It was a Chamber of Commerce Homecoming Day at the University of Georgia last Saturday afternoon.
Blue skies. Cool temperatures. A sea of Bulldogs’ red and black filling Sanford Stadium. A fetching Homecoming queen, senior Madison Asef, and a dashing Homecoming king, senior Trey Sinyard.
And then there was the bonus of Georgia’s 43-0 victory over Vanderbilt, a made-to-order dominating performance that pleased all the alums returning to campus.
But the real showstopper, the main scene-stealer, was a 55-pound English Bulldog reporting for his first day on the job as arguably the most recognizable mascot in college sports.
Uga VIII, about 13 months old, took over duties from Russ, an interim Bulldog who was the half-brother of Uga VII, who unexpectedly died in his second year as mascot last Nov. 19. As is tradition, the student body chanted “Damn good dog!” in unison in a tribute to the outgoing Bulldog as Russ’ collar was placed on Uga VIII by Georgia president Michael Adams.
“We like everything about Uga VIII,” said Savannah attorney and Georgia graduate Sonny Seiler (BBA '56, JD '57), whose family has owned and raised all the Ugas since a family friend, Frank Heard, gave he and his wife Cecilia a bulldog that soon became Uga I when the Seilers were still newlyweds in 1956. “He’s very frisky now, and he will be that way for a year or so.”
Uga VIII’s intense training the last few weeks involved having marching band music played in his kennel, as well as a lot of scratching, eating and sleeping. While he still has to adapt to 92,000 plus screaming fans and blaring bands – he spent much of his first game in his air conditioned kennel on the sideline – he performed the rest of his duties admirably.
He posed for photographers. He enjoyed being petted. He even kissed Russ goodbye.
Most of all, he brought the Bulldogs good karma, duly noted by Georgia coach Mark Richt.
“Uga VIII is a beautiful, undefeated, un-scored-upon dog," Richt said in his postgame press conference.
Even a group of Georgia players made sure they rubbed Uga VIII’s head to congratulate him for a doggone good debut.
“I had to go give him some love, he got us the win,” Georgia receiver Kris Durham told the Athens Banner-Herald. “He’s good luck so far. He needs to keep it going.”
So how did Uga VIII celebrate his first victory? The same as his predecessors – a good meal and a nice long nap.
“He goes back to the Georgia Center sleeps and eats,” Sonny Seiler says. “He’s tired on Sundays and Mondays. Bulldogs use a lot of energy we don’t realize, standing up and walking out on the field.
“A long time ago we used to run them out on the field, we don’t do that anymore, because we’ve had two of them tear cruciate ligaments because of that, and then you’re out of a dog for a couple of weeks.”
Sonny has learned much from each and every Uga along the way. They’ve all given him hints into constantly perfecting a process of picking successors.
“When you’ve done it for more than 50 years, you know what you’re looking for,” Seiler says. “It’s still a lot of luck involved, because the dog is not grown and you don’t know what’s around the corner.
“You can go by how he looks, how he acts, how he holds himself, whether or not he is adjustable with the crowd. We look at his heirs, we look at his tail, we look at his stance, the way he holds his shoulders.
“If they have a habit of standing too close together with their front legs, it takes away from the bulldog stance you look for. You want his face to be what you would look for in an English Bulldog, because some have very narrow faces.
“Most are good by nature, because the English Bulldog is a calm animal. They are not very mean and aggressive, contrary to their looks. You do the best you can to find the best physical attributes you look for, and you hope to God you picked a good one.
“Fortunately, we always have. But we know the line, we don’t gamble and go out of the line. All of these dogs have been father-son down the line and we never in-breed. We never use the same mother. We get a mother dog that’s not related in any way to the Uga line, but we use the same males to breed. That’s the way it should be.
“You don’t know how many puppies are going to be in a litter and you don’t know how many of them are going to survive. But when the puppies get to be about one year old, you can pretty much tell what you’ve got to choose from.”
When then-Georgia football coach Wally Butts asked Sonny early in the 1956 season if Sonny’s pet bulldog would be the school mascot at games, Sonny never expected a phenomenon that has connected generations of Bulldog fans.
What has happened with all the Ugas sets them apart from just about any other live mascots in college sports.
There’s not another mascot that has:
*Appeared in two movies, including the Clint Eastwood-directed flick “Midnight in the Garden of Evil” and then rode in a limo to the movie’s Savannah premier wearing a tux (Uga V).
*Barked and backed down a live Tiger (Uga III).
*Been a Sports Illustrated cover model (Uga V) as the nation’s best college mascot.
*Attended a Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City wearing a black bow tie and white collar (Uga IV), but failed at an attempt to crash the Big Apple’s trendy Studio 54.
