By John Frierson
There’s an obvious starting point to this story. All you have to do is look at the above photo, featuring the 1981 Georgia men’s tennis team — dubbed the Desperado Dogs — decked out in some country and western garb. It begs the question: What’s with the getups?
“I think it came out of either a van ride or something happened, I don’t know. You get all of these guys together and one thing leads to another,” said John Mangan, who as a junior that spring mostly played No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles for the Bulldogs.
“I have no idea how it came about — we all wanted a nickname and somehow we came up with the Desperado Dogs.”
The way Brent Crymes remembers it, he and fellow senior Paul Groth had gotten into country music that year, so they went and got some gear to look the part. “And then the rest of the guys said, ‘Well, we want them too,’ or something like that,” Crymes said.
Georgia coaching and sports information legend Dan Magill was known for a million things around the UGA athletics programs, including giving countless Bulldogs nicknames. As for whether or not the Desperado Dogs moniker came from Magill or maybe local sportswriter Blake Giles, Crymes, an ophthalmologist in Athens, isn’t sure.
“I have no idea how it came about — we all wanted a nickname and somehow we came up with the Desperado Dogs,” he said. “Somebody wrote an article about us and they took the picture of us with the hats.”
In the photo above is most of that history-making Georgia team. There are seniors Kelly Thurman, Crymes, Groth and Bill Rogers, all Georgians playing for the Bulldogs; there’s sophomore Tom Foster, from Delray Beach, Fla.; there’s junior Peter Lloyd, from Australia and the only player in the photo not in a cowboy hat. There’s Mangan, the former walk-on from Rye, N.Y., and next to him are junior Gerald Kleis of Puerto Rico and sophomore Kip Turnage, an Athens native who grew up about a mile from Georgia’s tennis courts and received his first tennis lessons from Magill. (Not pictured are sophomores Lane Curlee and Ignacio Sancho and freshman Barron Gillis.)
“I remember Tom said I had to go buy cowboy boots. I said, ‘What, cowboy boots?’ Tom told me where to go and I bought cowboy boots,” said Lloyd, who has coached tennis in the Atlanta area for more than 30 years after his Georgia career.
It was 41 years ago, in May of 1981, that the Desperado Dogs led Georgia into new territory, joining the nation’s elite. The team led by a lot of juniors and seniors with big games and big personalities shouldered its way in amongst the big boys of the sport by reaching the semifinals of the NCAA Championships and finishing in third place, right behind perennial powers Stanford and UCLA.
“The nickname stuck and that was a helluva team,” said Mangan, who has been very successful in the money management business in Charlotte, N.C., and also serves on the UGA Foundation Board of Trustees.
Those Desperado Dogs and many more former Bulldogs are in town this weekend for a big reunion. The hair may be thinner, the waistlines perhaps less so, but the memories remain fresh. While the 1981 team isn’t among the best ever at Georgia, which has been a national power ever since, it is among the most important in program history. Before that spring, the Bulldogs were SEC powers and competitive with the top teams from California — Stanford, UCLA, USC and Pepperdine — but 1981 was Georgia and Coach Magill’s first trip to the national semifinals.
The Bulldogs were not one of the eight seeded teams at the 1981 NCAAs, which back then were annually played at Georgia’s Henry Feild Stadium and McWhorter Courts, within what is now called the Dan Magill Tennis Complex. In the first round of the 16-team event, Georgia took down the seventh-seeded Houston Cougars, 7-2. (Matches back then featured singles first, followed by the three doubles matches if necessary.)
“The funniest thing was, the article came out right before the NCAAs and it was very offensive to our first-round opponents, the Houston Cougars, [laughs] who truly were Texans while we were a bunch of fakers, to be honest,” Crymes said. “But we waxed those guys and went on to have a good tournament.”
It was more than a good tournament; it was a breakthrough.
Waiting for the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals was No. 3 Pepperdine, not quite a blue-blood on the level of the other California schools but still a perennial power. Pepperdine had defeated Georgia in the previous two NCAA tournaments.
“I think that the pain of losing to those guys twice made everybody really come into that year in great shape and playing well,” Mangan said.
This time, Georgia cruised to a 7-2 win and the program’s first-ever appearance in the semis. There, the Bulldogs fell 7-2 to eventual national champion Stanford, the program that dominated college tennis for most of the 1970s through the ’90s.
Back then, the losing semifinalists played one another to determine third and fourth place (the same thing used to happen in the NCAA basketball tournament). In the battle for third, Georgia upended Southern Cal 6-3.
“That was really big for us because it sort of validated us,” Crymes said. “That was the first time we ever made it really far, and we were the breakthrough team to make us nationally relevant.”
In the individual part of the NCAAs, Mangan and Rogers advanced to the semifinals of the doubles tournament — another Georgia first. In 1982, Allen Miller and Ola Malmqvist lost in the doubles final. And in 1983, Georgia won its first men’s tennis NCAA title of any kind when Miller and Malmqvist won the doubles.
The following year, Mikael Pernfors won the first of his back-to-back NCAA singles titles, and in 1985, the senior quartet of Pernfors, Miller, George Bezecny and Deane Frey led Georgia to the program’s first NCAA team championship. Georgia won it again in 1987, and under head coach Manuel Diaz the Bulldogs have won it four more times (1999, 2001, 2007 and 2008).
Before Georgia’s stampede to the Final Four of the NCAAs, the Bulldogs were riding high in the saddle after an excellent regular season. Georgia won its first 13 matches, six of them 9-0, before stumbling on the road against a good Clemson team, 6-3. The Bulldogs won four more before falling at Miami, 7-2.
Georgia went through SEC regular-season play without a loss and then went up to Knoxville, Tenn., and won the SEC tournament. It was a different era of college sports in the spring of 1981, back when the legal drinking age was 18, and there is another photo, one of the Bulldogs and Magill celebrating with their SEC tournament trophy and some canned adult beverages. The photo caption, surely written by Magill, reads: “The 1981 Georgia Desperado Dogs in their ‘happy hour’ of victory immediately following winning the SEC Tournament in Knoxville.”
“Coach always believed that it was your job as a player to take the program to the next level, whatever that was,” Mangan said. “And he imparted a lot of that on us, and I think the team really took it to heart.”
The Desperado Dogs took it to heart and made the leap to a third-place finish at the NCAAs. The Bulldogs reached the semifinals again the following year and in 1984. And then in 1985, Georgia won the whole thing, becoming the first team outside of the California triumvirate of Stanford, UCLA and Southern Cal to win an NCAA team championship since 1972, and only the second to do it since 1959.
It was a special team and a special time, playing for a one-of-a-kind coach in Magill.
“You wanted so much to not only be around him but to play for him,” Turnage said. “I didn’t have the opportunity to start any of my years, and that was a sadness for me, but at the same time, I was out there every day.
“I think that Magill had a way of bringing out the strengths in every person. And you wanted more than anything to win for Magill and win for the Georgia Bulldogs.”
Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.