James Wallace “Wally” Butts Jr. coached the University of Georgia (UGA) football team from 1939 to 1960, leading the Bulldogs to four Southeastern Conference (SEC) titles, one undefeated season, and eight bowl games. His intense desire to win, knowledge of the game, and innovative techniques—including a devastating passing game—made him a coaching legend even before he retired. Though he was wracked by scandal late in his career, he is remembered as one of the great coaches in the history of UGA, and in all of college football.
Butts was born on February 7, 1905, near Milledgeville. Despite his somewhat squat frame, he excelled in football, basketball, and baseball in high school. He earned scholarships in those sports to Mercer University in Macon, where he became an All-Southern end. On February 19, 1929, in his last year of college, Butts married Winifred Taylor, his childhood sweetheart. The couple had three daughters, Faye, Jean, and Nancy, all of whom graduated from the UGA.
After graduation Butts began a ten-year string of coaching jobs at prep schools across the Southeast, losing only ten games and making a name for himself as one of the best young coaches in the region. In 1938 he took a job as an assistant coach at UGA; the next year he became head coach and athletic director. Butts posted a five-and-six record in his first season; he didn’t have another losing season until 1949.
Butts led the Bulldogs to the Orange Bowl, UGA’s first bowl game, in 1941. The next fall the Bulldogs took the SEC championship and earned a bid to the Rose Bowl. With future College Hallof Famers Frank Sinkwich and Charlie Trippi on the field and “the Little Round Man” Wally Butts on the sidelines, the 1940s were a decade of dominance for Georgia football. From 1945 to 1950 the Bulldogs played in five bowl games and earned two more SEC titles. In 1946 the team posted an undefeated record, including a win over the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Sugar Bowl.
Butts’s fortunes took a downturn in the 1950s. His teams posted five losing seasons, and the coach did not regain his former glory until 1959. In January he was elected president of the American Football Coaches Association. In the fall the Bulldogs, including quarterback Fran Tarkenton, had a ten-and-one season and were again named the SEC champions.
Butts resigned as head coach after a disappointing six-and-four season in 1960. He remained UGA’s athletic director, but his tenure was marred by scandal. In March 1963 the Saturday Evening Post published a story that accused Butts and Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant of fixing the 1962 Georgia-Alabama game, which the Crimson Tide won thirty-five to nothing. Butts and Bryant sued the Post for libel. In the ensuing trial Butts was awarded $3.06 million, at the time the largest amount ever awarded to a libel plaintiff. (The amount was later reduced to $460,000.) Though Butts won the trial, his reputation had been severely damaged, and he was forced to resign as athletic director.
Butts’s career record at UGA was 140-86-9. Butts was elected to the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1966; in 1997 he was elected posthumously to the College Football Hall of Fame. Wally Butts died on December 17, 1973.