A journey back 'between the hedges'

ATHENS, Ga. -- They've been there, stately, iconic and emerald green, for as long as Dan Magill can remember. Long before the renowned Boston ivy began creeping along the red brick walls of Wrigley Field. Even before the brilliant, blooming rainbow of azaleas first arced across Augusta National. Eighty years, to be exact.

The date was Oct. 12, 1929, a momentous occasion on which the most famous flora in football, if not all of sports -- the distinctive privet hedges ringing the field at Georgia's Sanford Stadium -- was first planted, in a matter of speaking, into America's sports consciousness.

Magill, the former Georgia tennis coach and sports information director, was present that steamy, southern Saturday afternoon when the Yale band played a stirring rendition of "Dixie," when a state-record amount of cold Coca-Cola reportedly was consumed, when the Bulldogs christened their spanking new stadium by beating the Elis 15-0 in the first game "between the hedges."

Magill, 88, would not have been there if not for one Charles E. Martin. Nor the historic hedges, for that matter.

If Magill's memory serves him right, Charlie Martin arrived in Athens in "nineteen-eight," and with the exceptions of stints as a "sporting writer" and in the service during World War I, proceeded to hold nearly every job in the athletic department, from ticket and business manager to publicity man, save for head football coach. Martin, the story goes, attended the 1926 Rose Bowl as the guest of an Alabama counterpart and was smitten with the beautiful rose hedges that bordered the playing surface in Pasadena, Calif.

Not long after, when university president Steadman V. Sanford's dream of having the "best football stadium in Dixie" was slowly becoming steel and concrete reality, Martin thought rose hedges could not only beautify the new structure but also distinguish it from the other stadiums being constructed in the pre-stock market crash building boom taking place on campuses across the country. But there was a problem.

"University horticulturists said that roses would not thrive here in Athens, Georgia," Magill says.

So it was decided that Georgia's new gridiron would instead be bound by privet Ligustrum. It was a last-minute decision. The hedges were trucked in from Atlanta, and reportedly plugged into the red Georgia earth just hours before the game by workers wielding shovels and flashlights.

The stadium dedication was no doubt a stressful occasion for Martin, the game's primary promoter. More than 30,000 fans, the largest crowd to witness a southern college football game, crammed the stadium. Governors from all nine southern states also were in attendance.

"It was the biggest athletic event ever held in the South at the time," Magill says.

Nevertheless, in the midst of welcoming the large crowd and unknowingly ushering in one of the sport's most cherished traditions, Martin found the time to sneak in a late-arriving, ticketless 8-year-old: Magill. Peering over the freshly planted, diminutive hedges, Magill located his father, editor of the old Athens Banner, and found a seat for one of the most memorable events in Georgia football history. Yet Magill is not the only one to have had such a unique historical vantage point from which to watch Georgia's hedges take root in college football lore.

Legendary coach Vince Dooley, who patrolled the Georgia sideline from 1964 through 1988, probably spent more time than anyone else between the fabled hedges, but it was not until taking some gardening classes at Georgia more than a dozen years ago that the retired coach discovered a latent passion for plants.

"The great thing about living around a university is that if you have a curiosity, you can satisfy it," Dooley says.

That curiosity became a fascination that at once rivaled and replaced Dooley's coaching fire. Dooley soon befriended renowned University of Georgia horticulturists Michael Dirr and Allan Armitage, and turned the property surrounding his Athens home into a beautiful, five acre all-seasons botanical garden laced with meandering paths, burbling streams and waterfall ponds, and filled with thousands of plants, flowers and trees, the Latin names of which Dooley has memorized as if from a plant playbook. Among many others, there are camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns, Asiatic jasmine, magnolias, maples, cypress and, of course, some of the famed privet Ligustrum hedges. There also is the "Dooley" hydrangea, a particularly hardy variety so named because it was discovered blooming in Dooley's garden after a brutal frost.

"I don't play golf," Dooley says. "So [gardening] is kind of my golf."

At about the same time the coach-turned-gardening guru's thumb began to turn green, one of the biggest controversies in Georgia history erupted. Atlanta was selected to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, and Sanford Stadium was chosen as the venue for the soccer matches. Since a regulation soccer field measures approximately 115 yards by 74 yards, the hedges would have to be removed. Dooley, Georgia's athletic director at the time, knew Dawgs fans were less than enthralled with the idea.

"I knew that was going to be a PR problem," he says.

