A dark cloud over football has been lifted," claimed Bernie Moore, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, after a jury last week awarded Wally Butts a $3,060,000 libel verdict against The Saturday Evening Post. Whether Moore is correct or not, this was not simply a libel suit. It was a case in which Georgians took sides against Georgians, and the repercussions of the verdict will be felt for months to come, particularly at the university.
The trial, the result of an article in which the Post accused Butts of giving Georgia football secrets to Alabama Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, lasted 12 days, and for much of that time the walnut-paneled courtroom in Atlanta's Old Post Office Building reverberated with rhetoric. The attorney for the Post, Welborn Cody, adopted a folksy, face-rubbing stance. Bald and 64, he joked lightly about his age and lack of hair. He and the attorneys for Butts, William Schroder and Allen Lockerman, spoke in drawls that seemed to get deeper as the case wore on. The members of the all-male jury listened impassively, and when all the talking was over they brought in the second largest libel award in history.
The Post has announced it will appeal. The magazine is expected to file a motion with Judge Lewis Morgan for a new trial. Should its arguments be denied, the magazine then has 30 days to appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A failure there could lead, eventually, to an appeal to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the magazine must pay 7% interest ($586.85 per day) on the $3,060,000 until it either posts a bond or pays off. Tax experts are uncertain as to how much of the award Butts will be able to keep.
The Post also has its difficulties with Bear Bryant, who is suing for $10 million on the same article. The Post has asked that this case, which is scheduled to come up in federal court in Birmingham early next year, be shifted to another city, on the grounds that local prejudice does not allow a fair trial.
In Atlanta the Post put up a surprisingly weak defense. About the only time the magazine scored was when Cody put Dr. O. C. Aderhold, president of the University of Georgia, and three other members of the athletic board on the stand as rebuttal witnesses. Asked if Butts's character and reputation were good or bad they replied, to a man, "Bad."
The accents grew even thicker as Cody, Schroder and Lockerman summed up. Each side had two hours. Wally Butts became Walla Butts, and Georgia was Jawjuh throughout. Cody still played it folksy. He referred to one witness as "a big strappy fine-lookin' young man who lives in Canon, Jawjuh." Lockerman took the first of the two hours allotted to the plaintiff. An ex-FBI agent who helped gun down John Dillinger, he was all fire and brimstone. He was "stunned and amazed" by Cody's opening address. "He talks about his bald head, Ricky Nelson, Dr. Kildare!" Lockerman exclaimed. "I feel sorry for him. He had a terrific burden, and he can't carry it."
Schroder, a onetime Notre Dame football player who got a law degree from Georgia, took up where Lockerman had left off. He began by saying that if Dr. Aderhold had been testifying for the university and not himself, he, Schroder, would get his diploma and send it back. He would take his watch, which he won as a prize, and send it back. Why, Schroder said, tugging at his pocket, he would even send back his Phi Beta Kappa key. Schroder was so carried away that toward the end of his speech Judge Morgan interrupted to remind him that he only had 10 minutes remaining. Schroder thanked the judge, resumed his orator's stance, raised a finger toward the sky and, his train of thought thrown off, thundered "Ten minutes!" instead of "Ten million dollars!" at the jury.
One of the high points of the trial came a few minutes later when Schroder concluded. His voice trailing off to a whisper, he solemnly intoned, "Someday, as must happen to each of us, Wallace Butts will pass on where neither the Post nor anyone else can then bother him. Unless I miss my guess, they will put him in a red coffin with a black lid [red and black are Georgia's colors] with a football in his hands, and his epitaph will read, 'Glory, glory to Old Georgia.' " In the front row of the courtroom Mrs. Butts and her three daughters sobbed.
When a court clerk announced the jury's verdict, Butts broke out crying. Schroder leaned over to him. "Let it come, Wally," he said. "Let it come, boy." Later Butts said, "I couldn't help it. It was six months rolling out of me. It's not the money. It's the vindication for all those folks that believed in me."
Butts had nothing but good will toward Dr. Aderhold, Georgia Football Coach Johnny Griffith and the other Georgia officials who had testified against him. "I wish them well," he said. After a late-night victory party, Butts and his wife drove back to his home in Athens, the site of the university. One of the first things he did was to buy a dozen loaves of stale bread at a bakery to feed the birds in his backyard. "I got used to doing it before the trial when I didn't have much to do," he explained. "There were times when I was nibbling on some of that stale bread myself." As for the future, "I never asked anyone for a job, but maybe I have the background to help a professional team." (Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, now says, "At the time the scandal broke, Butts was under consideration as a scout. The position has been filled, of course.")
In the tight little world of Athens, Ga., Wally Butts's victory has already had some effect. Johnny Griffith has fired John Gregory, the defensive line coach who was a witness for Butts. But indignant alumni are starting to demand that Griffith himself go.
Pressure is also building up on President Aderhold, who was snubbed at the local country club after testifying. "They're dusting off a chair for a president emeritus," said one alumnus. Aderhold refused to discuss the case. "I believe in our system of courts," he said. "A verdict has been reached and the University of Georgia has no further comment."