AUBURN, Ala. -- Embedded in the street just up from Toomer's Corner -- where the oak poisoned by Alabama fan Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr., slowly inches its way to a certain death -- is a diamond-shaped tribute to Joel Eaves, the Georgia athletic director who shocked college football by hiring Vince Dooley, the 31-year-old freshman coach at Auburn, only a few days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
Eaves had earned the respect and admiration of the Auburn people with his innovative and widely copied shuffle offense, which brought the Tigers the 1960 SEC basketball title. His approach to coaching the game had to do primarily with discipline, defense, hustle, and making free throws. In his view, hard work and constant practice meant that most anybody could become successful at the foul line.
When his teams played Kentucky, for example, they were forever at a talent disadvantage, but tenacious defense and successful free-throw shooting would give his team a chance. No coach ever underscored fundamentals more than this tall, erect native of Atlanta.
Taking an early morning walk on College Street here recently, I found the Eaves diamond in front of University Barber Shop on Auburn's Walk of Fame, which was modeled after the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Pausing to reflect, I thought how Eaves would be pleased with the tribute and also that Auburn's basketball arena was named for him. A former player of his, James Martin, became president of the university and mandated that the arena be renamed for Eaves in 1987. The institution later added the name of Jeff Beard, the athletic director for whom Eaves worked, making it Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum.
Eaves' saga is quite interesting. He gained tribute at his alma mater after he left, and, unfortunately, following his death. There is nothing named for him at Georgia, yet he made one of the most sensational decisions in Bulldog history by hiring Dooley. What is little-known about Eaves is that, in all probability, he would never have left Auburn without internal strife that made him receptive to President O. C. Aderhold's overture in 1963.
Eaves had suffered a heart attack after a return from an out-of-town basketball game in the early 1960s. The bus was late to pick up the team, and that set this highly disciplined man into an internal rage. It might have been a trivial faux pas to the bus company, but to the extraordinary disciplined Eaves, it was a grievous error. After hospitalization, Eaves began to think about the stress of coaching basketball at his age. Furthermore, he was highly irritated that Auburn's football coach, Shug Jordan, the most powerful man in the athletic department, demanded that he continue scouting Auburn football opponents in the fall. In short, Joel Eaves was an unhappy man.
Meanwhile, at Georgia, no fan base could have been more downcast. Coach Wallace Butts, after the Saturday Evening Post wrongfully accused him and Alabama's Bear Bryant with trying to fix a football game, had resigned. The football team had experienced three straight losing seasons, and the hue and cry was that Aderhold should hire an athletic director who would be empowered to run athletics as he saw fit.
Eaves was the perfect hire for the times. A fiscal conservative, Eaves poured over every purchase order and every expense account. He took a measured approach to everything, even when he filled his jigger of Wild Turkey in the evenings, never consuming more than two drinks and never more than one if he were at a cocktail party and had to drive home.
He was a hard liner with his coaches. Do your work, show up on time and underscore discipline on all fronts with your team. In addition to following the rules, athletes were expected to go to class and graduate. That was the sermon he expected his coaches to preach daily to their players.
Here on an overcast morning with the campus coming awake, I thought about how his dislocation with the Auburn athletic administration and the bottom having fallen out at Georgia caused this man to make an unexpected and unconventional change in his life.
There is no Walk of Fame in Athens and no diamond tribute with Joel Eaves' name, but Georgia fans should never forget that this man's clairvoyance in regard to Vince Dooley turned out to be one of the most impactful decisions in UGA athletic history.