ATHENS, Ga. -- Mike Woods was sitting outside the Gator Bowl, waiting for his Bulldogs to play. The Jacksonville, Florida, sun beat down on his glistening bald head, as he anxiously waited to see whether this year’s struggling Georgia football team could contain bitter rival Florida.
He also wondered what to do with the paint supplies he’d brought for a Georgia art student, who was supposed to paint a masterpiece atop his now steaming head but backed out.
Woods sipped libations -- or in his words: “Florida Coca-Colas” -- when his wife, Dianne, sternly declared, “I can paint that bulldog on your head.”
“You ain’t never painted anything in your life,” Woods remembered saying.
Dianne persisted and with the help of a few more pops, Woods leaned over.
“On one condition,” she said. “Keep your mouth shut.”
Two and half silent hours later, Woods had an angry-looking bulldog on his scalp.
“I absolutely could not believe what she’d done,” Woods said.
Twenty-five years later, Dianne is still painting that mean ol’ bulldog on her husband’s head, as Woods delights fans on Saturdays with his charismatic smile, jolly personality and now iconic noggin in Athens and surrounding SEC territories.
But Woods didn’t create this game-day tradition captured by cameras and TV screens for more than two decades. His father, Lonnie Lee Woods Sr., started during Georgia’s 1980 national championship season.
Lonnie drove Georgia’s defensive team’s bus back then and all players yapped about was when Lonnie would paint his head for the Dawgs. Lonnie, who had a full head of hair then, promised them that if they made it to the Sugar Bowl for the national championship, he’d paint his head. Sure enough, the Bulldogs went 11-0 and found themselves in New Orleans on New Year’s Day.
An art student painted Lonnie's head, and he and his son went to Bourbon Street. Lonnie then decided to have his head painted for every game, along with wearing his signature red coat and black tie until he passed away in 1987.
“It just amazed me that so many people thought that was just the greatest thing they’d ever seen,” Woods said of his father’s painted head.
Three years later, Woods continued the tradition, but added his own touch: black overalls -- covered in game patches, sayings from Georgia legends and patches representing local police precincts -- and a red or white undershirt.
“I do it in honor of my daddy, to keep his memory going,” Woods said. “I don’t ever want to do anything to hurt that.”
The dog, which always bares its menacing teeth, red-and-black ball cap and collar, lasts about three days, but it once stretched to six out at the 2008 College World Series. Woods literally peeled it off his head and had the half-hair, half-paint prize framed in his house.
Woods started going to Georgia games when he was six, selling 10-cent bags of peanuts, then 25-cent Cokes, before parking cars. He started buying tickets at around 18.
The retired industrial equipment salesman, who has spent just about his entire life in Athens, has been a season-ticket holder for 45 years and thinks he’s missed just one home game in the last 58 years.
“My job now is to follow the Dawgs, and I love them,” he said. “God willing, I’m gonna go where they go.”
Tailgating in Athens promptly starts at 7 a.m. in the very back parking lot of Boggs Hall on Saturdays. Dianne usually starts the free-hand painting and waterproofing process the night before and has cut her time down to between 30 and 45 minutes. Woods assists her with a hairdryer.
Fans from all allegiances come to his tailgate to share stories, food and laughs with “Big Dawg,” who ends every conversation with some form of “Go, Dawgs! Sic ‘em! Woof! Woof!”
Famous foodie Andrew Zimmern even featured Wood's tailgate on his show "Appetite for Life," raising around $7,000 for the food bank in Athens.
When Woods goes to away games, fans from opposing teams constantly ask him to stay with them. He politely declines to spend more time with his wife and two sons, Michael, 42, and Trent Lonnie Woods, who plans to take over for his father and is aptly named after his grandfather.
Time hasn’t been kind to Woods’ body. He walks with a deep limp because of a bad car accident that twisted his spine in 1987. A heart attack earlier this year landed him in the ICU for three and a half days, turning triple bypass surgery into quintuple bypass surgery.
But when he's been down, the fans are there. Five years ago, an adoring fan carved a wooden bulldog-headed cane to assist with his limp. This spring, Woods was showered with well-wishes from across the country.
Woods is an SEC icon, and while he feels his painted-headed days are drawing thin, he’s had a lifetime of fun doing it.
“It’s been unreal, absolutely unreal,” he said.