Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series recounting and exploring College Sports Mysteries.
In the big witness box sat “the little round man,” as Wally Butts was called, affectionately, by the players and fans who loved him. “The grandfather of the West Coast Offense” was what Bill Walsh called him. “The corrupt propagator of a fixed football game” is what one of the nation’s oldest magazines called him.
And so Butts sat there as his lawyer began reading aloud from the article in The Saturday Evening Post.
A fix? No, Butts shook his head.
Corrupt? No again.
“I would like to explain that for a time I hid from people. But not anymore,” Butts said. “I am looking them in the eye because it is not true.”
Then Butts began to sob. The judge declared a five-minute recess. Few in the crowd moved, staying silent. Butts’ wife and three daughters were crying.
Sixty years ago, the national championship-winning former coach of the Georgia football team was accused of conspiring with Bear Bryant to fix a college football game. Butts sued The Saturday Evening Post for libel and won, with the case going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the most simplistic sense, that’s how the story is remembered.
But there’s much more to the story. The Athletic reviewed court transcripts, depositions, letters in the UGA archives and a book written about the case and met with Butts’ grandchildren.
And six decades later the big question remains: What did George Burnett really hear?
Wally, the Bear and the insurance salesman
Butts and Bryant were giants in their profession — the former at the end of his career, the latter in his prime.
Bryant was coming off his first national championship at Alabama in 1961. He was known to do whatever it took to win; his program at Texas A&M was put on two years probation for illegal payments to players. His Alabama teams were charged with playing rough, and during the 1962 season a story called “College Football is Going Berserk” centered on Bryant and Alabama.
It was written by The Saturday Evening Post and freelancer Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Bryant sued the magazine for libel, little knowing what else was coming.
Butts coached Georgia to its first recognized national championship in 1942, along with four SEC titles. He was beloved by his players and many fans. He was innovative in the passing game: Georgia quarterback John Rauch set an NCAA record for career passing, became the Oakland Raiders’ coach and passed on much of Butts’ concepts to Walsh, Rauch’s assistant.
Georgia’s fortunes ebbed in the 1950s. After the 1960 season, administrators dispatched Bill Hartman, one of Butts’ closest friends and an assistant coach, to talk him into resigning. His successor was 32-year-old Johnny Griffith, who had played and coached for Butts, who retained the athletic director job. But Griffith kept his distance from Butts, whose subsequent criticism of the new coaching staff rankled the athletic board. The board’s executive committee noted a “lack of cooperation by Coach Butts in the athletic program.” School president Clyde Aderhold, in a letter to an applicant to be the next athletic director, said Butts in his last two to three years as AD “lost all interest in the job.”
Butts was hurting financially after an investment in an orange grove in Florida went belly up, according to court transcripts. All told, he was not in the best place.
Then there was Burnett, whose football career stopped after high school in his native Texas. He was an Eagle Scout and a POW in World War II who eventually settled in Atlanta, became an insurance salesman and teamed up with two partners to form a company. He was 41 years old and the father of seven children when he picked up the phone the morning of Sept. 13, 1962.
Bear Bryant won his first national championship at Alabama in 1961. (Rich Clarkson / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
There were a lot of unknowns about that 1962 season opener. Alabama had a new quarterback, sophomore Joe Namath. Georgia would be starting a lot of sophomores, with freshmen then ineligible. The Bulldogs were coming off a 3-7 season and in their spring game used only a couple of formations.
Butts was a mere observer of Georgia’s team, but he was still in touch with other coaches, in his capacity as athletic director and sometimes just as a friend.
No one disputes that Butts called Bryant on Sept. 13, nine days before the season opener. And everyone seems to agree that Burnett accidentally heard the call: He was attempting to reach someone else at Communications International, where Butts had gone to make a phone call. When Burnett heard the phone operator say, “Coach Bryant is out on the field, Coach Butts, but he is on his way to the phone,” Burnett’s curiosity got the best of him, and he didn’t hang up.
“Hi Wally, do you have anything for me?” Bryant said, according to Burnett.
