Jan. 26, 2011
By Loran Smith
Colorful characters, I don't suppose, come about by intent or design. Surely they are not birthed, but rather evolve with the passing of time. They are honed, polished, cultivated, and forged from environment, curiosity, heredity, experience, ambition, circumstance, and the vicissitudes of life. Dan Magill, the most colorful character I have ever known, is also the most unforgettable. I regret that Reader's Digest never asked me to compose an essay on my unforgettable friend.
Competition, adventure, and excitement were always alluring for Magill, the greatest and grandest Bulldog who found rapture and fulfillment in his multiple and varied interests. Keenness, awareness, mental acuity, indefatigable energy, and social vitality were constant companions. He was forever quick-witted, and, on occasion, quick-tempered. But like a sudden summer thunderstorm, departing almost as quickly as it arrives, all of his classic tantrums were abbreviated and alacritous. They could be hilarious, once the heat evaporated. Never one to hold grudges, he was more the healer, the soothsayer, and the peacemaker. The emancipator of ill will. There has never been anything maladroit in this remarkable man's function.
He has always been at the top of his game. About the only thing he has never been good at is fashion. His sartorial philosophy is that any old sweatshirt will do. Appropriate color coordination comes about as often as a rainstorm in the Sahara.
As a boy, Dan could do his multiplication tables with aplomb, and a feel for history was as much a part of the fabric of his life as was learning to excel at the games he loved--from chess to checkers, marbles to ping pong, roller skating to tennis. However, he preferred game, set, and match over biology class. A breast-stroker on the swimming team at old Athens High, he owns medals from four state championship teams, owing to the great influence of the local YMCA program. The lesser sports he was good at, yet he was literally smitten and consumed by the Bulldogs' major sports teams, hanging out with the teams and coaches as they practiced and played their games. His exalted memory and his engaging style made him a clever and insightful sportswriter appreciated by those whose performances he chronicled and admired, dating back to Herman Stegeman, Harry Mehre, and Catfish Smith. He is the dean of sportswriters in the state of Georgia and has been for years.
At age eight, dressed out in his grab bag of a uniform, he showed up with his own football when Georgia dedicated Sanford Stadium on Oct. 12, 1929, fully expecting to be "chosen" to play. He remembers that long-ago day like it took place last week. His recall of past events is forever remarkable and all-encompassing. Georgia lore is one of his vital organs. Magill has always had a penchant for making people laugh, and most of all, his lifelong goal has been the bringing of honor and glory to his beloved University of Georgia. He has lived the life he has always wanted to live.
The wealth in his life came from the experiences derived from affiliations with sports and the promoting of his alma mater and the Bulldog athletic program. Even as a teenager he found his way to New York for tennis championships at Forrest Hills. Later on, there were returns to Manhattan to see Joe Louis and Billy Conn fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world and the Yankees winning big games in the "House That Ruth Built." When he was a boy, he traveled briefly with the Ringling Brothers Circus fascinated with the routine of the roustabouts. He lived a full and exciting life, which has continued for decades.
We all know about the signature moments and classic highlights that have defined him. Promoting a fight between Casper Kingsnake and Rastus Rattlesnake; being officially recognized as the world's fastest two-fingered typist; latching onto transfer trucks and allowing the momentum of the host vehicle to tow him, the parasite on roller skates, all the way to Watkinsville, where he would hitch a return tow back to Athens; his participation in the record point in a ping pong match that lasted one hour and fifty-eight minutes (he lost the point but won the match); and teaching percentage tennis, which led to championships and making Georgia a pace-setter in tennis. "Nobody, and I mean nobody," says his coaching successor Manuel Diaz, "has impacted college tennis like Coach Magill."
When Albert Jones gave up coaching tennis in 1955, Coach Wallace Butts, football coach and athletic director, asked Dan to find a replacement. Magill tried diligently but at the end of a fruitless search concluded, "I guess I'll have to do it myself." That turned out to be one of the most fortuitous moments in Georgia's athletic history.
By literally pulling himself and his teams up by the bootstraps--no players, no budget, and no championship tradition--Magill molded the Georgia program into one of the nation's elite. He eventually fielded teams that could compete with the California and Eastern teams, which had programs that had been entrenched since Noah docked the ark. Two things happened as a result. First of all, he set a standard for spring sports at Georgia, long labeled "minor" sports. There had been intermittent success in baseball and golf was damn good, but Magill made all the other sports programs take note and aspire to succeed on a grander scale.
Before long, Georgia had become what he wanted at the outset: a tennis Mecca. The NCAA became aware of Georgia's dislocation with provincialism or laissez-faire function and brought its championship to Athens. Again and again. Georgia had the biggest tennis stadium. Georgia got an indoor facility. Georgia had lights, to say nothing of landscaping, tournament organization, publicity, classic photos on the wall, a treasured Coke machine, and an atmosphere that smacked of Wimbledon, Flushing Meadows, and Roland Garros.
