Remembering Buddy — By Tommy Purser
By TOMMY PURSER
I’ve had Buddy Bennett on my mind a lot lately.
The former Jeff Davis High head football coach landed in Hazlehurst in 1978, taking the reins of a program that had just completed what, at that time, was the most successful year of football in the history of the school.
I liked Buddy from the moment I met him. A quiet, unassuming man with a genuine, engaging smile. And a vast knowledge of the game of football.
Buddy came to Hazlehurst with the most impressive record of any coach before or after.
He graduated from Jesup High School where he was a member of the 1954 Class A State Championship Football Team. He played quarterback at the University of South Carolina (1957–1961) before entering the coaching ranks, first at Waycross High School then at Georgia Tech under the legendary Bobby Dodd and at South Carolina.
The pinnacle of his career was at East Tennessee State University (1966-1970) where his defense was nicknamed “Bennett’s Bandits” by the media. In 1969, Bennett’s Bandits led the conference in interceptions (37) and the team was the division 2A National Champions beating Louisiana Tech when senior Terry Bradshaw played quarterback. He was a defensive backfield coach for one year at the University of Tennessee where his team set a conference record of 40 interceptions. Bennett went to the University of Arkansas as defensive coordinator for two years. With 27 interceptions and a 10-2 record in 1971, the Razorbacks played in the Liberty Bowl. Bennett’s next moves were to Georgia Tech (1973-1974) and Virginia Tech (1974-1978).
After his father passed away, Buddy returned to Wayne County to be close to his mother. He resumed high school coaching at Jeff Davis High (1978–1980).
His second year at Jeff Davis proved to be disastrous — not on the football field but, rather, because he unintentionally stirred the wrath of the Georgia High School Association.
As I recall, during the spring or summer of 1979, Buddy received a well-meaning but unfortunate call from an Appling County assistant football coach. Two of the Appling County players, a pair of brothers, had run afoul of team rules and were dismissed from the team. The coach felt the pair were excellent football players and good young men who had simply made a mistake. That mistake threatened to unalterably destroy the youngsters’ futures.
The Pirate coach felt both young men could earn college football scholarships, get their educations, escape their lives of poverty and become productive members of society. But that bright future would never come to fruition unless they could suit up and play their senior year of football to catch recruiters’ eyes and get those scholarships.
The coach implored to Buddy to give the two kids a chance.
So Buddy drove over to Baxley to meet the brothers and size them up. The two boys made a good impression on Buddy so he agreed to take a chance on them. But, in order for the two to be eligible to play with the Yellow Jackets, their family had to make a bonafide move to Jeff Davis County.
So their mother, a woman of simple means who could barely provide for her children as a single mom, did what she could to help her boys realize the futures they — and she — dreamed of. She found an unfurnished rental house in Hazlehurst and moved her family. A well-meaning man in Hazlehurst, in an effort to help the young family, provided them with a used stove so the mother could feed her children.
But things soon made a turn for the worse.
An opposing coach, then at Blackshear High School, took offense. Still smarting from a 67-0 defeat to the Yellow Jackets in the 1977 season, the coach contacted the Georgia High School Association and leveled a complaint, accusing Buddy of illegally recruiting the brothers and “paying” their mother in the form of a free stove.
It’s a long, sordid story of what happened next. To put it in a nutshell, the GHSA railroaded Buddy, found him guilty of recruiting and eventually booted the school from the association. By then, the football season was over so it was the young boys and girls basketball players who were punished by an association of grown adults who exacted their vengeance on dozens of Jeff Davis County teenagers.
The late Ronald Dixon, then the JDHS principal, fought valiantly for his students and brokered a deal with the GHSA to get the school back into the association. But there was a requirement inserted by the GHSA — Buddy had to go.
So Buddy did the right thing for the kids. The honorable thing. He resigned.
Buddy took his young family and moved back to his hometown in Wayne County.
That family included his son, Stetson Bennett III, named for his grandfather, the Rev. Stetson Bennett Sr. Rev. Bennett was Buddy’s father and also the father of Buddy’s brother, Stetson Bennett Jr., the longtime Wayne County Clerk of Court.
Young Stetson III grew up and had a son of his own — Stetson Bennett IV, known as “Stet” by his family.
Stetson III moved his family to Blackshear where Stetson IV played quarterback for the Pierce County Bears.
Richard “Buddy” Gordon Bennett Sr. died in 2016 at the age of 78. He never got to see his grandson play for the Georgia Bulldogs. At least not in person. I like to believe that, Monday night, he watched from above with great pride and his genuine, engaging smile as Stet led the Bulldogs to their second straight National Championship.
Oh, and those two brothers from Baxley? Both, indeed, played college football. Both got their educations. And today, they have escaped poverty and are productive members of society.
I suspect Buddy is looking down and smiling about that, too.
Tommy, Great tribute! Frank