During the next few minutes, Burnett claimed, he heard Butts advising Bryant on Georgia’s plans for the game. Formations, player tendencies, general football information. At some point, Burnett started taking notes. When the coaches hung up, Burnett did too. He told his partners — John Carmichael and Milton Flack — what he heard. Carmichael, who worked part-time at Communications International, was friends with Butts. The two advised Burnett to forget about it, and Burnett did, for a while.
Alabama dominated the game, winning 35-0. Griffith later confirmed in a deposition that some of his players — he didn’t remember who — said as they were coming off the field: “Coach, they know everything we’re doing.” But the result wasn’t an outlier: Alabama went 9-1 that year, outscoring opponents 272-39. Georgia went 3-4-3 and was outscored 174-109. There was little reason to think there was anything unusual for anyone at that game, including a UGA law school graduate named Lewis Morgan, who was a federal judge.
The Saturday Evening Post was esteemed, tracing its lineage to Benjamin Franklin, its name first appearing in 1821. Edgar Allen Poe published his short story “The Black Cat” in the magazine. Harriet Beecher Stowe contributed.
But by the 1960s, the magazine and its parent company, Curtis Publishing, were both losing money. Editor Clay S. Blair was trying to turn things around with what he called “sophisticated muckraking.”
The story Bryant sued the magazine about fell right in line with that. And it led to the Butts story falling in the magazine’s lap. But it wasn’t Burnett who alerted the Evening Post.
Burnett sat on the story until January, when he told a friend, Bob Edwards, who told one of his friends: Griffith. A meeting between the three was arranged, and the coach was swayed enough to move on it. Before long, Burnett met with Georgia officials and SEC commissioner Bernie Moore.
Butts, already feeling the heat from the athletic board about finances and his comments about Griffith’s coaching, told the board on Jan. 28 that he was retiring. That was two days before he found out about Burnett’s allegation. It was Carmichael, his friend and Burnett’s business partner, who told Butts, calling him in the middle of the night. Butts’ reaction, according to Carmichael’s testimony, was that he didn’t even remember talking to Bryant, that he talked to lots of coaches, and “There couldn’t be anything in the world to it.”
Nonetheless, when Butts met with Moore and other officials on Feb. 22, he sensed the pressure and submitted his immediate resignation the next day.
Meanwhile, Evening Post lawyers — working on the Bryant libel case — got wind of Burnett’s allegations. They alerted the magazine’s editorial side, which assigned the story to a freelancer, Frank Graham Jr.
Graham got in touch with Burnett, who received $5,000 from the magazine for his story. (He later said he didn’t want money but took it because counsel “had advised me that this was the best for my own protection now.”)
Some at the Evening Post were leery about rushing the story out, including sports editor Roger Kahn. But others wanted to go quickly: Graham later admitted, in his book “Farewell to Heroes,” that the story had an “excessive haste and secrecy.” The magazine did not have Burnett’s notes. Butts’ daughter, Jean, made what the book called “an emotional phone call” to Blair, to no avail. The story ran on March 18, 1963.
It was published so quickly that it ran on page 80 and wasn’t promoted on the cover. The first sentence had an error, putting the day of the call on Friday, Sept. 14. It was actually Thursday, Sept. 13.
Advance copies had gone out before it was published, including to Bryant and Butts, who strenuously denied it. Other magazines and journalists criticized the story, saying there were too many holes in it. Alabama Gov. George Wallace, university trustees and legislators rallied around Bryant.
But officials at Georgia were more muted. Two days before the story came out, Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders (whose opponent Butts had endorsed the previous fall) appointed attorney general Eugene Cook to investigate. Two weeks later, Cook filed a report largely confirming the Evening Post story. Cook’s summation of findings said: “The furnishing of such information might well have vitally affected the outcome of the game in points and the margin of victory.” But there was no evidence that Butts violated any state criminal laws, so no other official action was taken.
The Evening Post felt vindicated by the report. But Butts and Bryant were undeterred. They were going to court.
