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UGA's Hero Football Coach: From Gridiron Field to Battlefield

One of Georgia’s most successful football coaches was a field general on the gridiron, nearly doubling the team’s all-time victories and coaching the school’s first All-American. And as a Captain in the US Army on the French battlefields of World War 1, he was awarded the country’s second highest miliary honor for bravery and leadership.

Coach William Cunningham, bottom right, led Georgia's Bulldogs for 8 seasons. His greatest achievements came on a French battlefield in WWIPhoto byUGA Special Collections Library Online Exhibitions

The rolling hills of Marietta National Cemetery are the final resting place of more than 15,000 American soldiers and their family members. Each headstone hides stories of how brave men and women served to protect our freedoms. And some made the ultimate sacrifice in their service. As Memorial Day approaches, we’ll be sharing stories of these heroes in the Marietta hills.

Ask any Bulldog fan to name the top coaches to lead the University of Georgia football team, and three names come rapid fire: Kirby Smart, Vince Dooley and Mark Richt. And indeed, those three coaches won the most games and have the highest winning percentages during their coaching tenures.

But if you’re looking for a former Georgia head coach who was a football field general and a decorated hero on the battlefields during war, that distinction goes to Colonel William A. Cunningham. His all-time winning percentage of 68% puts him in fifth place among Georgia coaches who coached at least 10 games – and only one place behind the legendary Vince Dooley.

Coach William Cunningham was hired as Georgia's head football coach after his visiting baseball team won at UGA 11-0.Photo byUGA Special Collections Library Online Exhibitions

College football then wasn’t the multi-million dollar, full-time enterprise it is today. So when he wasn’t coaching UGA football, Cunningham attended Georgia’s law school and served as faculty advisor to the Delta Chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity.

Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, Cunningham served as Georgia’s head basketball coach, too.

According to published accounts, Cunningham’s Bulldogs were fierce competitors and among the top teams in the region. But compared to the determination and bravery of their coach, the Bulldogs were mere pups on a playing field.

In 1917 and 1918, University of Georgia and many other colleges suspended their sports programs. Coach Cunningham joined the US Army and headed to France.

Cunningham served with 321st Machine-Gun Battalion, 82d Division, A.E.F., near Sommerance, France, participating in battles of the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

On Oct. 12, 1918, Captain Cunningham led his unit in an attack on the German lines. Painfully wounded in the face by shrapnel when his battalion was seriously engaged in battle, Cunningham continued leading his men through the heavy shell fire.

For his outstanding service, Cunningham was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military honor.

After the war, Cunningham returned to his coaching position at Georgia and led the Bulldogs on another winning campaign in the 1919 season. He left UGA after the 1919 season having compiled a final football record of 43–18–9.

Colonel Cunningham is buried at Marietta National Cemetery at gravesite Q 181-C.

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