Pepper Rodgers didn't just attend the Georgia Tech pep rally last Friday night on the eve of the Notre Dame game, he was the head cheerleader. That helped explain the bedlam in Atlanta, for wherever the Georgia Tech coach goes, good and raucous times are not far behind. First, Pepper led the revelers in repeated renditions of I'm a Ramblin Wreck from Georgia Tech, then he shook a yellow and white pompon, grabbed a box of Lucky Charms cereal and screamed, "I love the Yellow Jackets. How 'bout yewwwww?" Rolls of toilet paper flew through the air, banners were raised and cheerleaders urged the students to relive Animal House. Pepper was in his element. "I love the Yellow Jackets. How 'bout yewwwww?"
Why all the commotion?
As every Tech follower well remembered, Notre Dame had demolished the Ramblin Wreck 69-14 last year at South Bend. Worse, it seemed that Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine, trying to impress the pollsters, had unmercifully rolled up the score. With the Irish clinging to a 62-7 fourth-quarter lead, they ran for a first down on fourth-and-one at midfield—and made it. It's one thing to end up in the ditch, Tech fans felt; it's quite another to have your hub caps stolen while you're waiting for a tow.
For an entire year Georgia Tech had lived with the bitter taste of that awful afternoon and for weeks before last Saturday's game, "69-14" signs had been draped over the Tech campus. Fumed Rodgers, "People who say it doesn't make any difference whether you lose 35-7 or 55-7 haven't played the game." Countered Devine, "I got beat once 35-0 by Nebraska. I've been on both sides of the field. I didn't run up the score."
Behind the scenes was a background of less than warm feeling between the two coaches, going back to the days when Devine was at Missouri and Rodgers at Kansas. Rodgers was once quoted as saying that Devine couldn't win the big games; Pepper, of course, says he was misquoted. And in banquet appearances, Rodgers likes to tell a story that in a game in which Devine was beating him badly, "I flashed him the peace sign and he gave half of it back to me."
Not since playing Alabama when Tech upset the undefeated Crimson Tide, in 1962, had the Tech campus been in such an uproar over a football game. And everyone was loading up with fish, these being the favored missiles in Atlanta when Notre Dame comes to town.
Rodgers had to love it. His free-wheeling gregariousness has rubbed some Tech alums the wrong way. Many of them find Rodgers to be lacking in dignity, citing, as one example, the time he did his television show without wearing socks. Rodgers sniffs, "Alums don't get you fired. They just drive you crazy. The players get you fired."
In almost five years at Tech (he previously coached UCLA as well as Kansas), Rodgers' record is 30-23-1. "I proved a long time ago I wasn't a great coach," he says, "but I always seem to be better where I was than where I am." He says that he tried, but failed, to get his official press guide biography to read only, "Pepper Rodgers has proved everything there is to prove in football. He can coach good players, and he can't coach bad ones."
This season Rodgers seems to have more good players than bad ones. Tech went into the Notre Dame game with seven straight wins after losses to Duke and California, the first time since 1966 that it had won more than four straight. Notre Dame also went into the game with seven successive victories (and two losses), but seven straight for the Irish is just another day at the office. Tech seemed ready. As they got dressed, the players kept shouting "69-14." Running Back Eddie Lee Ivery, who set an NCAA rushing record of 356 yards the previous week against Air Force, promised, "We're going to play mad rather than being mad." And Tech fans were decked out in shirts that read HELL, NO, I AIN'T FORGOT.