Our ritual of having a beer a couple of times a week became a challenge because of travel. Sometimes, I just couldn’t keep from being out of town on Monday, the day Dan Magill preferred to enjoy a late afternoon libation at our favorite watering hole in Five Points.
In recent years, we met at the Five and Ten Restaurant. He really liked Hugh Acheson, the chef–owner, but was troubled by the cost of a beer. It was incumbent of me, his protege’, his first official assistant, to find a solution. As a college student in the late 1950s and ’60s, I was always hungry and thirsty. When Dan took the Atlanta sportswriters to the same location, which then operated under the name of “Harry’s,” he always included me. He always got the check. He knew I could not afford a few beers and a barbecue pork pig sandwich, his long-standing menu selection.
For years, Dan didn’t want to socialize anywhere but Harry’s which predated the Five and Ten. There was conflict with his emotions when Acheson established his fine restaurant. It was home for Dan, but he could not abide paying $7.00 for a beer. “I used to buy two (unprintable) cases for that,” he would exclaim. So a deal was struck. I would pay for the beer, and he would get the tip. In the beginning, we met at least twice a week. Then it became once a week as his age kept creeping up the ladder of passing years. Then it became occasional. When we began, he drank three beers, then two, then one. Then that depressing day came. None. My heart was breaking. I loved this man like I loved my own father.
As I organize my thoughts, I laugh and I cry. He made me laugh from the time of that first beer when I was a student assistant in his office to the last one in December of 2012. I am crying now because of Georgia’s great loss. At the University of Georgia, his first name is all you need to say—just as you don’t need to say any more than “Herschel” when you reference the Bulldogs Heisman Trophy running back. Dan was informal, easygoing, lovable - sometimes temperamental - colorful, and unforgettable. He had a gift for making people feel good in his presence. He made you want to be around him. When you began a conversation with him, you never wanted it to end.
I think, perhaps, I was the one who spent the most time with him over the years—with the exception of his family, of course. I have two degrees. One conferred from the Grady College of Journalism and the other via the life lessons I learned at Harry’s over beer and barbecue pork pig sandwiches. One of those evenings when he was relaxed and given to reflection, he, a man devoid of ego, but motivated by enormous pride, revealed inner thoughts I have never forgotten. He wanted me to pursue a full-time sports writing career. I asked him why he had given up such a career. “Because I wanted to live in Athens and promote the University of Georgia,” he said.
I said that I would like to do that, too. In the conversation that continued, I realized that he could have excelled at anything he had chosen to do. He could have been a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer with his insight and depth of knowledge and perceptive communication skills. He could have been a successful politician. After all, in 1954 when he organized the Bulldog clubs in every county in Georgia— from Tallapoosa to Hahira; from Rabun Gap to Tybee Light— he was in touch with people on a personal basis that would have boded well for him at the polls. In office, he would have been an orator and statesman, whose command of the language, humorous insight, and poignant delivery, would have made him the South’s best since Henry Grady.
Sales and marketing! He was not driven by an appetite for money, he just wanted to be comfortable— a couple or three beers and a barbecue pork pig sandwich and a few victories in tennis, washed down by a sparkling Coca-Cola in the small 6.5-ounce contour bottle. Yet, the Dan Magill Tennis Complex stands as a monumental tribute to a man with more intangibles than any Bulldog personality I have ever known. If he had wanted to accumulate money, he would have been a multi-millionaire, with his remarkable genius with people and marketing skills. At the tennis complex, there’s the Alfred Thompson scoreboard, the Kim Basinger lights, Mikael Pernfors Center Court, Joe Heldman Pavilion, the Robert West Pavilion, the Lindsey Hopkins Picnic Pavilion, the Dick Budd tournament headquarters among others and the Albert Jones flagpole; and his big coup with Marianne and Kenny Rogers funding the Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame where his crowded desk was anchored. Some of his friends and former players made significant contributions, and naming rights came with their gifts. Many, like Albert Jones, were recognized because of loyalty and service. Some, like Lt. Governor Pierre Howard, spawned legislative support, all of which gave Georgia the best tennis complex in the country, enabling Dan to proudly claim that Athens, Georgia, was the “Mecca” of college tennis.
