The Donner Party: An Epic Fail, Just Like Georgia-Tennessee

UPDATE: AJC sports columnist Tony Barnhart offers a reasoned view of what Georgia must do to fix what ails them.

UPDATE: Birmingham News sports columnist Kevin Scarbinsky offers his own take on the Georgia situation, in which he likens Mark Richt to Tommy Tuberville who got fired at Auburn last year.  Just one quibble:  Tuberville had it coming since 2003, when Auburn school officials met secretly with Bobby Petrino behind an airplane hangar.  Other than that, he makes some very good points.

Those of you who paid attention in your high school American history class may remember hearing a little something about the Donner Party.  This was an unfortunate group of travelers to California who got stuck in the mountains in the winter and wound up having to resort to cannibalism.

The Donner Party was an epic fail.  Reading about all that happened to those poor hapless people, one gets the impression that the Gumbys from Monty Python must have been running it.  It all started back in April 1846, when George Donner, his lovely wife Tamzene (Ladies, I know you would just love to have a name like that), his family, and some friends left Springfield, Illinois, with the intention of heading out to California.

Now travel to California was a lot harder back then than it is these days.  You couldn’t just hop a plane and be there in four hours, or hop on I-80 and be there in four days.  Back then, the trip took at least four months if all went well.  You also had to time it just right.  You couldn’t leave too early in the year, or else the rivers would still be swollen from all the spring rains and the snow melting off the tops of the western mountains, and there would not be enough grass for your animals to graze.  You couldn’t leave too late either, because if you got to the Sierra Nevadas too late in the year there would be snow and all the mountain passes going into California would be impassible.

So the Donners and friends left out in mid-April.  In May, they stopped off in Independence, Missouri (now a suburb of Kansas City), to stock up on supplies for the rest of the trip.  As they headed out from Independence, they joined up with a larger group heading the same way.

It did not take long for misfortune to strike the Donners.  About two weeks out from Independence, they crossed the Big Blue, a fork of the Kansas River.  Here they ran into high water and it took them a while to get across.  During the course of this crossing they suffered their first casualty: Sarah Keyes, the mother of one of Donner’s friends.

By the end of June, the Donners and their group had reached Laramie, Wyoming.  This part of the trip was uneventful.  But then they got into trouble because some guys wanted to take a shortcut.  (Isn’t that always the way with guys?)  This guy named Lansford Hastings wanted people to try a new route through Utah that he had just found.  He sent a lone rider with a letter telling everyone who wanted to try his shortcut to meet up at Fort Bridger so that he could guide them through.  (Heads up:  Don’t trust any guy named Lansford.)  At the Little Sandy River, a group of people who wanted to try Hastings’ shortcut split off.  They elected George Donner to be their leader and went their own way.  And thus the Donner Party was formed.

Well, the Donner Party arrived at Fort Bridger only to find that Hastings had left out a week earlier, taking a group of wagons with him.  But he had left detailed instructions for anybody who might come along afterward, and so the Donner Party set out on Hastings’ shortcut.  About a week into this, they found that the road ahead was impassible and they would have to take a detour.  This involved cutting a new road through the Wasatch Mountains underbrush; they lost a lot of time on this.  Finally they made it down into the Great Salt Lake Valley.  One person died of consumption there.

At this point they received a note from Hastings warning of a two-day dry ride up ahead.  Well, it actually turned out to be a five-day dry ride.  This was the Great Salt Lake Desert, which was eighty miles across (Hastings had said it was half as wide).  Of course they ran out of water midway through, and they lost a lot of their animals.  By the end of September they had reached the Humboldt River, where Hastings’ shortcut rejoined the regular trail.  It turned out that Hastings’ shortcut was actually 125 miles longer than the regular trail.

Hastings’ shortcut worked out so well that no one going to California ever tried it again.  However, when the Mormons made their trek out to Utah, they took the shortcut as far as the Great Salt Lake Valley.  Here they settled and formed what is now Salt Lake City.

In Nevada there was more trouble.  A fight broke out between two of the families in the Donner party; one person died and another was banished from the party.  Indians attacked the party and killed a whole bunch of their oxen.  One member of the party accidentally shot another.  One guy murdered another and then lied about it, saying that he had been killed by Indians.  And then George Donner had an accident where his axle broke.  (Are you starting to see what I mean when I talked about the Gumbys from Monty Python running this thing?)

About mid-October they finally reached the Truckee River.  They were running very low on food, so they sent ahead to Sutter’s Fort, over in California on the other side of the mountains, for it.  It came at the end of October, along with the news that the pass would be open for another month.  Yeah right.

