Friday, February 1, 2008

Bulldog Triumphant - History of A Rock-Steady Dog With Bronze Balls!

By Ned Barnett
© 2008

This is NOT military history - however, it IS the true story of the most durable, the most triumphant bulldog in history – the bronze, life-size sculpture of the first mascot of the University of Georgia, “Uga I.”

The university, located on a series of hills above the gentle, wooded banks of the slow-flowing Oconee River in Athens, Georgia – about 75 miles east of Atlanta, had long thought of themselves as the “Bulldogs.” Today, nobody is really sure why this was so, but the bulldog image suited the school and it’s traditionally pugnacious football team.

However, it was only after the Second World War that students finally secured for themselves a living mascot. He was a pure-bred bulldog of course. “Uga I,” he was called, a name created from the university’s acronym, UGA. It was pronounced “ugh-uh,” a name soon to be spoken with pride by students and alumni alike.

This much beloved dog would, in time, go on to sire a line of sturdy and pugnacious bulldog mascots for the university, a line that remains unbroken to this day.

Uga I was fine, well-muscled and noble-featured animal, who, in a long and active life, graced the sidelines at many a football game at the university’s magnificent Stanford Stadium, “between the hedges.” With the arrival of Uga I, it quickly became a university tradition that, every time the home team charged onto the field before the start of a home game, they were led out by their fierce mascot, Uga I. That impressive bulldog-led charge quickly became part of the pageantry of the game, an instant tradition that has now stood the test of time for more than half a century.

The first of the Georgia mascots was a proud-looking bulldog, powerful of shoulder, compact of hindquarters, suitable aggressive and combative – yet beloved of generations of University of Georgia students. It was not surprising, therefore, that when Uga I went to his reward in 1959, a gifted graduate student in the University’s Department of Art created a meticulously-accurate life-size bronze sculpture of this beloved bulldog.

In a solemn ceremony, the proud pup was laid to his rest in a bulldog-sized Georgia granite mausoleum located directly in front of the central campus Student Union building. Atop Uga I’s stone memorial was mounted this life-like sculpture, ensuring that Uga I would be remembered for all time as the first in a line of fiercely proud mascots.

However, this bronze sculpture enjoyed nearly as exciting a life as the bulldog he effectively memorialized. His first adventure involved a midnight dog-napping.

You don’t have to be a native of Georgia to know that the University of Georgia and Atlanta’s own Georgia Tech were long-standing rivals. So you didn’t need to be a psychic to suspect that the students of the “North Avenue Trade School” were behind the late-night disappearance of the bronze bust of Uga I, the night before the two schools’ annual football competition.

Of course, the authorities were called in, though most students at the University of Georgia rightly suspected that the Atlanta police were more than a little partial to the engineers at Georgia Tech. In truth, the big-city police took the theft of this priceless monument as something less than the serious crime it most certainly was. Faced with official indifference, the students at the University of Georgia took the law – or at least the search – into their own hands. Soon, bands of fraternity students roamed the Georgia Tech campus, looking high and low for their dear, departed bulldog. Groups of those students stalked through the campus’ buildings, but found nothing. Then, a clever student – legend has it that he was in the Army ROTC, and had become fascinated with land mines – used a metal detector to locate the bronze bulldog. It had been buried in the center of the Georgia Tech campus, but it was quickly restored to the light, and returned amid pomp and celebration to the University campus.

There was a massive celebration on campus as the bronze Uga I was re-mounted on his rightful throne, atop the granite mausoleum of his namesake. There he remained, honored and left unmolested, for more than a decade. Uga I’s peace remained undisturbed until the anti-war movement arrived at the University of Georgia.

If you knew anything about that sleepy southern campus in the late 60s and early 70s, you’d understand that it was hardly a hotbed of radical student activism. The typical anti-war rally on Georgia’s campus usually swiftly degenerated into an outdoor street party, complete with buckets of fried chickens, beach music and ice-chests filed with cold beer.

In this laid-back atmosphere, the bronze Uga I quickly became the focus of many typically deep-south anti-establishment activities. This generally involved slipping a cigarette between the bronze bulldog’s lips before posing for photos – and for the really radical students, those “cigarettes” were not exactly tobacco. However, Uga I didn’t seem to mind – he didn’t even object when a portion of his anatomically correct posterior was painted a bright, almost florescent electric blue.

That would never do, of course, and the University chose to take bold action. Well, at least they decided to clean up their bronze bulldog. However, as quickly as University authorities would dispatch a worker to remove the paint – a particularly embarrassing task for the maintenance men – these hard-working men were nonetheless treated well by the “radical” student body. The workers’ typical reward for “taking care” of Uga I involved at least a half-dozen cans of cold beer each, eagerly shared by the cheering, partying students.

However, by 1974, “streaking” had replaced painting portions of Uga I in bright blue as the most popular outdoor student sport on campus, and at long last, Uga I settled into a quiet, well-earned retirement. For the past 30 years, Uga I has served primarily as a “mount” for the children and grandchildren of alumni who’ve come back to campus to revisit their days of glory.

Literally thousands of snapshots now grace mantles and photo albums from Savannah to Seattle, showing young boys and girls happily mounted on the back of this noble bronze bulldog. Perhaps they’re dreaming of the time when they’ll be old enough to enroll at UGA themselves, cheering on the school’s team as it charges back between the hedges, led – as always – by the proud latest-generation offspring of that noble bulldog, Uga I.