It was discovered that the hedges were diseased -- they were suffering from an infestation of hematodes, or microscopic worms -- necessitating their timely removal. Healthy cuttings were nurtured into full-grown hedges and returned to Sanford Stadium, where they were transplanted in a ceremony involving Dooley and other Georgia dignitaries. The result is that the current hedges are what the Georgia family lovingly calls "Hedges II."

"They're the sons and daughters of the original hedges," Dooley says.

The descendant cuttings quickly rooted in the stadium's hallowed ground. According to Kenny Pauley, Georgia's director of sports turf and grass, the hedges grow eight months of the year, at a rate of approximately 3 feet per annum. "We have to trim them constantly," Pauley says.

The rapid growth rate is hardly surprising.

"It's a royal hedge to the Georgia people, but anywhere else, it's a weed," Dooley says.

Dooley is not spreading a nasty rumor started by Florida or Georgia Tech fans. He speaks the truth: Privet Ligustrum is indeed a weed, and an invasive one at that. Introduced in the United States in the early 1800s, the semi-evergreen, deciduous shrubs are not only poisonous to horses and mildly toxic to humans, but also capable of overrunning a habitat and eliminating native species.

Maintaining the hedges is largely a labor of love. Pauley supervises a staff of 10 full-time employees plus 10 to 12 students from the university's turf program, but only three individuals are honored with the privilege of trimming the hedges. Pauley is assisted by Bryan Farmer, a senior turf major, and Robert Young, a 27-year veteran of the stadium grounds crew. "[Young] basically taught us how to trim the hedges," Pauley says.

For decades, Pauley's predecessors tackled the daunting task -- the hedges, which line both sidelines and endlines, contain approximately 3,000 square feet -- with everything from old-time, arm-powered metal shears to electric clippers. Pauley employs an estimated seven or eight sets of gas-powered trimmers and weed eaters with various lengths and sizes of blades, an arsenal that enables his team to complete the job in about two hours. But with the added challenge of a level cut, it's two hours of incredibly hard, focused, draining work.

"By the time you are close to getting done, you're feeling it in your arms," Farmer says.

The end result is the familiar, box-shaped hedge, 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, which has not only framed the Bulldogs' games in an aesthetically pleasing, historic perspective for eight decades now, but also served a practical purpose. The hedges and the little-known metal fence embedded therein have proved enormously effective at crowd control; only once in the stadium's history have fans stormed the field and torn down the goalposts. As a result, many schools around the country have copied the idea, Pauley says, but the Georgia hedges tradition is not transferable.

"If you are a college football fan, where are the hedges?" Pauley asks. "Georgia."

But despite their status as campus icons, the hedges endure a considerable amount of punishment each fall. Television camera crews regularly drape the hedges with cables and signs, which Pauley and his staff dutifully remove. Pauley winces every time a player crashes into the hedges, but he understands -- a Western Carolina punter in the early '90s, Pauley was nearly flung into the hedges by Georgia blockers during a Garrison Hearst return.

Possums, birds and insects can damage the hedges, as can another kind of natural predator: opponents' fans. Pauley's staff recently caught one inebriated enemy rooter (from a school that shall remain nameless) attempting to, uh, irrigate the hedges. In 2008, Georgia Tech fans celebrated their first win over Georgia since 2000 by tearing off pieces of the hedges and putting them in their mouths, much like players from the Pac-10 and Big Ten do upon clinching a Rose Bowl berth. And Georgia fans sometimes just can't help themselves when they encounter the legendary hedges in person.

"People want clippings, to take them home and grow their own hedges," Pauley says.

It's no surprise, then, that privet Ligustrum is, in Athens at least, a protected species. The field and the hedges are guarded by a state-of-the-art camera surveillance system, and intruders, be they innocuous, intoxicated college kids or would-be vandals, are greeted with a loud, ear-splitting alarm that sends them scrambling for the nearest exit. Pauley routinely finds evidence of these invasions, from a pair of Crocs to miscellaneous articles of clothing, most of which are torn or shredded, proof that the hedges (assisted by the hidden chain-link fence) can hold their own. Yet, as a necessary precaution against any possible thefts, plant sickness or destruction, Pauley grows and maintains replacement hedges at an undisclosed location in case of an emergency.

For the historic Georgia hedges, after all, no level of security is sufficient, no amount of care too much, no expense too great.

"[The hedges] are something magical," Dooley says, "one of the great traditions of college football."

A tradition that, in entering its ninth decade, is both figuratively and literally still growing.

Writer and college football historian John D. Lukacs is a consultant to "College GameDay."