To understand just how unique Bobby Dodd was, you have to understand that there are only four people in history who have been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.
And Dodd is one of them.
The story of Bobby Dodd, the player, is well-written. He was Tennessee’s quarterback during one of the Vols’ most successful eras, helping UT to a record of 27-1-2 from 1928 to 1930.
But to truly understand the legacy of Bobby Dodd, you have to understand this little-known fact: he never wanted to play at Tennessee. He wanted to play at Georgia Tech.
On Monday, Tennessee and Georgia Tech will square off in college football’s Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, a city where the name Dodd is as synonymous with football as the name Mayfield is with milk just up Interstate 75 in East Tennessee.
The Vols and Yellow Jackets will not play Monday’s game at Bobby Dodd Stadium, on the campus of Georgia Tech; instead, they will technically be at a neutral site, helping christen Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But as Monday’s game kicks off — it is the first meeting between the two teams since 1987, and the first since Dodd’s death in 1988 — it will escape no one that Dodd’s legacy is ingrained within both programs.
Robert Lee Dodd was born in Galax, Va., in 1908 — named for the famous Confederate general who also hailed from Virginia. The Dodd family moved to Kingsport, Tenn., during his youth, and 12-year-old Bobby Dodd — weighing in at 100 lbs. soaking wet — was named to the seventh grade football team. He would go on to lead Kingsport to two state championships as a tailback, quarterback and kicker. He was good enough to catch the attention of Tennessee . . . but not good enough to capture the attention of his chosen school, Georgia Tech.
With Georgia Tech not an option, Dodd headed to Knoxville to play for Robert Neyland’s Vols.
And he was a good one.
To say that Tennessee was dominant as the Roaring 20s ended and the Great Depression tightened its grip on America would be an understatement. With Dodd at the helm — he played quarterback, defense and was the team’s punter — the Vols went 33 consecutive games without a loss from 1928 to 1930, the longest unbeaten streak in school history. Tennessee went 31-0-2 in that stretch. After a loss to Alabama in 1930, Dodd’s senior season, he helped the Vols close out the season on a winning streak, beginning a 28-game unbeaten streak that ranks as the second-longest in school history.
With Tennessee fans coining the phrase, “In Dodd we trust,” Bobby Dodd proved himself a versatile player on several occasions. As a sophomore in 1928, he helped the Vols defeat their bitter rival, Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. Dodd first threw a touchdown pass to tie the game at 13, then punted the ball out of bounds at Alabama’s one-yard-line. On the next play, Tennessee’s defense came up with a safety, and won the game, 15-13.
Two years later, in his final game against Vanderbilt, Dodd punted an incredible 14 times, averaging 42 yards per punt — that’s 588 yards of punting, if you’re wondering — while also rushing for 39 yards, passing for two touchdowns and intercepting two passes. He had 212 of Tennessee’s 226 all-purpose yards, nearly single-handedly leading the Vols to a 13-0 win over the Commodores.
College football remembers the 1984 Orange Bowl between Nebraska and Miami for the “fumblerooski,” a play that saw the top-ranked Cornhuskers turn to trickery when they found themselves trailing 17-0 late in the half. Quarterback Turner Gill “fumbled” the snap, which was picked up by offensive guard Dean Steinkuhler, who rumbled for a touchdown. Miami still won the game, and the national championship, and Hurricane head coach Howard Schnellenberger later remarked, “I told them before the game if those bastards have to run the fumblerooski, come to the sidelines and party because they have given up their right of manhood.”
Here’s the thing about the fumblerooski, though: Nebraska may have been the team that introduced it to modern football, but its first documented use was in 1930, when Bobby Dodd drew it up for his teammates in a huddle as the Vols played Florida. Dodd told his teammates that he had run the play in high school. So, when the ball was snapped, he turned and laid it on the ground, and it was scooped up by the center, who scored a touchdown to help the Vols defeat the Gators.
Tennessee later used the fumblerooski successfully in a win against Mississippi State in 1990, when Bernard Dafney scored a touchdown.
While Dodd didn’t get an opportunity to play at Georgia Tech, he would get an opportunity to coach with the Yellow Jackets. In 1930, Georgia Tech offensive line coach Mac Tharpe drove from Atlanta to Knoxville to scout the Yellow Jackets’ future opponent, North Carolina, which was playing the Vols at Shields-Watkins Field.
Tharpe had car trouble and didn’t make it to Knoxville in time to see any of the game. But Neyland sent him to talk to one of his seniors: Dodd. Tharpe was so impressed with the scouting report that Dodd gave on North Carolina that Georgia Tech offered him a job as an assistant coach in December 1930 — just weeks after Tennessee’s season had ended and while Dodd was still a student in Knoxville.
Bobby Dodd was going to Atlanta to join the Georgia Tech football program, after all. How’s that for irony?
Dodd spent 15 seasons as an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, turning down several head coaching offers before getting his chance to step to the helm. And, as it turned out, he was just as successful as a coach as he was as a player.
In 1946, Dodd took his second Georgia Tech team to Knoxville to face his old coach and team, as Neyland was returning to the Tennessee program from World War II military service. The Vols won that game, but Dodd would get his revenge the following year in Atlanta.
Dodd led the Yellow Jackets to SEC championships in 1951 and 1952, and Georgia Tech won the 1952 national championship — one year after Neyland’s Vols won the national championship in 1951.
Dodd was known as a coach who did not value physical practices, focusing instead on precision and technique. He also didn’t necessarily value physical players, using small halfbacks and lightweight linemen. He rarely showed emotion during the games, preferring instead to sit in a folding chair on the sidelines while his assistant coaches paced the sideline and made most of the decisions.
Whatever his style, it worked. Dodd’s teams once went 31 consecutive games without a loss, and won eight consecutive games against arch-rival Georgia.. Dodd’s final record at Georgia Tech was 165-64-8. He was regarded by his peers as lucky, a charge he didn’t deny. “Lucky. Bet your life I am lucky. I’m lucky and so are my teams. It’s a habit. You know, if you think you’re lucky you are,” he was once quoted as saying.
Dodd retired from coaching in 1967, due to health concerns. But he stayed on as Georgia Tech’s athletics director. In 1993, five years after his death, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach, having already been inducted as a player.
History has given us a handful of men who were equally remarkable as players and coaches. Steve Spurrier, for example, won the Heisman Trophy at Florida before returning as a coach to lead the Gators to the national championship. But has there ever been a man to have such big marks at separate schools? It’s arguable that no one has ever replicated the measure of Bobby Dodd.