In early November they reached what is now called Donner Lake.  But a ring around the moon that night indicated that snow was coming soon.  Sure enough, it snowed during the night.  The Donner Party was stuck.

We won’t get into all of the ugliness that followed.  Suffice it to say that when the dust had settled and all was said and done, 39 people out of 87 who had originally made up the Donner Party were dead.  34 of these died in the pass during that awful winter, 27 dying of starvation.  Of these, as many as 21 were cannibalized.

Nowadays, I-80 going into California follows the route that the Donner Party took.  The pass where they got snowed in is now called Donner Pass.  There is now a state park near the pass, with a monument commemorating the ill-fated Donner Party.

There.  I have just schooled you in American history.  Just like Tennessee completely and totally schooled Georgia this week.

This was not a game; this was an epic fail on the part of Georgia.  Georgia went into this game expected to win, even if not officially favored by Las Vegas.  Mark Richt, once the pride and class of the SEC, came away looking ever like poor hapless George Donner, having been taken to school by a team in Year One under an ignorant doofus with a loud mouth and an uncertain body of work.  His team lost by almost four touchdowns, give or take a couple of deaths by starvation and exposure, cannibalizations, broken axles, Indian attacks, fights, murders, and/or accidental shootings.

The game started smoothly enough.  For those of us who remember the train wreck of 2007 when Tennessee had dropped 28 points on Georgia by the middle of pregame walk-throughs, before the bands had even entered the stadium, this was an encouraging sign:  3 minutes left in the first quarter, and there was still no score.  Two Tennessee drives had moved the ball somewhat but resulted in zero points.  One Georgia series went three-and-out, but this time Georgia was moving the ball very well.  They had started deep in their own territory, and had managed to move the ball into Tennessee territory.

But this encouragement proved to be very short-lived.  It was just like arriving at Donner Lake, stopping to catch a night’s rest, and waking up the next morning to find yourself completely and totally snowed in.  On second-and-3 from the 42, Cox threw an incompletion.  On the next play, he threw an interception.  Nobody realized it at the time, but never again that day would Georgia so much as touch the ball with the chance to take the lead.

Those of you who are Willie Martinez defenders will no doubt argue that it isn’t his defense’s fault; the offense keeps placing them in bad spots by turning the ball over, and the special teams place them in bad spots by failing to properly cover kickoffs.  But if you look around you at the rest of the college football world, you will note that not every turnover results in an automatic touchdown for the opposing team.  Some defenses actually hold the opposing team to a field goal after turning the ball over.  And some manage to come away without giving up any points at all.  Believe it or not, either of these outcomes after a turnover can be a game-changer in your favor.

But whenever Georgia turns the ball over these days, it is an automatic touchdown for the opposing team (with rare exceptions against lesser opponents).  Sure enough, eight plays later Lane Kiffin was in the end zone and the rout was on.

Although it didn’t seem like it at the time.  On the ensuing kickoff, Brandon Boykin returned it 100 yards for a touchdown and Georgia was right back in the game.  Or so we thought.

Tennessee returned the ensuing kickoff out to the 40.  A face mask penalty moved it to the Georgia 45.  This time it only took 3 plays for Lane Kiffin to get into the end zone.

After a Georgia field goal, Tennessee showed that starting field position was completely and totally irrelevant against Willie Martinez’s defense.  Starting from their own 29, they only needed six plays to reach the end zone.

On the ensuing possession, Georgia went three-and-out.  But they managed to punt Tennessee deep into their own territory.  And, surprise of surprises, they actually managed to force Tennessee to go three-and-out, and then block the punt through the end zone for a safety.  A last-ditch effort by Georgia to get a field goal before the half amounted to nothing.

It was thought that the special teams fireworks at the end of the first half would give Georgia a spark.  But five plays after Georgia took the opening kickoff of the second half, the ball was right back in Tennessee hands after another Cox interception.  This time the defense actually managed to hold Tennessee to a field goal.  On the ensuing possession Georgia went three-and-out.  Tennessee’s ensuing drive was interrupted by a pick-six that brought Georgia to within 24-19 and offered hope that this game was not out of reach yet.

The ensuing kickoff was a touchback.  Tennessee took over on their own 20, and eight plays later they were in the end zone.  Touchdown Tennessee.  Two more Tennessee touchdowns.  Game over.

Going into this game there was a great deal of mystery about this team.  Previously they had shown themselves capable of both tremendous brilliance and tremendous ineptitude, and you never knew which was going to show up at any given instant.  But now, as we walk away from yet another Knoxville train wreck, things have become much clearer.

