ATHENS – It has been 29 years since he has coached a football game, but Vince Dooley still has a lot of coach in him. That will be evident Monday night when he attends the College Football Playoff championship game at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
When things are going well, you don’t change anything about your routine.
“I plan to be back in there in a little suite and hopefully I’ll be with Herschel [Walker] again,” the Georgia football coaching legend said Friday. “I was with him in a suite at the SEC Championship Game, I was with him in a suite at the Rose Bowl and I understand he’s coming to this game. So, we’re trying to keep the karma together. We’re trying to do everything the same way.”
Dooley added that his goodwill group also includes Kirby Smart’s wife, Mary Beth, and family. They’ll all be together again on Monday at The Benz, and the No. 3 Bulldogs appreciate it as they will need all the help they can get to defeat the No. 4 Alabama for the national championship.
In the Crimson Tide (12-1), Georgia will be facing the preeminent program in college football for the last decade. Alabama won four national championships in a seven-year stretch under coach Nick Saban entering the 2017 season and will be playing in its third consecutive title game.
Meanwhile, Saban will be facing his longtime defensive coordinator and right-hand man in Smart. Smart was on hand for all four of the aforementioned championships and has implemented many of the Alabama methods and processes at Georgia.
That will make for a particularly intriguing matchup on Monday. Something will have to give between these mirror-image football programs, each of which prides itself on running the football and stopping the run.
“I don’t think we’re going to see the same type of football game Monday night,” Dooley said. “These two teams are a little better balanced than Oklahoma was. Oklahoma had an incredible offense but obviously their defense was not as good. Both of these teams are total teams. As a result of that, I think you’re going to see a real tight, hard-nosed, Deep South football game.”
Dooley was the last coach to lead Georgia to a national championship, which he did 37 years ago. Behind a great defense and Walker, a freshman tailback who rushed for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns, the Bulldogs went 12-0 and defeated Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl to claim the school’s fifth national championship and second as far as consensual recognition.
The primary difference in that team and this one is that the 1980 squad played so many close games. The average margin of victory for Dooley’s Dawgs was 16.33 points, with six games being decided by a touchdown or less.
Georgia’s 2017 team has won its games by an average of 23.9 points. But the Bulldogs also have proved resilient when they needed to be. Their three most notable victories – at Notre Dame, against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game and over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl semifinal – all were the come-from-behind variety and required clutch plays in big moments.
“There are always similarities in winning a national championship,” Dooley said. “Things have to fall in place, and they certainly fell in place for us in ’80, time after time. In this year’s case, there are so many things that went into it. But if we happen to win a championship, I’ll go back to the same thing: Those four guys deciding to come back. That has been the biggest key of all.”
Tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy each bypassed the opportunity to enter the NFL draft to return for their senior seasons. In each of the aforementioned games, one of more of them made key contributions to get the win. Against Oklahoma, Michel and Chubb combined for 367 total yards and 6 touchdowns. Carter had 10 tackles, a sack and blocked the Sooners’ field-goal attempt in the second overtime to set up Michel’s game-winning touchdown.
“Then you’ve got the quarterback, the freshman that just came out of nowhere,” Dooley said of Jake Fromm. “Then you got the opportunity to play Auburn again for the SEC Championship, which I thought that was a break. All the things fell in place.”
Dooley also pointed out Georgia’s strength on special teams. The Bulldogs have won that battle in virtually every game. Rodrigo Blankenship made a 55-yard field goal against Oklahoma, and he also broke Kevin Butler’s school record for touchbacks after struggling on kickoffs a year ago.
“And then the punter came out of heaven,” Dooley said of Cameron Nizialek, who came in as an unrecruited graduate transfer from the Ivy League’s Columbia University. “He just showed up. And we’d been punting the ball pretty badly. Now we’re fourth or fifth in the nation in net punting. So, all of these things have kind of fallen in place. You have to have that to have this kind of year.”
Dooley said the Bulldogs can win the national title Monday. In fact, he was certain it would happen before now. He said he thought former coach Mark Richt would deliver one, and he almost did. Georgia finished third when it went 13-1 in 2002 and second after an 11-2 season in 2007. The Bulldogs also were in position to play for the championship in 2012, but came up short when their final drive ended at Alabama’s 5-yard-line as time expired. The Crimson Tide, with Smart as defensive coordinator, defeated Notre Dame 42-14 in the Orange Bowl to claim the national championship that season.
“We’d have played Notre Dame that year and there’s no doubt in my mind that we would’ve beaten them because Alabama annihilated them,” Dooley said. “But football is a game of inches, so we end up 5 yards away after a tipped ball.”
Dooley said he is not surprised that Smart has gotten Georgia back into the national championship, but he’s impressed that he’s done it so fast. And he said he believes that the Bulldogs will stay in this position.
That’s why a program must capitalize while it can. While Dooley won the national championship in 1980, Georgia played for the title the next two years as well and came up short against Pittsburgh and Penn State, respectively, in the Sugar Bowl.
“You’ve got to take it when you can get it,” Dooley said. “But when you do that, you set the bar so high that anything less is a disappointment, like Saban has at Alabama. But I think Kirby’s up to the task. They’ve recruited great every year, so it could be the start of something special.
“I think part of that is being with Nick for nine years and playing in all those championship games. He’s got a model to follow, and that’s a big advantage for him, and he’s got the sense and enthusiasm to carry it through. So, he’s got a lot going for him, no question about that.”
Having Dooley as a friend and adviser is another advantage for Smart. They live around the corner from each other in the Westlake area of Athens. Dooley said they don’t talk much during the season because Smart is so busy. But they make a point to visit in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Dooley has on his ambassador’s cap for the National Championship Game. He has been inundated with media requests and invitations. He had five television interviews scheduled over three days and has been asked to introduce Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy at the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics’ leadership summit in Atlanta on Monday morning.
But nothing, absolutely nothing, will get in his way of being in his seat in his suite next to Herschel Walker Monday night.
“One more time,” Dooley said, invoking his best Erk Russell impression.