PASADENA, Calif. — There are a lot of happy Georgia fans swarming around outside the Rose Bowl on this Monday morning. None were more giddy than one named Vincent Joseph Dooley.
The Bulldogs’ legendary former coach and athletic director was trying to get to Gate G and inside the stadium three hours before kickoff. But the red-and-black throng that has overwhelmed this pristine patch of earth in Southern California wouldn’t let him.
With every step that Dooley and wife Barbara were trying to take toward their entrance with the help of a UGA support staffer, he kept getting stopped to pose for pictures and selfies with the Rose Bowl’s iconic sign in the background.
“We’ll get inside eventually I guess,” Mrs. Dooley laughed.
No, the old coach was loving it. He was in no hurry. Now 85 years old and long retired, the Rose Bowl is a bucket-list destination even for this jaded old sports administrator. Remarkably, in more than 50 years in college athletics, the Rose Bowl was one place he’d never been.
“I’ve just never had any cause to come here,” he said. “Obviously, Georgia has never played here [the Bulldogs played in the game in 1943] and the SEC hasn’t been here much. But I sure am glad to be here this year.”
At that point, Dooley already had been to the Rose Bowl parade, a real treat for this master gardener. And now Dooley was about to witness his former team — and still his favorite team — go against another storied program in Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals
“I think it’s just fantastic,” said Dooley, wearing a light-blue dress shirt with a dark blue jacket and khaki pants. “The parade was really something, even though we had to leave at 5 this morning to get there. And the weather couldn’t be any better, could it? It’s just beautiful here.”
Dooley said he liked the matchup of Georgia’s tough and physical running game and powerful defense against Oklahoma’s high-octane offense. But he also knows there’s really no telling what might happen when two extremely talented teams face off in a high-stakes bowl game.
Dooley coached the Bulldogs to their last national championship with a victory over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl. But his teams also lost with a national title on the line the next two years in a row in New Orleans.
Georgia hasn’t had a chance to play for another championship until now, 35 years later. And the Bulldogs are doing it under a second-year coach who lives right around the corner from the Dooleys.
“I’m sure it will come down to defense and turnovers like it always does,” Dooley said. “The team that executes best will win. Hopefully that will be Georgia.”
Dooley was at the helm of the Georgia football program when the Bulldogs joined forces with Oklahoma and the College Football Association back in 1983 to sue the NCAA over television broadcast rights. They won, in case you haven’t heard, and as a result conferences now negotiate multimillion-dollar contracts with networks.
“They were trying to take care of the smaller programs and we understood that,” Dooley said. “Obviously it’s been good for the game, but we were concerned about what kind of affect it might have.”
It has worked out pretty well for all involved. And now Georgia finds finally finds itself near college football’s summit once again.
It’s fitting that it’s here, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, where the Bulldogs haven’t been in 75 years and Vince Dooley has never been.
And so it also will be fitting if the Bulldogs can get past this round to the next one, which will be the national title game in Atlanta. Dooley also was in favor of this newfangled playoff system for deciding a national champion. He was one of the most vocal proponents of what he then called the “plus-one” system.
Dooley couldn’t be more excited that his Bulldogs are finally in the middle of it.
“Go Dawgs!” he exclaimed, holding up one finger while posing for yet another picture with yet another Georgia fan.