On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the national signing day for college football prospects, the sense of keen anticipation in Lincoln, Neb., wasn't much different from that in, say, South Bend. As always, diehard fans spent the day twisting radio dials or jamming telephone hot lines, trying to get recruiting news. But in Athens, Ga., the interest was even fiercer than usual because University of Georgia coach Ray Goff's future was squarely on the line—the dotted line, in a manner of speaking.
Last fall, in Goff's sixth season as successor to the sainted Vince Dooley, the Bulldogs finished 6-4-1. In their last two games they tied Auburn and beat archrival Georgia Tech 48-10. But even those performances weren't enough to make demanding Georgia fans forgive Goff for losses to Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and—gasp!—lowly Vanderbilt in, of all things, the Dawgs' homecoming game.
Dooley, now the Georgia athletic director, said he expected to see "significant improvement" in 1995. To most observers that meant Goff must advance to a major bowl next season or look for a new job.
It hardly helped Goff that on Monday, Jan. 30, the news broke that James Jackson, a prized tailback from Belle Glade, Fla., had reneged on his verbal commitment to Georgia and switched to Notre Dame. Earlier, linebacker Takeo Spikes, considered the top prospect in Georgia, had committed to Auburn. Across the state there was anxiety amid the pines.
As the 7 a.m. sunlight poured through the blinds of Georgia's opulent athletic department building on signing day, the war room outside sports information director Claude Felton's office was ready. A large chart displayed the names and vital statistics of 26 prospects the Bulldogs expected would sign a letter of intent. As each one faxed in the one-page form letter accepting Georgia's athletic grant-in-aid offer, a Georgia helmet decal would be placed next to his line on the chart.
The fax machine started whirring into action an hour later as Jeff Stephens, a 6'3", 278-pound defensive lineman from Chattanooga, became the Bulldogs' first official signee. But in the lobby of the athletic department building, where another recruiting board was set up, a small knot of Dawg fans, mostly middle-aged men wearing various red-and-black Georgia ensembles, was more concerned that the name of Corey Simon, a USA Today first-team prep All- USA defensive lineman from Pompano Beach, Fla. (and, by some accounts, one of the best defensive prospects in the country), wasn't on the chart. Hadn't Simon committed to Georgia?
One fan, Buster Ogletree, 62, entered the S.I.D.'s office and asked about Simon. "We didn't see his name on the board," said Ogletree, "so some of the folks out here started panicking. After James Jackson, everybody is kinda shook up."
"As of last night," said Felton, "he was fine. We just didn't put him up, because we want to be sure."
"O.K.," said Ogletree. "Got any Bulldog calendars?"
Shortly afterward, Goff blew into the sports information office looking for news. Unable to sleep the previous night, he had gotten up early and driven his gray pickup to the office, arriving at 5:45 a.m.