Alerted to the possibility of a South-eastern Conference football scandal (SI, March 18), people all over the South last week seemed to be claiming inside knowledge. 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.
Nearly everyone involved in or interested in southeastern football had heard at least something, but the first purportedly detailed account did not come until late in the week when The Saturday Evening Post confirmed that it would publish in its March 23 issue what it called "a shocking report of how Wally Butts and 'Bear' Bryant rigged a game last fall." The report was shocking indeed, for it accused Butts of selling out the University of Georgia, where he had been a most successful head football coach for 22 years. The report said that a week before the 1962 season's opening game between the two schools Butts had given to Bryant, head coach at the University of Alabama, an outline of Georgia plays and defensive patterns. Alabama, a 14-to-17-point favorite, thereupon won by a score of 35-0—double the expected spread. At the time of the alleged sellout, Butts was director of athletics at Georgia, having been supplanted'as coach by Johnny Griffith. Butts has since resigned as director, saying that the move was for "purely personal and business reasons." His resignation came after he was questioned about the report.
Before the Post could reach the newsstands, or even release its story to the wire services, the charges crashed through TV tubes in Atlanta, where Butts and his attorney, William H. Schroder Jr., freshly returned from a Birmingham meeting with Bryant and his attorneys, publicly presented denials. They also declared Butts will sue the Post for as much as $10 million. Hours later the FBI, the governor of Georgia, Senator McClellan and the Southeastern Conference belatedly announced they were investigating.
The trail started with an Atlanta insurance salesman, George Burnett, who told a story almost as queer as some bad checks he has passed. He declared that, eight days before the Alabama-Georgia game, he tried to dial the number of Communications International, an Atlanta public relations firm headed by one Milton Flack and no longer extant. After some busy signals, he says, he was inexplicably hooked in on a long distance call Wally Butts was making from the Communications International office to Bear Bryant in Tuscaloosa. (Butts concedes that he made the call, but denies its content as reported by Burnett.) So beguiled was Burnett by what he overheard that he took, as they say, copious notes. In substance, what he listened in on, according to the Post, was a report to Bryant on the plays and formations Georgia would use (giving plays and players by name), the inability of the Georgia team to quick-kick, and the word that Georgia Quarterback Larry Rakestraw tipped off a pass by drawing back one of his feet.
Eavesdropper Burnett at first told what he had learned only to the happily named Flack, then tucked his notes in a bureau drawer. He let them lie there or elsewhere until he mentioned them one day in January to a friend of Georgia Coach Griffith. The friend hastened to talk with Griffith, and Griffith hastened to university officials to demand Butts's resignation. And Butts did resign a few weeks later.
A prominent attorney, M. Cook Barwick, a member of the athletic board of the University of Georgia and a former FBI man, was given the responsibility of conducting the university's investigations of both Burnett and his accusations.
"I told Burnett I was going to check him out from hell to breakfast," says Barwick. "Our responsibility was to get to the truth no matter how it affected the University of Georgia, and the chips could fall where they might."
When Barwick's probe ended last week, there was nothing conclusive for the university to announce. It had not been proved that Butts or Bryant had done anything wrong, but neither had Barwick's efforts dispelled the university's suspicions. When Burnett agreed to take a lie detector test and the test indicated that he did actually hear everything he said he heard (though lie detector tests usually are not admissible in court as evidence and are generally held to be only 80% to 85% efficient) and when Butts refused to take such a test, university officials were understandably upset. (Possibly they are less upset now—Bear Bryant later also denied everything in an equally successful lie detector test.)
Barwick's further checking produced a record of other telephone calls from Butts to other schools within the SEC, one of them—to a head coach—that lasted 52 minutes. Conversations between coaches and athletic directors are commonplace, however, and 52 minutes would be no NCAA record. "If I'm troubled about something the week of a game," says Arkansas' Frank Broyles, "I'm liable to call every coach in the country and talk all day, just to put my mind at ease."
In his coaching days Wally Butts was known as "Weepin' Wally" because he talked incessantly about his team's deficiencies and problems. As athletic director he remained in character and talked incessantly, bluntly, publicly and profanely, about the deficiencies and problems of the Georgia team under Griffith. The latter was not amused.