Wally Butts had a 140-86-9 record as Georgia’s head coach. (Associated Press)
Even though Bryant now had two lawsuits against the Evening Post, Butts’ would be the first on the docket. Judge Morgan set the trial date for August to “clear the air” before football season. The trial lasted 11 days and included 35 witnesses, with an all-male, all-White jury.
James Kirby, then a Vanderbilt law professor, was asked by Moore to be the SEC’s official observer. In his book, “Fumble,” he called it a mismatch of lawyers: Butts’ were much better, picking apart the Evening Post story, with even favorable witnesses helping Butts’ case. Griffith, for instance, denied saying three statements in the article attributed to him and also said the authors never contacted him.
“At the conclusion of the article I am quoted directly as saying to a friend: ‘I never had a chance, did I?’” Griffith testified. “I have never made such a statement to anyone.”
When Griffith was done, the judge called a short break, and Griffith walked toward a water jug near the plaintiff’s table, where Butts sat. Griffith took a swig of water while Butts “avoided looking directly” at Griffith, according to a wire service account.
Bryant’s testimony was the lead story on that night’s “CBS Evening News” with Walter Cronkite. Bryant said the information in Burnett’s notes of the call couldn’t have been useful to him and that he spoke to coaches so often he didn’t remember the call with Butts.
“It was a virtuoso performance,” Kirby wrote.
Butts, meanwhile, faced questions on cross-examination about his association with Frank Scoby, a Chicago man with gambling ties. Butts admitted knowing Scoby and talking with him often the month of the game (14 times), but he attributed the calls to business matters.
Kirby wrote: “Butts helped his own cause on the stand. He came across as amiable, easygoing and devoted to Georgia football. The tearful denial at the end was convincing. … At this point, further doubts mounted over the basic truth of the Post’s story.”
And the main doubt that Butts’ team hammered away at was the notion of a fix. The players weren’t in on it: Three Alabama players, including LeRoy Jordan flying in from Dallas Cowboys’ training camp, looked at Burnett’s notes and said nothing in them reminded them of anything Alabama had focused on. Four Georgia players also testified they didn’t remember anything indicating Alabama had inside information and did not suffer “a terrible physical beating,” as the article wrote. Georgia’s Mickey Babb denied a quote attributed to him.
The Evening Post suffered, Kirby wrote, because its editors and writers didn’t testify. They were only heard from in depositions. That allowed Butts’ lawyers to paint the case as the wronged coach against the high-and-mighty magazine doing its “sophisticated muckraking” from afar.
There were some good points scored by the Evening Post, Kirby noted: Aderhold and an alumni board member testifying against Butts’ character. There was Butts’ pronunciation of Georgia safety Brigham Woodward — everyone pronounced the second “w” (“Wood-ward”) except Butts, who dropped it (“Wood-ard”), and Burnett’s notes, in fact, referred to “Woodard.” Butts and Bryant both denied mentioning the player in their call. And Burnett handled his time on the stand well, Kirby writing that Burnett’s two days of testimony didn’t challenge “the truth of his basic story.”
But the Evening Post had written about a “fix,” and jurors who later spoke to Kirby said they focused on that: They saw no fix.
The jury deliberated seven hours and 18 minutes. It found for Butts, rewarding him only $60,000 in general damages but $3 million in punitive damages, answering the plea by Butts’ lawyer, Bill Schroeder, who in his closing said: “This is the time we have got to stop them.”
Butts received hundreds of congratulatory telegrams, from friends, fans and peers like Frank Leahy and Sid Gillman.
“You have done much to arrest the vilifying, castigating policy of ‘sophisticated muckraking’ in future news columns and magazines,” Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler wrote. “Wish I could be with you to celebrate. Don’t spend all of it in one place.”
At Georgia, Butts loyalists were irate at the school’s leadership. Sheldon Fitts, an attorney in Marion, Ala., and a Georgia Class of 1924 graduate, wrote Aderhold to ask that Aderhold, Griffith and others resign: “How can you live with your conscience and remain in your present position?”
