July 29, 2008
By Jack Wilkinson –
Following is the first in a series of profiles on the members of the 2008 class of the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame. Jack Wilkinson will catch up with each of the six members in the weeks leading up to the Annual Hall of Fame Induction Dinner, which will be Sept. 19 at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased by calling 404-894-6124.
A quarter-century ago, everything you need to know about Puggy Blackmon’s journey to the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame unfolded one fall day in Dalton, Ga. The day Puggy, determined to woo and win over a precocious teenager named Bill McDonald, arrived as he always does: In style, and with gusto and a game plan.
“He came to Dalton,” McDonald recalled, “and picked me up in a helicopter. Me being a redneck kid from Dalton, that freaked me out.”
The freaked-out, redneck kid was also the top junior golfer in America. The nation’s No. 1 prospect was being courted by Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Georgia, but considered Tech a mere afterthought. At least until Puggy landed at Dalton Country Club.
“He picked me up on the putting green and said, `Let’s go to Atlanta!'” said McDonald. “When we took off, I remember my stomach about dropped out of my butt.” From high in the air, Blackmon pointed out the sights, including the Atlanta Country Club. The chopper circled over Stone Mountain, then swooped in for a birds-eye view. “For the rest of my life,” McDonald said, “I’ll never forget being eyeball-to-eyeball with General Lee and Traveler.”
They passed over East Lake Golf Club, where a Tech golfer of some note – Bobby Jones – learned to play the game. “And then we landed on the 50-yard line at Grant Field,” McDonald said. “I’m just glad to be on terra firma.”
The welcoming party: Dr. Homer Rice, Georgia Tech’s athletic director, standing beside the Ramblin’ Wreck, the Institute’s vintage 1930 Model A Ford Sports Coupe. “Bill, I’m sorry. The mayor couldn’t make it,” said Rice, who handed McDonald a telegram from Andrew Young, extolling Tech’s virtues.
Rice, McDonald and Blackmon hopped in the Ramblin’ Wreck and drove to the office of Tech president Dr. Joseph Pettit. McDonald later met football coach Bill Curry and basketball coach Bobby Cremins. Surprise: Puggy landed the kid, and the rest was Georgia Tech golf history.
“That was Puggy,” McDonald recalls. “He didn’t break any rules that weekend, but he took advantage of what he could do.
“Now,” he said, chuckling, “maybe some rules were rewritten after that, but…” That’s fine. That’s Puggy, who’ll be inducted into the Tech Sports Hall of Fame on Sept. 19, a quarter-century after a golf rebirth that rivals Cremins’ extraordinary resurrection of Yellow Jacket hoops.
“It’s kind of a validation,” said Blackmon, 57, who coached at Tech from 1982-95, then went to the University of South Carolina and served as the men’s coach until last year, before becoming the director of golf for both the men’s and women’s teams. “It validates what we did at Georgia Tech. Only after being away from it for a few years do I know what we really accomplished.”
“Puggy built Tech’s golf program into one of the best programs in the country,” said Stewart Cink, who, like David Duval, became the national player of the year under Blackmon, is still a top PGA Tour professional and will play again on the U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall.
“He loved it at Tech,” said Cink, who chose Tech over Stanford and Auburn largely because of Blackmon. “He blew me away with his enthusiasm, his commitment to being the best team and winning a national championship. He made golf a very easy thing for Tech to carry on because of his fundraising. On top of that, he led the school to the golden years of the golf program.”
Within three years, Blackmon took Tech to its first Atlantic Coast Conference title and established a perennial top-25 program. Puggy by the numbers: Five ACC championships, 11 consecutive NCAA Championship appearances, one NCAA runner-up finish (1993), 12 All-Americans, four ACC individual champions, a graduation rate in the high 90th-percentile.
In January, 1983, Blackmon stopped by the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house, where most of Tech’s golfers lived, and announced, “We’re going to win the ACC.” No one laughed. No one cared, either, when Tech finished seventh, not eighth, in the ’83 conference tournament. “Our goal,” he recalled, “was not to finish last.”
When Tech finished fifth in ’84, Puggy won the first of his four ACC Coach-of-the-Year Awards. The following year brought Tech’s first ACC title. In 1989, Blackmon recalled, “All of a sudden David shows up, and he’s the catalyst that takes us to another level.”
Duval would become a four-time All-American. Tech would win four consecutive ACC titles. In June, Blackmon was driving in a car with Duval (with whom he’s now reunited as a swing coach, most recently at the British Open) when Tech associate sports information director Mike Stamus called with the news about the Tech Hall of Fame.
Puggy’s reaction: “Wow! You could’ve hit me over the head. It’s a tremendous, tremendous honor, probably second to children, having your own kids. It’s a great rush, a thrill and a validation for what we did there.”
That included Blackmon’s remarkable fundraising, due largely to his imaginative thinking and great powers of persuasion. He started the booster club which supports Tech golf to this day. He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the golf facilities (including a golf center in an old training room beneath the East Stands in Bobby Dodd Stadium). He conceived – and raised funds for – Tech’s self-perpetuating endowed golf scholarships.
Yet Blackmon left the Flats in 1995. “I was burned out, and it was time for me to move on,” he said. “I could not sit there and collect a check and do a mediocre job. I could not do that.”
He returned to his native state, taking the South Carolina golf program to new heights. In September, he’ll return to Atlanta and be inducted into Tech’s Sports Hall of Fame. And not merely for his success on the golf course.
“Halfway through Tech, I got married and my first son was born,” Cink said. “I went from being a kid to being a man, a husband, a father. I leaned on Puggy a lot during that. Tech’s not the easiest place for a married guy with a kid to be. Knowing the situation I was in, he could’ve easily thrown me out. But he didn’t.”
“I’m a guy who won two tournaments in my first quarter at Tech, and had a 1.3 [grade-point average],” McDonald said. “Later, I turned down some fairly lucrative guarantees to turn pro and come back to get my degree. That’s what Puggy meant to me. “Coming out of high school, I wasn’t the best time manager,” he said. “He helped me organize my time, prioritize my life. Puggy was a lot of fun to play for, very energetic and a very hands-on coach. He wanted to win in the worst way, but his big selling point with Georgia Tech was the value of the degree. That was the reason you were there.
“After my senior year, I still had some classes left, to come back for a quarter – maybe two,” said McDonald, who was hired by Blackmon as an assistant coach at South Carolina, then succeeded him as before last season. “I was under pressure to turn pro, go to Tour school that fall. But that wasn’t even a question for me. I was going to come back to school in the fall.”
In September, he’ll come back to his old school, to honor his old coach. Puggy. “Hell, yeah,” McDonald said. “I wouldn’t miss that for anything.”