ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt still makes his way through the crowd at least once a season, even after 12 years as Georgia's head coach.
His players board buses together on home game days and ride the short distance down Lumpkin Street from Georgia's football building to the Tate Student Center, where thousands of fans and the Redcoat Marching Band are waiting to usher them into Sanford Stadium with a spirited “Dawg Walk.”
Richt typically leaves the Dawg Walk experience to his players, although he views that trip through the crowd each year as one way to acknowledge the loyal fans who cheer on the Bulldogs each fall Saturday, hoping to ring the Chapel Bell -- a century-old tradition reserved for postgame celebrations -- well into the night.
His teams have given Bulldogs fans plenty of opportunity to ring the bell, as last season he became one of only five coaches in the history of major college football to have won at least 115 games in his first 12 seasons. And he fully acknowledges the fans' role in that success, as his comments indicate from earlier this week when he implored Georgia fans to support his players at Saturday's 2:35 p.m. Dawg Walk and then to cheer loudly to undermine South Carolina's efforts in a key SEC East showdown.
“Our crowd is crucial in this ballgame and any of our home games,” Richt said. “You just never know what the one play is that might make the difference.”
Georgia fans boast a proud tradition of making things difficult for visitors who make their way between Sanford Stadium's historic hedges. It was probably never more rowdy than in the days where fans could convene at the railroad tracks that ran alongside the stadium, where they would greet the team as it arrived and watched the game from that vantage point before the university enclosed that side of the stadium after the 1980 national championship season.
The “Railroad Track Crowd” is no more, but their hard-partying ways endure decades later, as any list of the nation's top party schools that does not include Georgia is simply invalid.
There are dozens of Georgia's game day traditions that remain -- the presence of Uga the bulldog mascot on the sideline, the band's lone trumpeter playing the opening notes of the 'Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation” from the upper deck of the stadium before the game, followed by a recording of legendary radio announcer Larry Munson's narration of a highlights package that celebrates the program's past and present -- but it's the passion inside the stadium and at the postgame party that stand among Georgia's top football traditions.
Legendary Georgia assistant Erk Russell memorialized that spirit in a letter he sent to the team before the 1980 season, which started with a comeback win at Tennessee, and it expressed a sentiment that still exists among loyal Bulldogs 33 years later.
“Another Saturday tradition which has meant so much to me over the years can be stated very simply,” Russell wrote. “There ain't nothing like being a Bulldog on Saturday night -- after winning a football game. I mean like whipping Tennessee's a** to start with, then 10 more and then another one.
“This is the game plan. We have no alternate plan.”
If Russell were still with us, he'd no doubt agree that one could substitute South Carolina's name for Tennessee's and his message would still apply. Because if the Bulldogs take down Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks on Saturday evening, the partying at the tailgates and downtown bars in Athens will be epic sights to behold.