Vincent Joseph Dooley, the Depression-born kid of Irish and Italian descent, is much different in the winter of his life than he was in its spring. That makes him as human as the rest of us.
Few have grown intellectually as this man who used two fortuitous developments to realize the American dream. First, he was the beneficiary of a strict Catholic education. It was free, and the sisters and brothers at the Cathedral Grammar School and McGill Institute in Mobile, Ala., gave of themselves to the kids who came their way. Next, he used athletics, primarily football, to advance his college education at Auburn. Enterprise figured in the next building block of the foundation of his career as he entered manhood and moved forward with the rest of his life’s story. He saw opportunity to grow his education by managing his coaching workload so that he could earn a master’s degree.
That would come in handy if coaching, as planned from the outset, was to become the centerpiece of his life and career. There was an endearing sidelight that came with the classroom process—the unadulterated satisfaction which came from the pleasures of research. That was a blissful experience and left him longing for more. He became a regular at the library, which caused quite a stir when he first appeared at the UGA library in the spring of 1964. The grand gentleman, head of the Ila Dunlap Little Memorial Library, Porter Kellam, was flabbergasted when he learned that the new coach on campus possessed a bent for the library and research. As the newest member of the athletic staff in the summer of ’64, I wrote a story about Georgia’s 31-year-old coach spending time at the library. The Associated Press picked up the Athens Banner-Herald story and distributed it on their Southeastern wire.
It was a refreshing vignette for the seasoned faculty and curious football fans, but was not so amusing to the colorful, tobacco-chewing Frank Howard the Clemson coach. Howard told me, “Tell Dooooley that the library will be a nice, cool place for him to hide when the alumni get after his (anatomy)”.
While he has always been introspective, Dooley is now a sage and sagacious elder statesman who maintains a busy schedule—he has never been a front porch rocker—which keeps him traveling, learning and feeding his insatiable curiosity. The fulfillment of life for him is to stay active. While he is not a Georgia graduate, no sheepskin-possessing Bulldog has identified more with UGA’s motto, “to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things”, than the former Bulldog coach and athletic director.
His credentials as a football coach and administrator are well documented, from games won and championships collected, all accompanied with the enviable status that comes with an elite coaching career. His resume is chock full of praiseworthy trappings. He won a national title and was elected to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, two of the highest accomplishments of his profession. Plaques for his walls began accumulating after his first season, 1964, when his upstart Bulldogs won seven games including victories over arch-rival Georgia Tech and subsequently Texas Tech in the Sun Bowl at El Paso, Texas.
Within five years off his employment, he had won two Southeastern Conference titles and had warmed the hearts of all Bulldog partisans with a perfect record against Georgia’s cross-state rivals, which meant that he never lost to Bobby Dodd, a man whom he greatly admired and respected as a coach.
Then came the Seventies—the waxing and waning times when the chapel bell rang, but sometimes not often enough. This was the troubled Viet Nam era, the cloud of discontent often hovering over universities throughout the country. The emergence of the black athlete came about. Attitudes changed. Mores became skewed. Absolute authority went away and so did “in loco parentis.” Universities could no longer act “in place of a parent.”
Dooley experienced the best of times (71, 75, 76, 78), but the rest of the decade was largely forgettable and included his only team to post a losing record (5-6 in 1977). Georgia’s constituency had seldom been more frustrated.
Lurking in the finger pointing gloaming and negative headlines that permeated was an oversized running back with the swiftest of feet just two hours south of Athens. His broad shoulders would carry his team to glory, and bring about an end to all the feuding and carping. Herschel Walker filled seats, which caused more seats to be built.
The Bulldog nation expected four years, but in a prelude of what has now become the norm, it was entitled to swoon and salivate for only three seasons with Herschel. But what a time it was! Three SEC titles and a national championship—just a couple of plays here and there kept it from being three in a row. Losing Herschel to the USFL left Georgia fans with a deep and lasting hurt. They felt that the New Jersey Generals had snookered them.
Dooley finished his coaching years in fine style, despite a pair of storms that made navigation a challenge: Herschel’s early departure, as well as the Jan Kemp debacle of the mid 80’s. The latter resulted in a set of self-imposed academic restrictions that left Georgia at a competitive disadvantage.
Joel Eaves was the absolute boss of athletics when he took over, and that included Vince and football. That would change in 1965, during Vince’s flirtation with Oklahoma, which sent the entire state of Georgia into an uproar. One of the coach’s objectives, if he declined the Sooner’s head coaching position, was to have complete autonomy in running the football program. Part of the agreement that kept Dooley in Athens was that he become Assistant AD. Even back then, Dooley was thinking ahead.
