Smith: Happy birthday, Vince Dooley

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Loran Smith
Administrative Assistant, UGA Football Club

Vincent Joseph Dooley, the Depression-born kid of Irish and Italian descent, is much different in the winter of his life than he was in its spring. That makes him as human as the rest of us.

Few have grown intellectually as this man who used two fortuitous developments to realize the American dream. First, he was the beneficiary of a strict Catholic education. It was free, and the sisters and brothers at the Cathedral Grammar School and McGill Institute in Mobile, Ala., gave of themselves to the kids who came their way. Next, he used athletics, primarily football, to advance his college education at Auburn. Enterprise figured in the next building block of the foundation of his career as he entered manhood and moved forward with the rest of his life’s story. He saw opportunity to grow his education by managing his coaching workload so that he could earn a master’s degree.

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That would come in handy if coaching, as planned from the outset, was to become the centerpiece of his life and career. There was an endearing sidelight that came with the classroom process—the unadulterated satisfaction which came from the pleasures of research. That was a blissful experience and left him longing for more. He became a regular at the library, which caused quite a stir when he first appeared at the UGA library in the spring of 1964.

The grand gentleman, head of the Ila Dunlap Little Memorial Library, Porter Kellam, was flabbergasted when he learned that the new coach on campus possessed a bent for the library and research. As the newest member of the athletic staff in the summer of ’64, I wrote a story about Georgia’s 31-year-old coach spending time at the library. The Associated Press picked up the Athens Banner-Herald story and distributed it on their Southeastern wire.

While he has always been introspective, Dooley is now a sage and sagacious elder statesman who maintains a busy schedule—he has never been a front porch rocker—which keeps him traveling, learning and feeding his insatiable curiosity.

The fulfillment of life for him is to stay active. While he is not a Georgia graduate, no sheepskin-possessing Bulldog has identified more with UGA’s motto, “to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things”, than the former Bulldog coach and athletic director.

At Auburn, Dooley became a starter in both basketball and football, which led to a defining moment when he learned that there were several football players who were getting “fringe benefits,” some of whom were seeing limited game action. His rationale was that he was in reality “worth two scholarships.”

He went to a banker friend, an Auburn Alumnus, in Mobile who gave him sound advice. “I understand how you feel, but in the long run, you will be better off if you get what you deserve and what you were promised.” Dooley concluded that the advice was all he needed to look ahead.

His credentials as a football coach and administrator are well documented, from games won and championships collected, all accompanied with the enviable status that comes with an elite coaching career. His resume is chock full of praiseworthy trappings. He won a national title and was elected to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, two of the highest accomplishments of his profession. Plaques for his walls began accumulating after his first season, 1964, when his upstart Bulldogs won seven games including victories over arch-rival Georgia Tech and subsequently Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas.

Within five years off his employment, he had won two Southeastern Conference titles and had warmed the hearts of all Bulldog partisans with a perfect record against Georgia’s cross-state rivals, which meant that he never lost to Bobby Dodd, a man whom he greatly admired and respected as a coach.

Dooley experienced the best of times (71, 75, 76, 78), but the rest of the decade was largely forgettable and included his only team to post a losing record (5-6 in 1977). Georgia’s constituency had seldom been more frustrated.

Lurking in the finger pointing gloaming and negative headlines that permeated was an oversized running back with the swiftest of feet just two hours south of Athens.

His broad shoulders would carry his team to glory, and bring about an end to all the feuding and carping. Herschel Walker filled seats, which caused more seats to be built.

The Bulldog nation expected four years, but in a prelude of what has now become the norm, it was entitled to swoon and salivate for only three seasons with Herschel.

But what a time it was. Three SEC titles and a national championship—just a couple of plays here and there kept it from being three in a row.

Losing Herschel to the USFL left Georgia fans with a deep and lasting hurt. They felt that the New Jersey Generals had snookered them.

Dooley finished his coaching years in fine style, despite a pair of storms that made navigation a challenge: Herschel’s early departure, as well as the Jan Kemp debacle of the mid 80’s. The latter resulted in a set of self-imposed academic restrictions that left Georgia at a competitive disadvantage. 

When Vince’s days as Georgia’s athletic director ended, he took the high road. He was disappointed in Adam’s decision but moved on. He dived into gardening and landscaping with the same commitment he had as a coach. He kept busy as a speaker, perhaps as the only former coach to speak to both touchdown and garden clubs. He wrote books and he turned his home on Milledge Circle into a becoming botanical garden.

In 2011, The Georgia Historical Society named him a Trustee, quite a signature honor but deserving for this over achiever who had a passion to learn and keep learning. When the Georgia Center for Continuing Education opened in 1957, the iconoclastic director, Hugh Masters had a slogan for all printed matter: “Learning Has no Age Limit.” There was a slash across the word age. That could have been a Vince Dooley motto.

One of his favorite quotes, which he keeps handy, is that of the genius artist Michelangelo said on his 87th birthday: “I’m Still Learning.” Vince Dooley turns 87 this week.