Vince Dooley’s legacy at UGA is one that fans of all ages should embrace

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Vince Dooley is seen in 2017 in his Athens home, which is full of memorabilia from his career.

A common reaction among many Dawgs fans to the decision to add 86-year-old former UGA head football coach Vince Dooley’s name to the field at Sanford Stadium  was summed up by my brother Tim in a text message: “Bout time.”

Most of the fans I heard from think it’s an honor long overdue.

UGA has proposed naming the field at Sanford Stadium after longtime coach and athletic director Vince Dooley. (University of Georgia)

Of course, there are a few in Bulldog Nation who still hold grudges against Dooley for one thing or another over his 40 years at UGA as coach and/or athletic director, including those who never cottoned to his conservative brand of offense.

Some of those folks responded to the news by saying that Sanford Stadium’s field really ought to be named for Herschel Walker, on whose shoulders they think Dooley’s reputation largely rests. However, Walker was just one piece (albeit the most important) in a stellar lineup assembled by Dooley and his staff in 1980. Herschel will tell you in a second that he didn’t win the natty by himself.

Others, perhaps younger fans, wonder why Georgia’s football field should be named for a coach who won only one national championship.

Compared with Nick Saban’s gaudy collection of six championship rings, Dooley’s lone national title might not look all that impressive nowadays.

Still, Saban and Alabama are not a realistic baseline for the rest of college football. Winning a national championship always has been extremely difficult, and it remains so. (Dooley came close to winning another national title, only to fall short. Kirby Smart can relate.)

Plus, let’s be clear that the Dooley Field honor isn’t just about that one season.

To really understand what Dooley meant to UGA — not just football, but to the entire athletic program — you have to put his accomplishments into some historical context.

Some younger fans may not have a grasp of the sorry state Georgia football was in for more than a decade before Dooley’s arrival in Athens in December, 1963. Wally Butts’ heyday had been in the 1940s; in his last decade as coach, Butts presided over a really mediocre program, with the exception of the 1959 SEC championship season (thanks primarily to the exceptional talents of Fran Tarkenton). And, under Butts’ successor, Johnny Griffith, Georgia won a total of only 10 games in three years.

Dooley gets a 1964 victory ride at a much smaller Sanford Stadium. (University of Georgia)

The Bulldogs were dangerously close to being relegated to homecoming fodder when new athletic director Joel Eaves arrived from Auburn and decided to shock the football world by bringing with him as head coach a 31-year-old doctoral student who was AU’s freshman coach.

The turnaround wrought by Dooley, who slapped that Green Bay-like power G on his team’s new red helmets as he relaunched Georgia football, lit a fire under the fan base. The Dawgs had what now seems like a modest 7-3-1 record that first season, but that included upset wins over Florida and Georgia Tech. You would have thought Dooley’s first team had won a championship the way fans reacted. We believed again.

Dooley was known for his energetic sideline reactions to plays. (AJC file)

Then, in his second season, Dooley’s Dogs upset national champion Alabama and did the same to Michigan on a trip to Ann Arbor. In his third season, he won the first of his six SEC championships.

Overall, Dooley went on to win better than 70 percent of his games in a quarter century as head coach. There were some duff years — he had three break-even seasons and one losing year — but, as he told Dawgnation’s Chip Towers a couple of years ago, “We always seemed to win a championship at just the right time.”

He still stands as Georgia’s winningest head football coach, with a career record of 201-77-10. He ranks third all-time in wins among SEC coaches, behind only Bear Bryant and Steve Spurrier. Dooley was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

Besides the national championship victory over Notre Dame, there were many great wins for Georgia under Dooley, including the 10-9 Cotton Bowl upset of Texas, the 1982 clash between the two previous national champions when Georgia beat Clemson under the lights at Sanford Stadium, and many wins over Florida, Tech and Dooley’s alma mater of Auburn.

His time as head coach saw phenomenal growth in both his program, and college football in general, and fan expectations rose accordingly. As he noted in his memoir, “Dooley: My 40 Years at Georgia,” published in 2005, “people were much more tolerant about losing before my era as a head coach. When my era came along they were less tolerant. And after my era they are even less tolerant still.”

Dooley addresses his players during a 1978 practice. (AJC file)

Even before his name goes on its field, Sanford Stadium itself stands as a monument to the Dooley era, which saw him serve as head football coach from 1963 to 1989 and as athletic director from 1979 to 2004. When he arrived, the natural bowl stadium seated only 35,000. By the time Dooley retired, its capacity was 92,746. 

Even more impressive than Dooley’s run as football coach was his time as AD at Georgia. Under his administration, UGA teams won 78 SEC championships and 23 national championships, including an unprecedented four national titles in the 1998-99 academic year. In the Directors’ Cup standings of overall athletic programs, Georgia finished second in the nation in 1999 behind perennial winner Stanford, third in 2001 and fifth in his final year of 2004. In all, the Bulldogs finished in the Directors’ Cup top 10 in five of his final seven years as AD.