Georgia is now 3-3, their worst start ever under Mark Richt, and their worst start since the ill-fated season of 1996, Jim Donnan’s first year, which saw them go 3-5 before finishing 5-6.

And as you look back on what has passed so far, you start to realize that things could be much worse.  You start to realize that if Blair Walsh had not been golden on the last play of the Arizona State game, and if Georgia had not been able to survive the complete and utter mayhem that broke out against South Carolina and Arkansas, we would be looking at scorched earth over in Athens right now.

And you realize that things are much different now than they were back in the early part of this decade.  That things are much different now than they were even as recently as the end of 2007, when Georgia was the No. 2 team in the country and being hailed as an odds-on contender for the 2008 national championship.

The defense has been hemorrhaging points and yards for over a year now, with no end to the bleeding in sight.  The offense, which showed signs of promise earlier in the season, is now a toxic asset.  The special teams were completely and totally ugly, though they did have their moments.

The bootleg and the play-fake have both been part of the college football lexicon since time immemorial, yet when Jonathan Crompton ran them the Georgia defense responded as if they were seeing Sasquatch.  And Willie Martinez was so completely and totally befuddled that he had no clue about any sort of adjustment that could have been made to stop it.

Even as recently as 2007, the Georgia defense was chewing up the most highly rated quarterbacks in the conference, if not the country, and spitting them out.  Yet on this day, the worst quarterback in the SEC was eating them for lunch.  Jonathan Crompton scorched the Georgia defense for four touchdown passes.  Never before in this season had he managed any more than two in a game.  Oh wait…he got five against Western Kentucky.  Guess that means Georgia is now on a par with Western Kentucky.  Yeesh.

Fresh concerns have emerged about the playcalling ability of Mike Bobo, or the lack thereof.  In the last eleven quarters, going back to the first quarter of the Arizona State game, there have been only two offensive touchdowns.  Over the course of a goodly stretch of the third quarter of this game, Georgia had the ball three times and managed only nine plays for a grand total of -3 yards.

Just a few short years ago Mark Richt gave us P-44 Haynes right here on this very field.  The very next year he gave us 70X Takeoff on a chilly night down in Auburn, and “blew the lid off” a long-frustrated program.  Even as recently as 2007 this offense was lighting up the most powerful teams in the conference.

So what on earth has happened?  Where has the magic gone?

During the postgame press conference, someone asked Mark Richt if he was concerned about the state of the program.  Just a year and a half ago the question would have been unthinkable.  Yet there it was, sitting right out there in broad daylight.  His response?  “We didn’t play very good today. We haven’t had a game this season where we played a really solid football game. So I’m concerned about that.”

Mr. Donner, I think you’re missing the point of the question.  I think your brain is still a little addled from all that time out there in the cold and the snow.  Go back inside and get yourself some hot chocolate.

The point of the question is that there has been a serious regression in the state of Georgia football.  Whatever Mark Richt was doing earlier in this decade is not working now.  Either the wrong players are being recruited, or the right ones are being recruited and then coached the wrong way.

I am inclined toward the latter opinion.  According to, Georgia’s recruiting classes ranked 3rd nationally in 2002, 6th in 2003 and 2004, 10th in 2005, 4th in 2006, 9th in 2007, 7th in 2008, and 6th in 2009.  Now of course recruiting is a notoriously inexact science, and some highly rated prospects don’t exactly pan out.  But surely it’s a stretch to say that the recruiting magazines got it wrong on ALL of those Georgia recruits.

In light of that, the question that Steve Spurrier always used to ask back in the early 90s becomes just as relevant today as it was back then:  “Georgia gets all these recruits.  I don’t know what happens to them.”

And now Lane Kiffin is moving swiftly to milk his big win for all the recruiting advantage he can possibly get.  If things continue on the present trajectory, in just a couple of years time the flagship university of the state of Georgia will find itself having to scrape together a team from Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, and Georgia Tech rejects.  Is that an acceptable state of affairs?

Something has got to be done.  Quickly.  Mark Richt must stop looking and sounding like poor hapless George Donner, and find a way to bring back the magic.  Quickly.  Because it’s starting to get really cold up here.  And those clouds in the mountains up ahead are looking an awful lot like snow clouds.


2 thoughts on “The Donner Party: An Epic Fail, Just Like Georgia-Tennessee

  1. Although you’d have to admit the Tennessee team they faced wasn’t one they had seen on film. No one had seen it…..ever. On this side of the ball we’re wondering if it will show up again. Alabama in two weeks would be a good time for them to.

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