By Tim Turner
Eddie Lowe lives in Phenix City, Alabama, and Dale Williams lives in Columbus, Georgia. The cities, separated only by the Chattahoochee River, make up the “bi-city area,” and you will find no place on Earth with more vested interest in the outcome of Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship game between Georgia and Alabama.
For the world, once the game is over, viewers will go back to their lives. But for the die-hard fans of both schools, this game is their life. The game’s intense significance to fans is why Monday night is so important to Lowe, a former linebacker for Alabama, and Williams, a letterman on Georgia’s 1980 national championship squad.
Lowe, a captain on Bear Bryant’s last team in 1982, went on to an all-star, nine-year career with the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. After the CFL, he came home to Phenix City for his second act — a career in banking and serving for a decade as president of the Phenix City school board. On the side, he was a volunteer coach at his alma mater, Central High School, while his brother, Woodrow, also a former Tide and NFL player, was head football coach.
He's now Phenix City’s mayor, the first African-American elected to that position, and budgets concern him more than blitzes. Lowe is clearly still a winner — and he can still spot them, too. When this football season began, the local Rotary Club held its annual football kickoff. Members with ties to the four major “bi-state” programs — Georgia, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Alabama — were asked to give their predictions for the coming season.
When it was Mayor Lowe's turn, he hit the Georgia-Alabama matchup right on the head. Kinda.
“What I predicted — and I did it based solely on defenses, [the capability] Georgia had with all the seniors coming back and the defense Alabama normally has — is they would wind up playing for the SEC championship,” said Lowe, whose City Hall office looks across the Chattahoochee into Columbus. “I missed it, but they’ll be playing for something much, much bigger than that.”
For that reason, during last week’s Rose Bowl, Lowe did something normally unthinkable on his side of the river.
“I pulled for Georgia,” Lowe said. “It’s huge. I was hoping, because of the proximity of being in bordering states and me being in this area with Columbus right across the river, I was hoping it would wind up with these two teams. I was just hoping [Alabama] would get in the top four.”
Lowe said his thinking stemmed from uncertainty over whether the CFP committee would give Alabama that spot.
“You know, most of the people hate Alabama because they've always been at the top. It was like that when I was there playing,” he said. “You know, being there year after year, and having the track record. In my opinion, they got it right. And I think they validated that they are one of the best teams in the country.”
Williams, a nickel back on the 1980 Bulldogs team, would be ecstatic should Georgia earn a second title. Williams is now a successful businessman in Columbus — and, along with fellow former Bulldog standout D.J. Jones, is the co-host of “Sportsvision,” a weekly sports show broadcast throughout the Southeast.
Williams has no problem echoing Lowe’s assertion: People hate Alabama.
“Living here, you hear about how great Alabama is all the time,” Williams said. “I hear it when I go over to Phenix City to my barber. Auburn people have been real quiet. They ain’t got nothing to say. But Alabama folks? They’re not respecting [Georgia] because we got Kirby Smart, and they’ve got The Great Nick Saban. I think what needs to happen to change the culture, for college football and the SEC, is somebody’s got to beat Alabama again.
“I can already hear Alabama people saying it took an Alabama guy [Georgia coach Kirby Smart] to beat us. It’s never good for somebody to win all the time. You get tired of it. Alabama people don’t know the word humble. They’re good. You have to give them that. And in the words of Ric Flair, ‘To be The Man, you’ve got to beat The Man.’ And they’re The Man right now. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
It’s been 37 years since the last Georgia title, and Williams beams over the progress made in a relatively short time by this Bulldogs team. That they can compete with the Crimson Tides of the world speaks volumes.
“[Alabama] is still very good, and we’re early,” Williams said. “Everybody in the public may be surprised. But everybody in that locker room, Kirby Smart and that coaching staff, they are not surprised. This is what they’ve been pushing for since [Smart] got there. Before Kirby, you could just look at us and tell we’ve been behind [Alabama] and hadn't gotten better. Now, we’ve gotten more physical. That’s the key here.
“Not to throw him under the bus, but even when [former Georgia and current Miami coach] Mark Richt was there, people talked about [lack of physicality] all the time. We weren't physical enough, and we were considered soft. In football, that's the last word you want to hear about your football team: soft. When I played, we might not have been the biggest team in the world, but you couldn't ever say we were soft. Erk made sure of that.”
“Erk” is Georgia’s legendary defensive coordinator, Erk Russell, who coached the defense that took the Bulldogs to their last title. Williams said Russell’s passion propelled that team to the national championship. At the time, there was speculation that Georgia head coach Vince Dooley had accepted the then-obscene sum of $1 million for a five-year contract offer from Auburn. Russell would have been perfect sliding into the top spot. But Dooley never left, and Russell went on to build Georgia Southern’s football program, turning it into a powerhouse almost overnight. It’s something Williams said could have happened in Athens.
“Erk had a vision for Georgia Southern, but always had Georgia in his heart,” Williams said. “We emulated Erk. Dooley was a great businessman. But everybody looked at Erk as the coach. And I’m going to say this, if I don’t say anything else: Georgia would have won at least three or four more national championships if Erk Russell was head coach [after Dooley]. I’ll go to my grave with that.”
Come Monday night, all Williams will look for just one more. It’s all his former teammates have been talking about.
“I just got off the phone with Frank Ros [linebacker and team captain], and I not too long ago talked with Matt Simon [a running back on that team]. We’re all saying the same thing: It’s our time,” Williams said. "Kirby’s been there at Alabama. He knew what he wanted to do when he got to Georgia from Day One. He has a coaching staff that makes a difference, and the kids believe in him. That’s huge. When you’ve got the players believing in you, you can get some stuff done. It’s going to be a great game, and we’re going to get it done.”