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  • Bill Chastain

SOUTHERN FOOTBALL FRIDAYS: Jackets Grind Irish Without Throwing a Pass

Life is good for Pepper Rodgers.

“Pep-pah” is 83 and retired in Reston, Virginia, where he can walk everywhere — including to the golf course. The former Georgia Tech coach is energetic and his sense of humor remains in tact.

Since Georgia Tech plays Notre Dame on Saturday, I figured the time was right to talk with Rodgers about one of the more memorable games he coached on the Flats when the Yellow Jackets hosted the No. 11 Fighting Irish on Nov. 6, 1976.

Georgia Tech-Notre Dame

Tech had one of those seasons going in which they were headed nowhere. They’d lost 42-14 to Pittsburgh — a team that featured Tony Dorsett, who won the Heisman that year — en route to a 3-4-1 mark heading into their meeting with Notre Dame on homecoming.

Notre Dame had its usual collection of athletes including Ross Browner, Bob Golic and Luther Bradley. Future NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana warmed the bench. So you get the idea, they were loaded.

Thus, nobody at Grant Field (yes, this was before it became Bobby Dodd) was surprised that Notre Dame jumped to a 14-3 lead. By that point, Rodgers had already decided to make a stance.

“I’d called a pass to see if we could loosen them up a little bit,” said Rodgers with a chuckle. “And a bunch of guys, Golic, Browner, and Wille Fry smashed our quarterback, Gary Lanier. Then they got up and started strutting like they do.

“I turned around and told some of my coaches, ‘I’ll tell you one thing boys, we might not win this game, but that’s the last time they’re going to strut. They are going to have to squat to play against the option. And there ain’t no more strutting in this game.’ We never threw another pass. We never attempted another pass.”

And Tech came away 23-14 winners.

How do you go a whole game without throwing a pass and defeat The Fighting Irish?

For starters, Tech ran the wishbone with the pot-bellied Lanier — all 5-foot-8, 170 pounds of him — at the helm.

“We had very good backs,” Rodgers said. “We had Eddie Lee Ivery, David Sims, we had a strong fullback, a big offensive line. So we had everything we needed for the wishbone. You don’t really need a throwing quarterback.”

Future NFL wide receiver Drew Hill also played a big role, even though he didn’t catch a pass that day — and never had the chance to do so.

Rodgers noticed that the Irish were were playing man-to-man coverage on the outside. So he instructed Hill to began cutting across the middle to block the safety. A move that also enticed the cornerback to follow Hill inside. The maneuver created more space on the outside for Lanier to run the option.

“Lanier knew what he was doing out there,” Rodgers said. “We made a couple of big plays off that until they got smart and started playing some zone.”

Tech cut the lead to 14-10 by halftime then took their first lead in the second half on a five-play, 80-yard drive highlighted by fullback Bo Thomas’ 45-yard run and capped by Sims’ 10-yard touchdown run.

Sims scored from 16 yards out with 3:58 left in the game to seal the win.

All told, Tech rushed for 368 yards that afternoon while the defense held Notre Dame to just 34 yards on the ground after the half.

“It was a big win,” Rogers said. “But one of the things I remember most from that day was a story my dear, sweet, departed mother, Louise, told me. At the time I had a perm. Georgia Tech people just hated that perm. ‘Bear Bryant doesn’t have a perm.’ So after the game my sweet mother is walking out of the game and she hears these two women talking. One of them goes, ‘Well, I’ll tell you one thing, that was a great game, but I still don’t like Pep-pah’s hair.’”

“My mother said, ‘Well, you know, Pepper might not like your hair.’ The lady looked at my mother and said, ‘Who are you?’ And my mother said, ‘I’m his aunt.’ Hey, aunt’s as high as my mother would go, so I figured it was time to cut my hair.”

Rodgers still stays in touch with Lanier and likes to kid him. “I always tell him, ‘You are the worst quarterback that’s ever beaten Notre Dame.’ No question.”

bchastain19@gmail.com

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Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bobby Ross. The former college and pro football coach led Georgia Tech to a share of the national championship in 1990 and later led the San Diego Chargers

©2020 by Bill Chastain. Photo credits: Jill Doty Photography