Dooley at the 2008 unveiling of a statue on the UGA campus honoring him. (AJC file)

One of the reasons for that was Dooley’s aggressive response to federal Title IX mandates on giving women an equal opportunity to play sports for their school. UGA became a national power in women’s sports under Dooley, especially in gymnastics, basketball, golf, and swimming and diving.

During his time as athletic director, UGA’s athletic budget went from about $15 million to nearly $60 million.

As my buddy Scott put it this week, “people forget what a key role Dooley played in transforming what was considered a regional sport 50 years ago into the multi-media/brand marketing/corporate entity that major college football is today. He constantly pushed for playoffs when most administrators were happy with the status quo, and co-filed (with Oklahoma) the lawsuit against the NCAA that broke open the TV contracts — maybe the single-biggest catalyst that has led us to the SEC/Pac-12/Big 10 networks of today.”

So, indirectly, you can thank Dooley for the millions of dollars that those TV deals put into the coffers of conference members every year.

Dooley is carried off the field in New Orleans after Georgia beat Notre Dame for the national championship. (AJC file)

Not that Dooley saw that much of the money generated by his program. Having started out making just $12,000 a year as head coach (plus a little more for doing his weekly TV show), he still was only making about $500,000 in salary by the time he retired. The era of the mega-million coaching contracts had not yet arrived in the SEC.

But, as he noted in his book, for him it was never about the money. Notably, he turned down chances to jump to Oklahoma and Auburn for bigger paydays.

Of course, not everything went smoothly under Dooley’s reign. As he related in his book, it took several seasons for him to figure out how to smoothly integrate African American players into the football program and handle the ensuing tensions. The problems cleared up, he said, after he decided “to be colorblind — there were no white players and no black players.” Only football players.

And, there also was the Jan Kemp affair, in which an instructor in UGA’s remedial studies program sued the university after she was fired, saying it was because she had complained about preferential treatment for certain students, including athletes.

In the end, it was the university’s president, vice president and head of developmental studies who resigned as a result of the controversy. Dooley was left relatively unscathed by the flap, though it was a national embarrassment for his program.

Dooley greets head coach Kirby Smart after Georgia defeated Auburn for the SEC Championship in 2017. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

On the plus side, as a result of the Kemp drama, Georgia raised its academic standards. That hurt in the short run, but put Georgia a step ahead in the long run, when the rest of the SEC adopted the same higher standards.

It also was Dooley who voluntarily withdrew Georgia from the 2003 NCAA basketball tournament during the Jim Harrick academic fraud scandal, a bold decision that stands in stark contrast to the cowardly way LSU recently handled its own problems with a suspended basketball coach.

And, through no fault of his own, Dooley’s time as AD came to a rather messy end with UGA‘s then president, Michael Adams — who seemed to have a problem sharing the spotlight with the popular AD — denying Dooley’s request for six more months to finish up some projects before he retired. That caused a schism in Bulldog Nation that seems only now to be healing completely.

Books written by Dooley include this Civil War history volume. (Mercer University Press)

Besides his success as a coach and AD, Dooley also stood out from the pack in other ways. Holding a master’s degree in history, he frequently audited classes during his time at UGA. And, in retirement, he has authored numerous books — not just on football, but on history and horticulture (his current passion) as well. In addition to the South Campus athletic complex where a statue of him stands, quite a few academic programs and initiatives bear his name, including the Dooley Library Endowment Fund and the Dooley Professorship in Horticulture.

For us fans, though, our favorite part of the Dooley legend probably is the way the erudite coach raised the building up of a forthcoming opponent to an art form — even a lightly regarded “cupcake” opponent.

As I shared memories of the Dooley era with fellow fans this past week, several brought up the oft-repeated quote attributed to Dooley, in which he supposedly praised the William & Mary team coming to Athens for having a great “long snapper” (or “long snappah” as it came out in Dooley’s patrician Mobile accent).

I had always tended to think that was an apocryphal quote, but there are longtime fans who swear he really said it. Neither UGA broadcaster-historian Jeff Dantzler, nor Associate Athletic Director and longtime sports information boss Claude Felton were sure whether he actually said it, though the told me they couldn’t rule it out.

So, I contacted the coach himself this week and asked whether he really uttered the “long snapper” quote.

Dooley replied by email: “Bill, In evaluating teams through the years prior to playing them, I have often found excellence in a particular individual or a particular phase of the game though the team might not be up to par. I recall commenting one time on a terrific punter that Vandy had. I also recall admiring and commenting on Oregon State’s onside kicking scheme that incidentally we later adopted. While I don’t recall it specifically, I could have very easily admired the snapping ability of the William and Mary specialist. Vince.”

So, there you go. The legend lives on!

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