The Magillian touch brought about another noticeable development. Athletic directors, seeing their coffers become flush from football ticket sales and television receipts, told their tennis coaches, in essence, "If Georgia can do it, why can't we?" A reasonable expectation except for the fact that none of them had a Dan Magill. However, if you have players you can compete. Magill's efforts and influence upgraded tennis not only in the South, but also across the country. For sure, Coach Magill caused a tennis revolution throughout the Southeast.
Coaches are predictable, if anything. Jealousy crept in, and Georgia lost its hosting of the NCAA championships on a semi-annual basis. "Gave Georgia too much of an edge in recruiting," they whined. "Gave them too much of a home field advantage in the big event." What Georgia has that no other campus can claim, all from the promotional genius of one Dan Magill, is the Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame. Dan is the curator in perpetuity. He will drop what he is doing and give the smallest delegation or the most unwashed tennis fan in the country a full blown tour--same as he would a potential deep-pockets donor about to write a check.
Dan has always given of himself to Georgia tennis and the University of Georgia. While his greatest and most recognized success has to do with tennis, we can't forget the "other" Magills. Magill the Marine, who today can regale any listener with his own tales of the South Pacific. Magill the historian, the one who knows about the person for whom an obscure a street was named or who can tell you the inside story of the 1959 SEC football champions--from underdogs to the top of the heap--Coach Wallace Butts' last SEC title winning team. Magill the writer, who has written for the Athens Banner-Herald since he was in knee pants, finding fascinating angles and nuggets of information that come from an acquiring mind and a youthful enthusiasm that fails to dim with age. Magill the prep editor of the Atlanta Journal, creating the best prep sports pages in the country and in the process helping to recruit the state's best athletes to his alma mater. Magill the promoter, who not only promoted Georgia tennis into the elite, but who also organized and developed the statewide network of Bulldog Clubs to help rejuvenate the flagging Bulldog football teams; this grass-roots campaign united the Georgia alumni and helped identify potential donors not only to athletics, but to academic programs as well.
"Hear ye, hear ye!" Dan Magill has done it again. He has inspired Kenny and Marianne Rogers to underwrite the Tennis Hall of fame and Kim Basinger to install lights on the UGA courts. Alfred Thompson sponsored the scoreboard and Dick and Ginky Budd were forever writing checks for something or other. Who has been overlooked? Plenty, because former players and friends were always stepping forward to make Georgia tennis the best--because of their affection and admiration for the Bulldog's selfless coach. Don't forget his passion to honor those who didn't write checks--like his friend and predecessor, Albert Jones, which is why we have the "Albert Jones Flagpole" at the tennis stadium.
All the while, he couched his work in an atmosphere of colorful quotations, sayings, trivia, and--most importantly--humor. He has forever been a man of good humor, an author of inspiration and levity that constantly evokes side-bursting laughter. As his tennis players can tell you, caustic wit was a staple of his coaching acumen. Nothing like salty humor to get your point across: In a close match, he was wont to say to his players, "For goodness sake don't try the chickenshit drop shot."
I treasure the times we have spent together. In my case, it began when I was a Georgia student in the late fifties. We drank beer at Harry's Drive In Restaurant in Five Points--I was forever the guest and remain forever grateful--until it closed. Then we found our way to the establishment, which was about three first downs away and known as the Lighthouse. This old standby eventually gave way to the Five and Ten, where we hang out today.
The laugh-a-minute times of fifty years ago still permeate the atmosphere. We talk about the ills of the football team when the 'Dawgs fall on hard times, even for a game, but mostly we swap tales and stories, reminisce, and find something to cheer or laugh about. Some of his stories I have heard countless times, but I never tire of the retelling. More often than not, a new and colorful comment will seep into the legend. These new gems are unpredictable and classic. Like the time a pretty waitress called for our order and Magill grinned, "How 'bout a Heineken, honeykin."
My favorite watering hole has always been and always will be Harry's, where Dan held court for years. I have a degree from the University of Georgia, which I cherish, but it can't compare to the learning I got at the elbow of the Bulldog Socrates over many a cold mug of Schlitz and countless barbecue pork pig sandwiches.
When it comes to the University of Georgia, no man has been more loyal and no man has given more of himself than Dan Magill. Perhaps this vignette best defines the essence of this quintessential Bulldog.
In 1988, he retired from coaching Georgia tennis. Dan still had some good years left, but he knew that Manuel Diaz, his assistant, was ready to be a head coach. He also knew that he couldn't expect Manny to remain an assistant indefinitely. He poignantly realized some enterprising athletic director would hire Manuel. Emotionally, it was akin to giving up his right arm, but Dan resigned to make sure that his prized assistant remained at Georgia.
Is there a Georgia man who can top that for the ultimate in loyalty? The obvious answer renders heart-warming feelings by all who know this remarkable Bulldog.
There have been many great Georgia men to ring the chapel bell or cause it to ring, but none of them have given more of themselves to the University of Georgia than Daniel Hamilton Magill, Jr., the greatest and grandest Bulldog of them all.