ATHENS — Vince Dooley still has it. He still knows how to work a room.
This was evident a couple of weeks ago when the 84-year-old coaching legend was the featured speaker at an event at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. This was not one of Dooley’s regular speaking gigs. He talks to football enthusiasts, gardeners and historians all the time. And while these were Rotarians, they were international Rotarians who had come to Atlanta from all over the world, including places such as Kenya and South Korea. Earlier in the day, the Rotarians had listened to talks by Bill Gates and Ashton Kutcher.
When organizers trotted out Dooley on a balcony called the “Brian Kennedy Skybox” about 25 feet above the dinner-eating crowd, he clearly was uncomfortable with it.
“I don’t know what I’m doing up here,” he said after being introduced by Tony Barnhart and handed a wireless microphone. “I want to be down there with y’all!”
That caught the group’s attention and brought some claps and laughs.
“I’m one of y’all,” he continued, his voice rising nearly to a shout. “I’m 50 years a Rotarian!”
That line brought big applause. Now he had them. Dooley went on to explain how he joined the Rotary Club soon after becoming Georgia’s football coach in 1964 at the behest of UGA President Omer C. Aderhold.
Former Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley poses on the front porch of his house on Milledge Circle in Athens. (Nathan Gettleman/Cox Media Group)
“Dr. Aderhold said it’d be a good way to get to know the people of the town,” Dooley told them. “And he was right.”
If Dooley seemed at ease speaking to a room of 700 guests from all over the world, he was, and with good reason. He’s been at this a long time. Despite being 13 years removed from his full-time job as UGA’s athletic director and 29 years removed from being the school’s football coach, Dooley has stayed quite busy in retirement with his many other interests.
In addition to the title with which he is most commonly introduced — “the legendary former national championship coach of the Georgia Bulldogs” — he also carries many others. And there are some grandiose ones, such as chairman of the board of curators for the Georgia Historical Society and board member of the Civil War Trust. Those are a couple of the latest additions to a cache that includes author, master gardener, philanthropist and, of course, motivational speaker.
The multitude of those responsibilities keep this octogenarian hopping from place to place and event to event. It’s a pace men half his age might have difficulty sustaining.
His daughter, Deanna Dooley, serves as his administrative assistant and keeps his schedule. It is, literally and figuratively, a full-time job.
“It’s unbelievable,” Deanna said this past week. “I would challenge anybody to keep his schedule. It’s grueling.”
On the day of the speech in Atlanta, Dooley drove himself to the venue. And that was no small undertaking. There had been a fatality on one of the city’s highways that afternoon and traffic was snarled worse than usual.
It’s not something he always does, but Deanna is currently sidelined with a broken arm from a recent accident at their place on Lake Burton. And Barbara, Dooley’s wife of 57 years, is currently laid up with a broken ankle.
“They’re supposed to be taking care of me but I’m taking care of them instead,” he quipped.
Somehow, Dooley also finds time to do things retirees are supposed to do. He and Barbara travel extensively. This year, in addition to the mission trip they take annually to Honduras, he has made trips to Bordeaux, France — “the only place in France I hadn’t been,” he said — and to Poland.
But usually there is some sort of ulterior motive that fuels one of Dooley’s passions.
Vince Dooley definitely belongs to a lost breed of coaches. Today, it seems that every major college coach is single-mindedly focused on the game, that everything is “football, football, football” all the time. That appears to be the case with current UGA coach Kirby Smart — whom Dooley likes a lot — and the coach Smart used to work for at Alabama, Nick Saban.
Maybe it’s because they’re paid exorbitant amounts of money. Smart makes in the neighborhood of $4 million a year as Georgia’s coach. Saban will make more than $11 million in 2017.
Vince Dooley was a stalwart on the UGA sidelines for many years. (UGA Photo)
Dooley’s first contract with Georgia paid him just $12,000 a year in salary, a total he stretched to $15,500 when he brokered his own deal for a coaches’ show sponsored by the former Citizens & Southern Bank. Dooley keeps a framed copy of the one-page document on the wall of this home office.
Dooley, though well-paid among his peers, never came close to making $1 million. He retired as coach after the 1988 season at the relatively young age of 56.
“Barbara gets onto me almost every day about that,” he joked. “She says, ‘Why did you have to quit just when they were starting to pay coaches good money?’ But it wasn’t about the money for me.”
No, it was mainly about winning for Dooley. And as he’ll tell you today, he did just enough of it at Georgia to keep sticking around.
Certainly he is most famous for the most glorious period in the history of UGA football. That is that span from 1980 to 1983, when the Bulldogs went 43-4-1, won a national championship and three SEC titles. Obviously a certain running back from Wrightsville named Herschel Walker had a lot to do with that success. But Dooley points out that the program had been building up to that with great linemen, special teams and a defense master-minded by Erk Russell. “Herschel,” he said, “was the missing piece.”
