UGA football: Why the Ray Goff years weren’t as bad as you remember

For a UGA football fan, the years under former head coach Ray Goff are thought of as a huge failure, but in reality, they weren’t that bad.

Mention the name Ray Goff and you’ll usually draw a scowl, eye roll, or even the odd expletive or two from a UGA football fan.

Mention Vince Dooley, Herschel Walker, Buck Belue, Kevin Butler – all names UGA football fans associate with “The Glory Years” of the program — and you’ll almost universally draw out a “How ’bout them Dawgs!”.

But despite not reaching the heights Vince Dooley did during those glory years, the Ray Goff era of Georgia football really wasn’t as bad as some want to believe. Hear me out on this, Georgia fans.

From 1980-1983, the Bulldogs were always in the thick of the national championship hunt and had captured the admiration of the college football world.

Dooley’s Dawgs went 43-4-1 over that stretch.

But, from 1984-1988 — the final five years of Dooley’s coaching career — success wasn’t quite as abundant, and the program began to slip back into a state of mediocrity.

The Bulldogs posted a merely above-average 40-18-3 record during the last five years of Dooley’s tenure as head coach, finishing no higher than 13th in the final AP poll and going unranked at the end of the season in three of those years.

Despite that drop, the experts, fans, and even other college football coaches maintained that Dooley would be a tough act to follow.

Enter Ray Goff.

UGA football and Ray Goff, a misunderstood era

The former Georgia quarterback and then-assistant coach was about to step up to the big chair under the watchful eyes of one of the most tortured fan bases in the nation.

No pressure, Ray.

Goff seemed like the natural choice to follow his former coach and mentor. He had quarterbacked the Bulldogs to a 19-5 record during his two seasons as a starter, including one SEC title and an SEC Player of the Year award. He had been an assistant on Dooley’s staff since 1981 and was well-respected throughout the program.

What could go wrong?

Well, year one didn’t exactly go as planned, with the Bulldogs posting a 6-6 record, but no coach should be judged on what happens in that transition year whether the results be better or worse than expected.

Year two was even worse. Georgia went 4-7 — their first losing season since 1977 (which was, incidentally, the year after Goff graduated) — and included a humiliating 40-23 loss to No. 2 ranked Georgia Tech in the season finale.

But in 1991, the third season under Goff, it seemed like the new head coach had hit his stride, leading the Bulldogs to a 9-3 record and a top 20 AP ranking. Goff detractors would point out that one of those three losses was to lowly Vanderbilt, an inexcusable gaff for a ranked UGA football team.

Still, there was hope.

1992 saw even more improvement, with the Dawgs going 10-2 and finishing the season ranked No. 8 in the final AP poll. The win over Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl to finish the season was probably the highlight of Goff’s coaching career.

The next three seasons the Dawgs slipped back to a middling program once again, going 17-16-1, including the infamous “Half a Hundred Between the Hedges” 52-17 loss to Florida, before Goff was unceremoniously removed in favor of up-and-coming I-AA coach, Jim Donnan.

Goff’s cumulative records as Georgia’s head coach:

46-34-1 overall
24-28-1 in SEC
2-2 in bowl games
1-6 vs Florida
2-4-1 vs Auburn
5-2 vs Georgia Tech

Yes, it was bad in many respects for Bulldog fans, but bad enough to warrant the terrible rap the Ray Goff years have received over time? Probably not.

When Vince Dooley took over the Georgia football program in 1964, he inherited a mess from fired head coach Johnny Griffith. The UGA legend then went 48-23-4 (24-13-2 in SEC) over his first seven seasons.

Really, not vastly different than Goff’s seven seasons.

Also much like Goff stumbling out of the gate following the 1992 season, Dooley went from an 8-1-2 record and an SEC title in 1968, to consecutive 5-5 seasons (with one tie thrown in) the following two years. Yet Dooley was retained while Goff was shown the door when floundering for a couple of years after a big success.

The difference, in truth, is purely perception. Dooley brought the program back to a level of respectability after Griffith’s three-year abomination following the legendary Wally Butts. A somewhat easier task than Goff, who inherited a respectable program with the (probably unfair) expectation that he’d have the Bulldogs return to title contenders.

When that didn’t happen right away, and there was no consistent level of measurable success, Goff was a goner.

Was Donnan better than Goff as a head coach? In some respects, yes. If you look at overall record the optics are good. But Donnan was no better against the rivals than Goff, going 1-4 against Florida, 2-3 against Auburn, and 2-3 against Georgia Tech.

Would Goff have righted the ship and returned the program to its proper place among the SEC elite? Unknown. There are some who would go as far as to say probably, being that Goff was truthfully a better recruiter than Donnan, particularly on offense.

This isn’t to say UGA football fans should consider the Ray Goff years a success, not even close. But the years 1989-1995 should be looked upon a little more fondly for the good things that happened and the great Georgia players who emerged from the Ray Goff era.

There were as many high points during Ray Goff’s years as there were during Vince Dooley’s final five years or the entirety of Jim Donnan’s stretch as head coach.