The National Championship between Alabama and Georgia has some controversy to it. Namely, SEC non-champ Alabama making the Playoff at the expense of several conference champs, including a UCF that finished undefeated and is now claiming a title of its own.
But that’s nothing compared to the 1962 matchup. That game, a 35-0 Tide blowout, became a scandal that left one legendary coach initially disgraced and another fiercely on the defensive. It also had a crippling effect on a popular newspaper at the time.
In 2018 adjusted terms, this all happened thanks to some fake news.
The 1962 Crimson Tide opened the season hosting the Dawgs.
It was Bear Bryant’s fifth season in charge at Alabama, and in 1961, the Tide had captured their first national championship under the Bear.
They opened the ‘62 season with Georgia in their home away from home, Legion Field in Birmingham. The Tide absolutely dominated that night, picking the Dawgs off on their first possession and never looking back.
The postgame story was about a quarterback making his first start. His name? Joe Namath.
Alabama had had a QB competition that offseason. Namath erased all doubt that day. That story begins with the sentence, “Alabama’s fans can quit worrying about Alabama’s quarterback problems.”
Alabama would run through the entire 1962 season undefeated (they didn’t play a transcendent Ole Miss) until meeting Georgia Tech in November. The then-No. 1 Tide lost by one point to the Yellow Jackets and finished 10-1.
Georgia sputtered to a 3-4-3 finish in a largely forgettable 1962.
There was nothing to lead you to believe that anything was untoward about that game — until a March 1963 expose.
The headline was big, bold, and scandalous in The Saturday Evening Post. It came attached with an editor’s note that promised that this would be the most shocking revelation since the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series in 1919. The editorial board asked, “How prevalent is the fixing of college football games? How often do teachers sell out their pupils? We don’t know — yet. For now we can only be appalled.”
At the time it dropped, Sports Illustrated described the public perception of the story. As you can guess, it was kind of a big deal.
A professional football scout passing through Athens, Ga. got much of the story from a man in a restaurant. When the scout got to Atlanta, a soda jerk filled in the gaps. A taxi driver in Birmingham, Ala. had heard just about the same tale. And a lawyer from Atlanta heard it on a golf course in Washington, D. C.
According to the story (which you can read in its entirety here), an Atlanta insurance salesman named George Burnett was accidentally patched into a call between Georgia athletic director Wally Butts and Bear Bryant. In the subsequent conversation, Butts dished everything about how Georgia was preparing for the game to the Bear including formations, maneuvers, and even whether the Dawgs would “quick kick.”
Burnett took notes on the call, but kept his mouth shut until after the game, when he started to feel uneasy. Multiple postgame comments by the Dawgs’ players at the time hinted that Alabama was extraordinarily well-prepared and “they played just like they knew what we were going to do.”
Burnett told the story of the phone call to a former teammate of UGA coach Johnny Griffith months later. Griffith got in a room with Burnett where the salesman said what he knew, including pass patterns that were referred to by a term only used by Butts.
When pressed, Butts resigned by the end of February after Burnett met with the Georgia Board Of Regents. Butts was a former UGA coach who led the Dawgs to one of their two claimed national titles after the 1943 Rose Bowl. Burnett passed a lie detector test (Bryant did too), and the phone company confirmed that the call he said he was patched in on did occur.
From The Post’s story:
The chances are that Wally Butts will never help any football team again. Bear Bryant may well follow him into oblivion — a special hell for that grim extrovert — for in a very real sense he betrayed the boys he was pledged to lead.
A great sport will be permanently damaged. For many people the bloom must pass forever from college football.
The scandal didn’t ruin college football, but it did hasten the decline of The Saturday Evening Post.
Readership was already on the way down in the 1950s and ‘60s. Public tastes were blamed, as well as the advent of television. After the article was released, Bryant went on the defensive in the court of public opinion.
“I welcome the opportunity to tell the people of Alabama that these charges are false in every sense of the word,” Bryant said in a televised address.
Then he and Butts went after the magazine with two separate lawsuits.
It was revealed during the trial that although Burnett took notes while he listened to the call, the magazine wrote the story without ever seeing them.
Three Georgia players testified they didn’t think Alabama knew what was coming. Three Alabama players said their preparation for the game was not out of the ordinary.
The jury didn’t need much time to decide who it believed. Butts was awarded “general damages” of $60,000. Then, in a surprise, it assessed punitive damages of $3 million in what was one of the largest libel suit awards in American history at that time.
Bryant sued for $10 million (he already had another suit against the magazine filed as well), and ended up settling for $300,000.
Butts only saw $136,000 of his $3 million victory after taxes and a judge reducing the damages. The Post’s publishers appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost.
The decision set a precedent for the legal distinction of public figures and public officials. The Post asserted that Butts was a public official. The courts said he was a public figure and was allowed to collect damages. The Supreme Court said that The Post acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
It came out in the trial, that the Post, in its rush to get the story out, had failed to pass the story for review among other editors. Had they done so, they might have caught several minor errors in the story, and would not have approved the sensationalistic tone in the introduction[.]
What is the truth is that a call took place and a man inadvertently listened.
James Kirby, who attended the trial on behalf of the SEC, wrote a book on the whole scandal in the 1980s in which he argues that Burnett told the truth about what he heard that day, but that the info didn’t swing the outcome of the game. Both Butts and Bryant said that they talked football during the conversation, but without specifics about the gameplan. Butts said that he didn’t even have specifics to give because he rarely even saw the team work out.
Kirby also wrote that it was not implausible to believe Bryant and Butts were talking to a third party with a financial stake in the game (The Post’s story said Butts had lost $70,000 on a bad citrus crop).
Kirby posits that a retrial should have been granted on appeal.
He says: ‘’The Post’s editors certainly did not publish with knowledge of falsity. Their good faith that the article was true, along with all the corroboration of Burnett, should have prevented a jury from finding that they acted in reckless disregard of truth or falsity.’’
It didn’t have the bombshell affect on the history of college football that The Post claimed it would, but Burnett’s eavesdropping is one of those under-the-radar aspects of college football history.
In the end, Bear Bryant and Wally Butts did in the courtroom what they had done so often on the gridiron. They won.