But outside of that span, Dooley says he was simply fortunate to stay “a step ahead of the posse.” For instance, the back-to-back 5-win seasons of 1969 and ’70 were followed by an 11-1 year in 1971, and down years in ’73 and ’74 were followed by up ones in ’75 and ’76. Even the perfect national championship season of 1980 was preceded by a 6-5 stinker the year before.
“We always seemed to win a championship at just the right time,” Dooley says with a smile.
All the while, Dooley never let the stress and the pressure of the job cloud his outside interests. Always a history buff, Dooley early on fueled his passion for learning by auditing history classes at the university. Later, he would expand his horizons and delve into other areas.
That’s what led him to auditing the horticulture class of Dr. Michael Dirr. That relationship has led to a couple of books, countless speaking engagements and a world-class garden in the yard of his Athens home.
“I always loved auditing courses,” Dooley said. “You get to sit in there every day, take all these notes and learn all these wonderful things. Then the day the final exam rolls around you get to say, ‘See y’all later. Good luck!”
This old house
Vince and Barbara Dooley have spent all but three years of their marriage living in the same house at 755 Milledge Circle.
Well, it’s not exactly the same house. In a recent tour of the well-known columned domicile in the Five Points area of Athens, Dooley reveals that the house has undergone 10 renovations since they first moved there from Auburn in December 1963.
That was shortly after Dooley was named Georgia’s coach. Johnny Griffith, his predecessor, had lived there before him. They both rented it from the university.
The Dooleys finally came to own it a few years later. Then it was signed over to them permanently after he led them to one of the six SEC championships the Bulldogs would win in the 25 years under Dooley’s coaching leadership. Dooley retired from coaching at the end of the 1988 season as Georgia’s all-time winningest coach at 201-77-10, a distinction he still holds four head coaches later.
Of course, Dooley quickly transitioned from being a coach to full-time athletic director. He’d done both jobs the previous 10 years. So not surprisingly, he flourished in that singular role.
Under his watch Georgia teams won 78 SEC championships and 23 national championships, including an unprecedented four in the 1998-99 academic year. In the Director’s Cup standings, Georgia finished second in the nation in 1999, third in 2001 and fifth in his final year of 2004. In all, the Bulldogs finished in the top 10 in five of his final seven years.
Georgia has yet to finish higher than 10th under current athletic director Greg McGarity. Dooley refuses to be critical of McGarity, who was a member of his senior staff for 10 years before starting an 18-year stint at Florida.
“I was in favor of him getting the Georgia job and was very happy for him,” Dooley said. “I think he’s done a lot of good things. … It’s a hard job.”
One of the criticisms of McGarity is he has been more concerned with Georgia’s bottom line than doing what he has to do to keep up with the facilities arms race currently raging in the SEC.
Dooley believes that narrative is overblown.
“It’s nothing new,” he said. “When I came here 54 years ago, we had to improve our facilities. That’s the first thing we did, improve the facilities. And we did. We’d improve it, then we’d be out front, then all of the sudden you’d blink your eyes and somebody had moved ahead of you. This has been going on a long, long time.”
Dooley thinks the West End renovation and locker room is a good idea that was a long time coming, as well as the Indoor Athletic Facility. Incidentally, that indoor practice building is positioned in exactly the place he proposed to have it built two decades ago.
“It’s a wonderful facility,” Dooley said. “It’s right where we wanted it and it was about half the cost at the time. But I don’t think the president at the time wanted any more facilities built while I was around, so they decided not to do it. But they did a really good job with it. I don’t know how you get any better facilities than we have right now.”
Sanford Stadium may not have been the “House that Vince Dooley Built,” but many UGA fans would like to see his name on the facility. (Chip Towers/DawgNation)
It was pointed out to Dooley that Sanford Stadium has undergone almost as many renovations as his house on Milledge Circle. He oversaw most of them himself. When he arrived in Athens, Sanford Stadium seated about 42,000 spectators. When he left, it sat nearly 93,000.
A great number of people believe that UGA’s football stadium should somehow bear Dooley’s name. Dooley-Sanford Stadium has a nice ring to it, as does Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium.
Dooley wants no part of that debate.
“Those that say that, I appreciate it,” he said. “We added 50,000 seats during the time I was there. And it’s a beautiful stadium because every addition was in conformity to the existing stadium. And it opens into the campus. When you walk on that bridge and look into that stadium, you won’t find a more beautiful stadium in the country.”
Dooley plans to be there as usual this fall. He attends most Georgia home games with Barbara, parking on Field Street, entering the stadium mostly unnoticed from the back of the south side and riding up an elevator to his box on the press level.
It’s the way he prefers it now when it comes to Georgia football, to lay low and go unnoticed.
“I know how to get around,” Dooley says with a grin. “I try not to talk too much. I try to stay out of the way and not be too visible.”
Until the conversation turns to history or gardening, that is. Then Vince Dooley will always have much to say.
(Tomorrow: Vince Dooley tells the story of Georgia’s first Bulldog.)