The Evening Post, meanwhile, still had two lawsuits from Bryant to deal with. Noted attorney F. Lee Bailey, later a part of the O.J. Simpson defense team, sent a letter to the magazine advising it to retract the Bryant part of the story because the Alabama coach had passed a polygraph.
“It might well be that the best defense is, as usual, a good offense,” Bailey wrote. “If, in fact, an error has been made, the time to retract is now and not after the second case has gone to an Alabama jury.”
The Evening Post settled with Bryant for $320,000 for both cases. The Evening Post got new lawyers who believed — as they later told Kirby — would make a better case in court. The magazine won another small victory: Judge Morgan, on appeal, lowered Butts’ punitive damages from $3 million to $400,000, although he wrote in his opinion: “The article was clearly defamatory and extremely so.”
Then came New York Times v. Sullivan.
On March 9, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision that established higher standards for libel for public figures. “Actual malice” was now required, with “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” On those grounds, the Evening Post — represented by the same Birmingham firm that repped The New York Times in the Sullivan case — pushed for a new trial. Morgan denied it, as did the Fifth Circuit of Appeals, two judges to one.
Then it went to the Supreme Court, where the decision was announced on June 12, 1967: The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Butts. The Evening Post’s story, the majority wrote, “was highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers.”
The dissenting group argued that the new actual malice standard had not been reached. Among them voting against Butts was Justice Byron “Whizzer” White, a former star halfback at Colorado.
The Saturday Evening Post shut down in 1969. In a book about the magazine, “Decline and Fall,” author Otto Friedrich blamed a number of factors, not just the Butts and Bryant lawsuits.
At Georgia, the end result was a cleaning out of the athletic department: Joel Eaves was hired as the athletic director, and after the 1963 season, he fired Griffith and hired Vince Dooley. Still, many felt sorry for Griffith: B.F. Grant, the faculty chairman of athletics, wrote Griffith to “express our deep appreciation for the outstanding services which you have rendered” to the board and the university, adding: “We are keenly aware of some of the many difficulties you had to face.”
Butts died in 1973 at the age of 68. Among those who wrote laudatory obituaries was Bisher, who said the Post story had been “stretched beyond all bounds of imagination” by an overzealous staff.
“It took a lot of years off his life,” said Taylor Murray, one of Butts’ grandsons. “But all our family, all our lives, have been the biggest Georgia Bulldogs there have ever been, as much as you can. We all got that same spirit from our grandfather.”
Butts never returned to Georgia in an official capacity, but he kept going to games. When Dooley got the job, Butts took flowers to Barbara Dooley and welcomed her to Athens. The school named its new athletic facility after Butts and Harry Mehre. To this day, his family and other supporters believe he was wronged by the Evening Post and UGA’s administration. Loran Smith, a UGA historian, is among those who believes Butts.
“He would never have done anything to hurt Georgia,” Smith said.
But Burnett, who died in 2000, never wavered from his story. When Kirby, who died in 1989, was working on his book, he spoke again to Burnett, who told him he “wished a thousand times that the Butts-Bryant incident had never occurred, but if he had it to do over again, he would do the same thing.”
So what did happen? How do you square conflicting evidence, 60 years later?
Bill Hartman Jr. was 15 at the time of the trial. His father was Butts’ closest friend and testified on his behalf at the trial. On a recent fall day, he sat in the living room with three of Butts’ grandchildren. They talked about how complicated football terminology is, especially when coaches are talking to each other.
So is it possible that Burnett really thought he heard what he said he heard, but not being a football expert, didn’t interpret it accurately?
“I think that’s exactly what it is, in my view,” Hartman said. “I grew up in a coach’s family and coaches talk at a different level. It sounds like alien language to normal folks. And Bear Bryant and Wally Butts were extremely close friends.”
Wally’s boys, as his former players call themselves, still hold an annual meeting. They’ve been fiercely loyal to their coach. A group of them in the early 1990s decided to keep the legacy going by endowing a scholarship for a Georgia football player. The first player to receive it still considers himself to be one of Wally’s Boys. And Kirby Smart turned out to be a pretty good coach himself.
(Top illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo of Wally Butts: Associated Press)