*Taken an in-game chomp at Auburn receiver Robert Baker. (Uga V)
*Been honored with a documentary on his life. It’s called “Damned Good Dog” with former legendary Georgia play-by-play announcer Larry Munson (who else?) as the voice of Uga.
*Three pages about his history in the school’s media guide, which Uga has in Georgia’s guide. Bulldogs’ Heisman Trophy-winning running back Herschel Walker, regarded as possibly the greatest player in SEC history, has only one page.
*His own room at the team hotel for road games and a reserved parking place at home games. Uga IV once missed four games in the 1986 season after he injured his hind leg ligaments jumping off a hotel bed before the Vanderbilt game.
*His picture taken at the team’s annual media day with every incoming freshman football player, with copies for the players’ families and the high school coaches of the players (a subtle recruiting tool).
*A marble mausoleum within the home stadium that is the final resting place for all Ugas.
Every Uga has had a registered name from Hood’s Ole Dan (Uga I), to Magillicuddy II (Uga IV), to Whatchagot Loran (VI) to Big Bad Bruce (UGA VIII), the newest dog named after Dr. Bruce Hollett, a member of the veterinary school faculty who has been the official vet of all the Ugas.
One of the things that has fascinated Sonny through the years is most of the Ugas have had distinct personalities.
“Uga VI was a wild man,” Sonny says. “He’d barked his head off all his life. He’d bark for no reason at all. When he got in the stadium, he never shut up. We thought the noise and the band had something to do with it.
“Then VII came along, he was a great dog, we were so pleased with him, and his death was so unanticipated. But he never barked, never. He might bark at a cat in the backyard.
“The thing that many people just don’t seem to get is that the Ugas are family pets. They grow with us, they live in the house, they play in the backyard, they go to the grocery store with Cecilia. They are like anybody else’s pet, until it’s time to go to a game.”
Uga III was a favorite of former longtime Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, because he helped him win a game in 1978 at unbeaten LSU.
Before LSU home games in Tiger Stadium, it’s tradition for the Tigers’ cheerleaders to circle around the outside of the playing field atop the cage of LSU’s live Bengal Tiger, Mike, that is being pulled by a truck. The truck usually stops, the cheerleaders hop off the cage, beat on the cage and get Mike to roar into a microphone, much to the delight of the Geaux Tigers faithful.
So on Oct. 14, 1978, just prior to kickoff for LSU’s Homecoming game against Georgia, Mike IV was making his rounds in the cage. But as the cage edged toward midfield, there was Uga III directly in his path.
Mike IV was not happy. He ran to the front of the cage and roared. Uga III was not impressed and didn’t blink, which made Mike IV even madder. This time, he raised up on his hind legs, rattled the cage and roared his angriest, scariest roar.
Translation: Move you squatty little mutt!
Let’s allow Dooley to pick up the play-by-play at this point.
“The tiger roars, Uga raises up, takes a couple of steps forward and barks,” Dooley says. “The tiger retreats to the back of the cage.
“I immediately ran to the dressing room. I was so excited I couldn’t wait to tell our team what I saw. I said, `Let’s go men, we got ’em tonight.’ ”
That final score: Georgia 24, 11th ranked and previously unbeaten LSU 17.
The one thing every Uga has had in common is relishing football Saturdays.
“They all have loved being at the games,” Sonny says. “They know their collar, they know their jersey, they know their kennel.
“When you wash them on Friday afternoon, that’s when they get their bath, they know it’s time to go. They perk up. The next morning, they are ready to go. They show emotion as much as a dog can show.”
The later a game is in the day, especially at night, the more Uga is likely to be a dog of the people and not spend so much time in his air conditioned kennel.
“The early kickoff games and the games early in the season are very hot,” Sonny says. “As you have seen, when they get in that air conditioned dog house, it’s tough to get them out.
“Even if its 50 degrees outside, they get hot so quick that they all have the habit of crawling up on a bag of crushed ice.”
It’s the responsibility of Charles Seiler, one of Sonny’s four children, who has been handling the Ugas on the field for more than 25 years, to make sure the Ugas don’t get overheated. He can tell by looking at the colors of Uga’s tongue and jowls (anything other than pink is trouble).
It makes Sonny feel good that Charles has handled the Ugas now for the last two decades. Because long after Sonny and Cecilia are gone, it assures the Seilers and the Ugas will probably always be as one.
“I have a daughter who lives in Athens and her husband is very involved,” Sonny says. “And Charles has a little boy who is 3 years old now and he will want to continue with him.”
That should make the Bulldog nation very happy, and it reaffirms what Georgia president Adams often says of Sonny and the rest of the Seilers.
"They are a remarkable family,” Adams says. “It’s unprecedented the emotions tied between this dog and his family and their alma mater.”
Damned good dog? For sure.
Damned great family? Absolutely.