As the Secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club, he kept spirits high when performance on the field was low. Spirits have never been lower than in the fifties when Georgia Tech defeated his beloved Bulldogs eight years in a row—a time when his favorite team was the victim of hard luck. Like in 1954 when Georgia pushed Tech all over a muddy field in Sanford Stadium, but lost 7-3. At the half, the Bulldogs led 3-0 and had dominated the game. The players were so amped up that they talked Coach Wallace Butts into receiving the second-half kickoff, their option. A fumble on the first snap resulted, Tech recovered and threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to win. Nonetheless, Dan kept Bulldog spirits from flagging. He would find something positive to reinforce love of alma mater. He put out a weekly newsletter which he composed on Sunday mornings. It was called “The Georgia Bulldog” and was printed at McGregor Printing Co. He had a machine in his office where the folded newsletters were spit through the machine that added the addresses of all the passionate Bulldog fans who contributed ten dollars a year.
Georgia supporters, in that pre-media era, couldn’t wait for Dan’s insightful news of the last game, even when the Bulldogs were vanquished on the field. He wrote it dot-and-dash style. Short takes, lots of notes and tidbits, a forerunner of the concept that has served USA Today so well. Dan was the embodiment of the spirit of the Georgia Bulldogs.
As a sports information director, he was an innovator and leader. He produced posters with photos of players and the Bulldog schedule for their hometowns, using the Bulldog Club network to enhance circulation. He wrote so sprightly and cleverly that when he sent out a news release, newspapers across the state ran it verbatim. Even the Atlanta newspapers, which often piqued his ire, often used his releases as he sent them.
For years, Dan felt there was an intentional slight with Georgia when it came to what was written about the Bulldog football team. Proud Georgia had no money. Times were hard. The Bulldogs were struggling, and Tech was riding high. One day, Dan called Jim Minter, a Georgia alumnus, who got this rebuke from Dan. “If Captain Bobby Garrard dropped dead of a heart attack today, the headline in the Atlanta papers would read, ‘Bobby Garrard Quits Georgia.’ ”
As tennis coach, Magill had no peer. His promotion came into sharp focus, as he saw to it that the newspapers—particularly the Athens Banner-Herald and the Atlanta Journal—got the news of every Georgia match. In the beginning of his tenure as coach, he had no scholarships. He recruited, as he did everything, by applying the personal touch. He ran the Athens city tournament, he promoted his Crackerland tennis tournament. He saw who was competitive and worthy, who had promise. He would sell the positives of the University of Georgia, and players like Pierre Howard would even give up a scholarship opportunity at other schools to play for Dan. Pierre had committed to Davidson until Dan talked him into changing his plans. His first volley when they met in Dan’s crowded office in old Stegeman Hall, west of Sanford stadium, was, “Do you know there are no girls at Davidson?”
“He changed my mind,” Pierre says today. “And that changed my life. That is why he is so beloved. He changed everybody’s life.” His players were like the defensive players in Erk Russell’s time. They often played over their heads because they loved Erk and did not want to let him down. It was the same with Dan. No coach has ever been more revered by his players than Dan was. He managed his relationships with his players so skillfully that there were times when he would have a beer with them. He could let his hair down with them without losing their respect because he, regardless of any social encounter, demanded discipline and respect at the tennis court. A remarkable leader can do that.
His sayings and his slogans are still bywords with his former players today:
* Big Hop, in fast
* Don’t be Big Ike
* Fake the drive, lift the lob
* Lob wide, cardinal sin
* Work the nutcutter
No coach ever gave more of himself than Dan, which is why he became so beloved and celebrated. His body of work has brought him deserved and appropriate recognition, but honor was never a motivation. He truly wanted the best for the University of Georgia. The classic example of his selfless makeup came when he stepped aside to let Manuel Diaz succeed him as tennis coach in 1988. He wanted Manuel to succeed him, but at age 63 Dan still had some good years left. He was winning championships and things were very good for Georgia tennis, but he knew that Manuel was ready to be a head coach. He knew some other school would make his competent assistant an offer he could not refuse. Dan took early retirement from coaching because he did not want Manuel to leave Georgia. Manny’s subsequent success is proof that Dan was right.
Only a Dan Magill would make that decision on behalf of his alma mater. Most coaches step aside reluctantly, and many are not too keen on their successors, enjoying the success that can often make the predecessor look bad. Not Dan. He was at the courts every day, doing anything to help Manual establish his program and see it flourish.
The Latin term alma mater means “nourishing mother.” Dan certainly believed that his alma mater nourished him, and no man ever sought to give back to his nourishing mother more than Daniel Hamilton Magill Jr., the greatest and grandest Bulldog there ever was.