When Eaves retired in 1979, President Fred Davison was not inclined to give his consent to Vince becoming Athletic Director and head football coach.
As the all-time compromiser, it was Vince, who wanted President Fred Davison to save face, and came up with the plan whereby he became “Athletic Director for Sports,” and Reid Parker, faculty chairman of athletics, would serve as “Athletic Director for Administration.” Everybody in the association liked and respected Reid, especially those who drank beer with him, but there was also enduring respect for Vince. Although it became an awkward situation for everybody, there was the goal of working together to make things work in the best interest of the program.
Years later, when Dooley and another president Michael Adams experienced confrontation, Vince again tried to effect a compromise. Adams, however, wanted Vince out and to hire his own man. Adams told a friend of mine, “I’ve got the hammer and I am going to use it”. Such campus skirmishes are not unusual but causes one to wonder what could have happened if the two men had compromised and worked together toward the best interests of the University of Georgia.
None of this is to say that Vince was never at fault, that he never stubbed his toe. I would venture to say that he could have better managed his foray into a potential political career, both when he considered running for the U. S. Senate in 1985, again for Governor when he retired from coaching in 1988.
He did not consort with sitting politicians, which offended them when he needed their endorsements. Some never forgave him, but those who truly knew him, fully believe that had he been elected to high office, he would have served ably and would have been a conscientious and successful politician.
When Vince’s days as Georgia’s athletic director ended, he took the high road. He was disappointed in Adam’s decision but moved on. He dived into gardening and landscaping with the same commitment he had as a coach. He kept busy as a speaker, perhaps as the only former coach to speak to both touchdown and garden clubs. He wrote books and he turned his home on Milledge Circle into a becoming botanical garden.
Not only did gardening and the outdoors become a fulfilling and defining interest, it has been healthy for him. A Marine with an athletic background, Vince is one of the most disciplined people you will ever meet. Doesn’t matter if it is a high-rise hotel in Dubai or a floral estate with accommodating exercise grounds, when he arises in the morning, he will religiously embark on a vigorous routine of calisthenics and exercises. With parents having passed away in their fifties, he has watched his diet and kept food and drink in moderation and complemented everything with an accent on measured physical activity. Along the way, he has enjoyed a fulfilling life. The Greek principle of a sound mind and body is a preachment he discovered years ago and has practiced its tenets to the fullest. He developed swimming endurance in his youth and often swims as part of his daily exercise routine.
Life in Mobile in his formative years tells you about the making of Vince Dooley. His mother was a housekeeper who stitched, sewed and cooked. His electrician father, William Vincent, who grew up in an orphanage, saw the value in an education when he experienced a man 20 years his junior taking a position over him because he had a college degree. “You gotta get some education” he always reminded Vince and Bill. His parents never got beyond grade school.
Nellie Dooley was proud that her boys were able to enroll in college (Bill played guard for Darrell Royal at Mississippi State), but what concerned her the most was that there be a Catholic church in town. She made sure that each son had a pair of khaki pants, a white shirt, tie and sports jacket for mass.
From his dad, Vince learned the importance of keeping his word and often advised that a “commitment was a commitment.” His mother was fond of saying, “manners will take you where money won’t.”
Dooley grew up four blocks from the Mobile River, in a house with the first floor ten feet off the ground for protection from any potential flooding. He played football in the streets, which was good for learning moves in the “open field,” except when the opposition became a moving vehicle. He remembers being hit by a car more than once.
He and Bill were enterprisingly adventurous, often catching a freight—teenage hobos if you will—to nearby Pascagoula and Moss Point, Mississippi. They also found their way to an island in Polecat Bay, where a cousin, Stevie, who abhorred life in the city, lived in a run-down house with a detached kitchen, which in case of fire, would not consume the living quarters. There was no running water and no electricity, but the fishing was good. Stevie would often bring fish to the family home at 258 South Jackson Street. Nellie Dooley, devout Catholic, and the family, which often had to worry about paying the rent, always ate fish on Friday adhering to the church oriented custom.
Stevie rode out at least two hurricanes and survived a couple of floods but would not be moved. He loved his life as a hermit, catching and skinning alligators and selling their hides in New Orleans, taking the three-hour bus over and staying just long enough to take care of business.
The Dooley brothers became inseparable and as Vince remembers, “fought all the time”—even when they came home from college. The elder brother always got the best of the younger brother because of the age advantage. But, Vince could see Bill was getting bigger and stronger and suggested that as grown men they should give up such foolishness. Nobody ever accused Vince of not being smart.
