ATHENS ― At one time they grappled over prized tailbacks and SEC championship trophies. Today, they battle over prized plants.
Well, OK, they don’t really “battle” over them. Trade would be a more applicable word. But there are some occasional negotiations involved.
We’re talking about Georgia’s Vince Dooley and Auburn’s Pat Dye. Both are legendary former coaches for their respective universities. Football used to be their passion. Today, as it turns out, they’re both very deeply involved in horticulture.
“We were rivals, very much so,” Dooley said as he drove to a book signing in Rome, Ga., this week. “Now we’re very compatible because of plants. I’ve been in it for pleasure. He’s in it for profit.”
Dooley has been retired as Georgia’s football coach since 1988 and as its athletic director since 2004. But he became a master gardener after studying under UGA’s Michael Dirr. Dooley has since written several books on gardening, and the yard of his longtime home in Athens features one of the finest gardens in all of Northeast Georgia.
Featured in that garden are several Japanese maples. Dooley happened to procure a number of them from his old adversary. Dye’s 740-acre spread in Notasulga, Ala., features a Japanese maple nursery. He sells and distributes his trees all over the Southeast.
“I started it because I like Japanese maples,” said Dye, who also runs a hunting preserve on his property, located about 15 minutes west of Auburn off Highway 14. “I live on a hunting preserve and a tree farm. So as far as I’m concerned, I live in paradise.”
While Dye specializes in Japanese maples, Dooley happens to like hydrangeas and camellias, each of which has a species named after him. Each coach has the other’s varieties in his personal garden, and sometimes they meet up at Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground, Ga., where they have a mutual friend in UGA alum and master landscaper Jim Gibbs.
So, yes, times have changed a little since Dooley and Dye were trying to tear out each other’s heart in football in the 1980s. But their shared interests and friendship born out of that competitive game are actually very much in keeping with the tradition of what has come to be known the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Like these coaching legacies of Dooley and Dye, the pasts of these two programs are intertwined like a honeysuckle vine on a chain-link fence.
Dye is a native Georgian from Blythe and a UGA alumnus (1960) who was a captain and a star defensive guard for the Bulldogs. He ended his career at Auburn, where he coached the Tigers to four SEC championships in 12 seasons from 1981-92. Often those championships came down to Georgia and Auburn.
Dooley was born and raised in Mobile, Ala., is an Auburn alum who played quarterback and then coached for the Tigers before coming to UGA to become the Bulldogs coach in 1963. Dooley was lured to Georgia by former Auburn basketball coach Joel Eaves, who brought him over after the Bulldogs hired Eaves as athletic director.
Dooley, of course, brought several Auburn assistant coaches and former players with him to Athens. Most notable among them was defensive coordinator Erk Russell.
“You can go on and on and on about this cross-pollination,” Dooley said. “It goes on forever.”
Indeed, it goes back much further than Dooley and Eaves. It can be debated how far.
For instance, Dooley played for Ralph “Shug” Jordan at Auburn, whose name today is on the Tigers’ stadium. Well, Jordan was an assistant coach under Wally Butts in the 1940s.
But it goes even further back. Dooley likes to include a Georgia letterman by the name of Harold Ketron. Ketron played for the Bulldogs from 1901-03, and somehow also got in another season in 1906. But he was known by the nickname of “War Eagle.”
“That was his battle cry when he played,” Dooley said. “He’d run down the field yelling ‘War Eagle!’ and was known for sometimes spitting tobacco in the face of people he tackled.”
Ketron eventually went to work for the Coca-Cola Co. and famously recruited Charley Trippi to UGA from Pennsylvania, where he’d established a distribution route.
But Dooley points out the “cross-pollination” of Auburn and Georgia football goes back to the very beginning. Charles Herty, a UGA chemistry professor who started football at Georgia in 1892, was actually a classmate and roommate of George Petrie at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. The friends discovered the game then in its infancy in the Northeast and vowed to bring it to the South when they received their faculty appointments.
Petrie settled at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama, which would eventually become known as Auburn. And like Herty at Georgia, Petrie is known as the patriarch of Auburn football.
They organized the first college football game in the history of the Deep South, playing in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park in January 1892. The Tigers, as they’re known now, prevailed 10-0 in a game in which touchdowns were worth four points, the kick after got you two and field goals garnered five.
Fast forward to today, and these two teams will meet 3½ miles from that original location. And there is still a lot of “cross-pollination.”
For every Dooley and Russell who came to Georgia from Auburn, there’s a Dye and a Frank Orgel who went to Auburn from Georgia. Currently, Rodney Garner, who coached defensive line for the Bulldogs for 15 years, is now coaching the same position at Auburn, where he played for Dye. Former Auburn All-American Tracy Rocker coached defensive line at Georgia until last year and still lives in Athens.
At the moment, Georgia has only one coach on its staff from Athens. Scott Fountain, who spent the past four seasons as Auburn’s special teams coach, is serving Kirby Smart as a special teams analyst.
So the teams will know each other quite well when they meet for the SEC championship on Saturday. That brings us to another amazing factoid.
Despite the glorious history of both programs, they’ve never met in the conference title game, which has been conducted since 1992. Each teams has played in it five times, with Georgia posting a 2-3 record and Auburn going 3-2.
Both Dooley and Dye are eager to find out how it turns out. Early in the week, Dye said he didn’t have any plans to attend unless “they need me to do something pregame.”
Dooley will be there and will be sitting in the UGA athletic directors’ box along another one of his former players ― Herschel Walker, the greatest tailback in Georgia history. Bo Jackson, recruited to Auburn by Dye just a year after Walker left Georgia, also will be in attendance.
Both Jackson and Walker carved College Hall of Fame careers at their campuses.
Dooley is hoping they can all get together to reminisce.
“They’re like two Triple Crown winners,” Dooley said of Walker and Jackson. “You don’t have one for 40 years, then they come in bunches. They came [to Georgia and Auburn] two years apart and are probably the two greatest backs in SEC history.”
Just another chapter in the lore that is Georgia-Auburn. They will add a few more pages on Saturday. And probably a few more branches in the near future.