ATHENS — Cynics exist in every corner, and there were more than a few among the railbirds who observed 31-year-old Vincent Joseph Dooley hiring his coaching staff over the winter of 1963-64.
Nobody knew a thing about the young head coach except that he came to Athens as the freshman coach at Auburn (even President O.C. Aderhold couldn’t remember Vince’s name at the press conference and kept referring to him as “this bright, young coach from Auburn.”) They sure didn’t have a clue about Erk Russell and Vince’s brother Bill who was then coaching the line at George Washington University.
It didn’t take them long to find out that the “bright young coach” began his head coaching career with competent and proficient assistants highlighted by the two sagacious coordinators. There was considerable carping about Vince hiring his brother, a flirtation with the nepotism policy. A lot of his friends told Bill it was not the best career move. Initially, he was reluctant.
However, his older brother, who had slept in the same bedroom with Bill, growing up in an austere environment on the waterfront in Mobile, knew that to get his program kick-started, he had to coax the guy he felt was the best young line coach in the country to join him in Athens. It was one of Vince’s most significant recruiting successes, closing the deal with a simple behest, “Billy, I need you.”
Bill had experienced some health issues in recent years, but had rallied and was eagerly awaiting the upcoming Georgia-North Carolina game in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. He and Vince were scheduled to serve as honorary captains for the game when Bill died August 9th from a heart attack at age 82.
When you peruse the football resume of Bill Dooley, you become linked with a number of highlights which resulted from Bill being exactly what he was. A fundamentally oriented coach who had an ability to communicate and develop rapport with those who played for him. His personality and his approach to moving the football were perfect for the times. His playing era was 1952-55, one in which you moved the ball by rushing behind a seasoned offensive line which had a blue collar attitude and the selfless harmony that you would find among workhorses which pull together.
Bill got the most out of his players with old fashioned work ethic. The hallmark of his coaching was that his teams always featured cohesive offensive lines. “He was a fundamentally sound coach,” his older brother said on the day Bill died. “He always enjoyed great rapport with his players. He was likeable, had a great laugh and a wonderful personality for a football coach. In fact, I wish I had had more of his personality. Everybody liked my brother, which always made me proud.”
The Dooley boys were successful athletes at the Catholic school in Mobile, McGill Institute. They did everything together, including some serious roughhousing with Vince enjoying the upper hand, being almost two years older. However, there came a day when the older brother realized that it was to his advantage not to pick on little brother. Bill had learned to hold his own.
There was a bonding relationship that would make them the best of friends. They fished off the docks in the bay, they would hitch a freight train to Leakesville, an hour away, just to explore the place and then hop the freight home when they were ready to return. They fished with their cousin, who lived in a shack without any electricity or running water on nearby Polecat Island. If anybody had any designs on physically subduing one of the Dooley boys, he would have to take on both.
When they became established coaches, the two men always had a conversation during the noon hour every Friday. They talked football primarily. They talked about their respective games and would interrogate each other about certain game situations. Vince might ask Bill, for instance, what to do with an opponent that might have extremely quick linebackers. Or Bill might want to know how Vince would use his tailbacks when the defense was stacked to resist the strength of his offense.
That bonding relationship not only was beneficial for their game day aspirations, it was an act of brotherly love that satiated and fulfilled the emotions of each man. When Vince called to share the bad news, he, as you might expect, explained what happened with a resigned countenance and a stiff upper lip. But I knew inside he was hurting. Deeply.
I remember a scene at Auburn on a Friday night in 1966. The next day Georgia would come from a 13-0 deficit to win the SEC championship, 21-13. Bill and I went looking for a place to enjoy a beer, wearing our official travel blazers that had a Georgia patch stitched over the left pocket. We kept putting our right hand over the patches as we entered what was literally a redneck joint out in the country.
Bill relished his time with Vince in Athens. He enjoyed a close friendship with Erk Russell and the other assistants — everybody liked Bill, a man’s ma — and saw great opportunity in Georgia’s future. However, he wanted to be a head coach. His concern was that a recommendation from Vince was not an advantage. He worried that prospective schools would think “anybody would recommend his brother.”
The athletic director was the ultra-conservative Joel Eaves, who believed your work and record dictated your opportunity. But I said something like, “I believe Coach Eaves would write a nice letter.” Bill began to laugh and spit his beer across the room. I had just confirmed that Bill’s challenge was negatively accented with regard to how he was going to get someone to promote him for a head job.
I’m not sure Coach Eaves ever wrote a letter, but Vince did recommend Bill for the North Carolina job. Darrell Royal, who coached Bill at Mississippi State and called Bill, “Ol Dool,” weighed in, but mostly Bill sold himself to Chuck Erickson the athletic director at North Carolina.
Bill became the winningest coach in history at Chapel Hill, as he did later at Virginia Tech and Wake Forrest. His fundamental style and rigorous training routine at North Carolina upgraded Atlantic Coast Conference football.
Before he landed in Chapel Hill, Bill’s alma mater, Mississippi State called about an opening in Starkville, where they had just fired Paul Davis. This time we were having beers at his house in the Green Acres section of Athens. He hung up from one eager caller and said, “That is not the job I want. I’d have to fire all my friends.”
When he retired from coaching and settled into retirement in Wrightsville Beach on the North Carolina coast, he originated and developed the Tri-Cities chapter of the National Football Foundation, which one year overtook the Athens-UGA chapter as the No. 1 chapter in the country. That chapter is now known as the “Bill Dooley” chapter.
Bill wore a perpetual smile and was a man of goodwill, whose personality featured a hearty laugh. If Bill Dooley were your friend, you couldn’t have a better one.
Loran Smith is a writer, a UGA track letterman, a former executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club and a longtime employee of the UGA Athletic Association who currently serves in the development office. His columns will appear weekly on DawgNation.com.