing their prospects for a huge infusion to Tech’s scholarship fund evaporate into a massive loss, were about to profusely apologize to the supporters and send them home, Pepper arrived disheveled, filthy dirty, clothes wrinkled beyond comprehension and smeared with dirt and grease. Without missing a beat, he bounded to the dais and began his explanation.
“I had just left the campus and gotten onto the [Downtown] Connector,” began Pepper. “All of a sudden, I hear ‘ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK’! The tire had blown. So I pull over, get out the jack and the spare, lie down on the shoulder and change the tire. When I’m done, I throw my stuff in the back of the car, and take off again. I don’t even get back in traffic before I hear ‘ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK’ again!”
“You had another flat tire?” asked an incredulous VIP at the front table.
“Naw,” replied Pepper. “I’d changed the wrong tire!”
Well, I didn’t intend for today’s blog to be a tribute to the clown prince of the Sith, but, “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” aside, Pepper Rodgers is the funniest guy you’ve never heard of. Some of his most hilarious moments are intentional, others not, but Pepper doesn’t care as long as you spell his name right. (Notice the “d” in the middle????) He even made a foray into writing the Great American Novel. No, Fourth and Long Gone didn’t win a Pulitzer (or even come close to nomination, for that matter), but it is one of the funniest accounts of the cutthroat game of recruiting in the Holy See of Collegiate Football: the various impoverished, ill-educated, and remote pockets that dot the Southern US. It also has as a secondary story one of the most classic prolonged practical jokes ever depicted in literature. An incompetent assistant, the lone holdover from the previous coach’s tenure who was kept only because he knows all the shortcuts around recruiting rules that were already established, is given the sole task of keeping tabs on the weekly stats for a fictitious out-of-state recruit named “Tnassip.” For weeks after the high school season has ended, stats are called in for the nonexistent phenom, which the incompetent faithfully reports to the only other member of the staff not in the know–the head coach. The scene in which the hoax is revealed during a coaches’ meeting by writing the recruit’s name backwards to reveal the most common nickname used by coaches for their players is classic!
The one thing those of us from the Deep South enjoy more than a reverent regard for football is the ability to tell a great story. Pepper Rodgers has both. Even if he’s a Tech product, he’s an entertaining so-and-so, and that’s good enough for me.