Gardner-Webb’s first senior college bowl game came in 1973 and the school also played in two junior college bowl games in the 1950s
By Richard Walker
You hear Gardner-Webb College played in a bowl game in only its fourth year as a senior college and you expect to hear a season filled with successes and little to no adversity.
It’s actually quite the opposite, which is probably what drove coach George Litton’s Bulldogs to an unexpected postseason appearance in a first-year bowl game.
It’s also the third bowl game in the school’s football history.
And that historic 1973 season started off as poorly as possible in a 48-0 loss at powerful Elon under legendary coach Shirley “Red” Wilson.
“That was one of those games where everything that could go wrong did,” Litton said. “Even our managers forgot to put footballs on the bus. And I had to go beg Red Wilson for some practice balls to warm up with. And you can imagine what we got. Everything we tried backfired on us and everything they did worked.
“But we had a pretty good football team. And they did bounce back.”
Did they ever.
The loss to Elon was the school’s largest margin of defeat until 1992 when Gardner-Webb’s eventual NAIA national runner-up team lost 71-21 to NCAA Division I Central Florida in its season-opener. And the three shutout losses were a school record that was later matched in 2015.
But the 1973 Bulldogs are remembered for their determination that led to a series of memorable comebacks directed by an eventual high school coaching legend and a ballhawking defense.
Gardner-Webb came from behind to win four of its seven games, including fourth quarter rallies in the last two games of the regular season.
Junior quarterback Doc Davis of Orlando, Fla., was the team’s leader and directed those comeback rallies; Gardner-Webb scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to rally past Wofford 35-20 at home, then kicker Mike Stephens booted a 47-yarder with 11 minutes left for the winning points in a 22-20 win at Lenoir-Rhyne that wasn’t secure until the Bears missed a 27-yard field goal with eight seconds left.
Davis would go on to become a five-time state championship-winning high school football coach at Spartanburg High School where he coached future NFL standouts like Stephen Davis and Anthony Simmons among others.
“The thing that sealed the bid was going to L-R and beating them,” Litton said. “Carson-Newman was the other team they were looking at heavily. But they lost their last game and I think that’s why they looked our way.”
How exactly Gardner-Webb came to be invited is something Litton says he will never forget.
“We didn’t know anything for sure until that next week,” said Litton, who went on to become a high school principal at Crest High School and the first superintendent of Cleveland County’s consolidated school system. “I was in the CID (Charles I. Dover Center) and the school telephone operator tracked me down because I wasn’t at the football office.
“She said there were a number of people that wanted to talk to me. I said, ‘This isn’t a time or place for me to talk. Can I get your number, go back to my office and call you back?’ So that’s what I did. And they gave us an invitation.
“Before I could accept it, I had to go through the athletic director and the administration and they were just thrilled.”
The game, the inaugural Poultry Bowl in Gainesville, Ga., was played on Saturday, Dec. 8 and then-Georgia governor Jimmy Carter declared Dec. 7-9 “Poultry Bowl Weekend in Georgia.” (Two years later, Carter was a surprise winner of the U.S. presidential election.)
The opponent, Stephen F. Austin, had a talented roster that included six-year NFL linebacker Sam Hunt. And the Lumberjacks rolled past Gardner-Webb 35-10 on a rainy 30-degree night in front of 2,500 shivering fans.
“Now it was a terrible night,” Litton said. “We had bad weather – and (1,000-yard running back) Frank (Taylor) got hurt.”
Taylor and receiver Ken Reid of Charlotte were Davis’ top offensive weapons. The defense was led by linebacker Richard Grissom, who was the school’s first senior college All-American, and defensive back Richard Wofford, a former Hunter Huss High standout who intercepted 13 passes the previous season.
Other former local standouts on the team were Shelby’s Mike Dover and Gerald Poston, Ashbrook’s Hugh Giles, Hunter Huss’ Steve Cherry and Lincolnton’s Randy Bynum.
Gardner-Webb’s first two bowl appearances came in the back-to-back years of 1951 and 1952.
The 1951 team with Wayne Bradburn as head coach and Norman Harris as his assistant went 8-0 in the regular season before losing 6-0 to South Georgia in the Golden Isles Bowl in Brunswick, Ga., on a touchdown with 2:15 to play.
The Bulldogs were ranked as high as No. 6 nationally among junior colleges and led by co-captains Joe Cole and Jack Holt, elusive running back Henry Smith of Stanley and eventual junior college coaching legend Jim Garrison.
Gardner-Webb outscored its opposition that season by an impressive 209-39 margin.
The next year, Harris was elevated to head coach and he guided the Bulldogs to a 5-1-3 regular season record that included three ties to open the season.
A 14-13 loss at Mars Hill was the school’s first regular season defeat since the 1950 season and later the Bulldogs lost 19-14 to the Appalachian State junior varsity.
But with returnees like Smith and Garrison, the Bulldogs were invited back to the Golden Isles Bowl – and this time they came away victorious.
Bill Bates caught a touchdown pass and Garrison scored on a 5-yard run and was named game MVP. Garrison later coached 50 years at Chowan and the field at the school is named for him.