Sports Desk: The Lead Dawg

Sixty-four years ago, Uga, the University of Georgia’s mascot, started out as a family pet. He’s gone on to become a beloved game day presence

For the past 64 years when the University of Georgia (UGA) football team has taken the field, the lead Dawg has been its nationally acclaimed mascot, Uga, an all-white male English bulldog.

The current Uga, Roman numeral X, is in the prime of life and always ready to wave a paw at his contingent of adoring fans, not just in Athens, but across the national landscape. “Yessir,” as one of his admirers, Verne Lundquist of CBS Sports, would say to that.

After all, Sports Illustrated has made Uga a cover boy twice: the first in 1997, when the magazine proclaimed him to be the best mascot in college football. Then in 2019, he was picked by the magazine as the greatest mascot of all time.

Uga, which rhymes with “hug-ga” as opposed to “ooga,” has earned fame that puts him on a level with Vince Dooley (former Georgia coach) and the incumbent football coach, Kirby Smart. In fact, football aficionados around the country probably recognize Uga’s name as quickly as they do that of Herschel Walker, the Heisman trophy-grabbing superstar who led Georgia to the national championship in 1980.

Mascots have become ingrained in the fabric of college football in the same way as the marching bands and tailgating. Through the years, both sanguine and treasured, no mascot has been more beloved than UGA’s. Fans can’t wait to throw an arm around his neck for a photo-op that will wind up on their office wall.

The Seiler family began the Uga tradition in 1956 when the patriarch, Frank Wilkins “Sonny” Seiler, a Savannah native, was a buttoned-down law student and devout fraternity man. He and his late wife, Cecelia, were given a bulldog as a wedding present by a friend of Cecelia’s family in Columbus.

While Cecelia was all for having a bulldog as a pet, Sonny wasn’t so sure that there was enough money in the family budget to include dog food. The Ugas have had, shall we say, generous appetites. Human food is not advisable, but there are a number of vignettes in their culinary history to reflect that they, as Sonny says, “will eat anything that won’t eat them.” A favorite is hotdogs from the iconic Atlanta restaurant, The Varsity. Hold the mustard.

As Uga I emerged from infancy to novelty status, the young married couple took him to a tailgate party at the Sigma Chi house, Sonny’s fraternity, with no plans to have him accompany them to a game between-the-hedges. But everyone wanted him to come along, so the first Uga witnessed the Georgia-Florida State game from the stands in the fall of 1956.

Dan Magill, the illustrious, enterprising and promotion-focused sports information director, learned about the Seiler’s pet and told Coach Wallace Butts, who was also athletic director. The incumbent mascot, Mike, an aging bulldog that hung around the old Field House that contained the team locker room, had just died. Magill had begun to search for a replacement and told Butts about the Seiler’s “bull pup.” Sonny had a part-time job working in the UGA ticket office when he was summoned to Butts’ office.

It was a brief conference. Butts: “Dan tells me you have a bulldog that would make us a good mascot.” Seiler: “Sure, Coach, if you think he can help us.”

“Good,” Butts replied. “Have him at every game.” And that is how the Uga dynasty began.

It has been a glorious ride for the Seilers, who have been protective of the mascots, never commercializing their image but making them available for campus functions and university ceremonies. Uga is also a staple of certain alumni gatherings and attended the Heisman banquet when Herschel won the prestigious award.

Uga has ridden in the Orange Bowl parade and countless St. Patrick’s Day parades, wearing a green jersey. He has helped Sonny ring UGA’s chapel bell on campus; he has been the guest of honor at the UGA president’s home, the Senate Office Building in Washington and countless victorious locker rooms; he got a pat on the head by the bugler at Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, Ky.; and he was a star at the premiere of the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which he had a bit part.

Uga’s primary role is to represent the Bulldogs on game day. The TV cameras can’t get enough of him and neither can the fans who line up 10 and 20 feet deep for a prized Uga photo-op.

Uga is universally toasted by the Bulldawg nation as a Damn Good Dawg.

Categories: Downtime, Sports Desk