September 21 will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the biggest days in weather history in the Southeast, and in the history of Georgia Southern University football. Hurricane Hugo, a category 4 goliath, spent that day in 1989 deadheading for the Georgia coast.
Georgia Southern was in the midst of legendary coach Erk Russell's last season, one that would see the Eagles go 15-0 and win the Division 1-AA National Championship. The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders were scheduled to appear in Paulson Stadium that September Thursday night for a game to be nationally televised on ESPN.
We were living in Hinesville in Georgia's coastal Liberty County, and I was teaching and coaching at Bradwell Institute.
Late on Wednesday evening, Sept. 20, the National Weather Service was suggesting that Hugo was likely to make landfall on Georgia's coast. By daybreak it was no longer a suggestion but a dire prediction: Hugo would make a direct strike to Georgia.
When we got to school we were told to go back and secure our homes. The authorities recommended that you leave town if you had somewhere to go and if you didn't have anywhere to go, leave town anyway. We were gonna' get blasted that night.
Bradwell's game scheduled for Friday night against Savannah's Beach High School would not be played. The feeling was the town would be lucky to be standing after Hugo unleashed its fury.
I loaded my family in the car, leaving behind the first house we ever owned. We had been living in it for two whole months and it was about to get blown away. We headed for Pam's parents in Millen, not the safest haven from Hugo but better than staying 10 miles from the Atlantic.
As we traveled north, the radio news was all about this tropical monster set to wipe out southeast Georgia. Secondary to that was the big game in Statesboro. Georgia Southern did not then have stadium lighting and had paid a small fortune to rent lights so ESPN could broadcast.
Obviously that game would have to be postponed, or would it? Incredibly, Georgia Southern officials were going to wait until the last possible minute to make a decision. Here we sit 20 years later knowing in this day and age of liability that would never happen. The lawyers would squash that game when Hugo was a mere blip on the radar.
When we got to Millen by mid-afternoon, the weather service was saying there was now a 50-50 chance that Hugo would make a northward turn. Georgia and Statesboro might be spared a direct hit after all.
I guess it was then that Georgia Southern decided every effort would be made to play the big game. A direct phone line from the press box to the weather service was set up just in case. Even 20 years ago, ESPN wielded unheard-of powers. This moment clearly helped define the relationship between sports entertainment and the mass media, as we now know it.
Hugo did turn to the north, striking the South Carolina coast near Charleston. Georgia Southern smashed Middle Tennessee 26-0 in a torrential downpour. The nation watched in amazement as Eagle quarterback Raymond Gross led the team to victory in what will forever be known as the "Hugo Bowl." Ironically, Gross was a high school product of Bradwell Institute.
Speaking of Bradwell, the game with Beach was played after all. Early that Friday morning Pam and I headed in bright sunshine to Augusta to buy new shoes for the kids.
While at the mall, I used a pay phone to call a fellow coach on the Bradwell staff. Remember, this was before cell phones. I learned the game was back on and weather conditions were perfect. We hustled back to Hinesville for a game that we won 34-20.
A massive hurricane and two football games will glue September 1989 in my mind forever. All coastal Georgia got was wet. One game made Georgia Southern football even more famous and I almost missed the game that wasn't. How could I ever forget it?