UGA salute to Bill Payne brings back fond memories

Published 3:50 pm Friday, February 23, 2018

There are few people I admire more than William Porter Payne. In a fit of pique during my days at the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, I told an associate that I was ready to whip somebody’s butt the next time anybody criticized Payne, the organization’s founder and CEO.

My associate found that commendable but reminded me that Billy Payne was ten years younger, a hard-nosed football player at the University of Georgia and someone who, no doubt, could take care of himself. Besides, my associate confided, I probably couldn’t whip a bowl of cream on a good day, let alone defend someone in combat. Okay, maybe that was so, but it’s the thought that counts.

I remembered that story when I read that the University of Georgia will name its new $30 million indoor football facility for Billy Payne and his late father, Porter Payne, who himself was an outstanding all-SEC player at UGA and team captain in 1949. That is an outstanding decision on the part of my alma mater.

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I backed into my relationship with Billy. I had an established career as a vice president at BellSouth Corporation and a reputation for successfully dealing with tricky external issues. Nowhere do they get trickier than in Olympic Games planning. 

Billy Payne had talked the poohbahs in the International Olympic Committee to include golf as an Olympic sport in 1996, with the competition to be held at the Augusta National, home of the venerable Masters Tournament.

An Atlanta city councilman named Bill Campbell, who I later told the Washington Post could make a racial issue out of a lima bean (still one of my favorite quotes), was raising a furor over holding an Olympic event at such a privileged facility. Billy, as is the wont of defensive ends, wasn’t about to budge. An international incident was brewing, much to the consternation of the IOC and to the delight of the media.

I was asked to join the committee and get involved in the issue. After much debate and hand-wringing, I decided to take the plunge. After all, how many people ever get to participate in something as exciting as the Olympic Games?

My recommendation upon arriving at ACOG was to drop Olympic golf in 1996. It would require too many resources for too long to defend, and perhaps taint, everything else we would be trying to do in showcasing the South to the world.

(Irony of ironies, Payne later became chairman of Augusta National and is credited with helping opening the club to women and promoting an international appeal for the game of golf. Campbell later became mayor of Atlanta and ended up in the federal pokey for tax evasion. God is good.)

It also became obvious to me that Billy was being underestimated and undermined at every turn by a bunch of incompetent buffoons in city government, a nervous-nelly business community and a provincial media that enjoyed taking ungracious digs at him, rather than hold the city’s feet to the fire. 

What Billy Payne got with me was not only somebody with a little walking-around knowledge of dealing with external issues but also a guy who was more than willing to take on this small-minded bunch, one at a time or all at once, and keep him above the fray. This I did with great relish. He had made a believer out of this old corporate cynic that there was an inherent goodness in the Olympic movement. He deserved to enjoy the fruits of his labors. I would take the heat. 

One of my prouder moments was walking behind him one day as he was briefing the chairman of the upcoming 2000 Games in Sydney. “One of the first things you need,” he said, “is to get you a mean SOB.” Pointing over his shoulder, he said, “That’s mine.”

After the Games, our paths diverged. His to Augusta National where he served as chairman until his recent retirement and mine to these pages some 2,000 columns ago. We did cross paths briefly at the 20th anniversary of the Centennial Olympic Games a couple of years ago.

Even in the long absence, I still consider Billy Payne my friend.  I am honored to have known him and to have worked with him. And I hope he still considers me his favorite SOB. On the credenza in my office sits a photograph of the two of us with the inscription: “The Bulldog Brothers.” Amen to that.