One of Vince’s best friends was Bobby Freeman, who later became a teammate at Auburn. They made deliveries for Sam Joy Laundry where Freeman’s dad worked, and it was Freeman who, perhaps, “saved” Vince’s football career. Even today, he wonders what his life might have become if it had not been for Freeman coming by his house on the first day of football practice, when he was a junior in high school and literally rousting him out of bed and making Vince show up for practice. With each exhortation by Freeman to get out of bed, there was the Dooley disclaimer, “I’m not going to play football. I prefer to play basketball.” Freeman refused to give in until his friend relented and left to join him at football practice.
Taught by nuns for the first eight grades, Vince was first attracted to basketball, his favorite sport. It was Sister Patricia, an Indiana native, who taught Vince the hesitating jump shot by teaching him to jump over a chair and shoot the basketball in the process, making him one of the first basketball players in the Deep South to learn the art of jump shooting.
Vince’s father had laid out all of the electrical wiring at Hartwell Field, home of the local minor league team, the Mobile Bears. Therefore, his dad received a pair of complimentary season tickets, and Vince rarely missed a game. Sports became a defining ingredient in his life.
He never fails to stiffen his neck with abiding respect when you bring up the name of his high school coach at McGill. Today it is known as McGrill-Toolen and of all things, features the Yellow Jackets as its mascot. (Vince still remembers the words to the school fight song.)
At Magill, he learned many of the basic principles of his coaching career from his high school coach, Ray Dicharry. One particular incident reflects how a coach’s guidance can make a difference in a young man’s life, something Vince has never forgotten.
The long-time Bulldog head coach, without hesitation, will tell you that he had an intense temper, with the quickest trigger growing up. In a basketball tournament, a team from Selma had won earlier in the day and was watching McGill struggle in its game. A player from Selma was heckling the McGill team, and Vince started up in the stands to confront the “Big Mouth.” Dicharry literally picked him up and took him to the locker room and later had a talk with his fiery player. When the ensuing counseling session took place, the coach advised Vince that he had to learn to control his temper. The message was, “You need to think before you act.” All who know Dooley are acutely aware that this lesson was well learned for the rest of his career. That is when he learned the value that coaches can have on young athletes—if they provide the right leadership.
Vince was always getting in trouble in grade school but survived without incident. At McGill, however, he was always eager to flirt with confrontation. A young priest, Brother Phillips, who had training as a boxer, looked him in the eye, one day and said, “You are No. 1 on my hit parade.” Vince knew what that meant and while it did not turn him into a Saint, good discipline and restraint became ingrained in his makeup. Again, nobody ever said Dooley wasn’t smart.
Both Alabama and Auburn expressed interest in him early on, but the Alabama coaches pressured him to sign while Dick McGowen, an accomplished player with the Tigers, was the easygoing opposite. Plus, Vince was influenced by the underdog Tigers upsetting the Tide in 1949, 14-13.
At Auburn, Dooley became a starter in both basketball and football, which led to a defining moment when he learned that there were several football players who were getting “fringe benefits,” some of whom were seeing limited game action. His rationale was that he was in reality “worth two scholarships.” He went to a banker friend, an Auburn Alumnus, in Mobile who gave him sound advice. “I understand how you feel, but in the long run, you will be better off if you get what you deserve and what you were promised.” Dooley concluded that the advice was all he needed to look ahead.
It is a well-traveled story that he rode over to New Orleans with a friend and his father to the 1947 Sugar Bowl, when Georgia defeated North Carolina 20-10. They had tickets and Vince only had a dollar in his pocket. Tickets were being
scalped for $50.00 each. Disconsolate, the 14-year-old Dooley sat on a curb outside Tulane stadium and said to a New Orleans cop, “Someday I will get into that game.” He would 22 years later, but it turned out to be a forgettable experience with Arkansas upsetting the Bulldogs, 16-2.
There are many vignettes in our association from the office to fishing in the Cayman Islands to international travel. His first year, the team went to a movie, a longtime tradition for all teams, but he asked me to walk with him back to the motel. It was in Columbia and he became uncharacteristically effusive, evaluating the South Carolina team and waxing philosophical about football. It was insightful and refreshing. I’ve seen him at his best in one-on-one settings. Conversely, until lately, his discomfort in group settings, such as cocktail parties with people asking probing and annoying questions, was something he originally avoided.
I have seen him parry with the press before it became media and realized that he never went into a press conference without being totally prepared for any question.
There were times over the years when I would complain about his lack of interaction and aloofness. He would say, honestly, “A man can’t change his personality.” However, he did just that. His speeches were matter of fact, but as he became more comfortable before the mic, whether at a podium or on camera, there was warmth with his candor that confirmed that he was a man who had something to say and could connect with audiences.
In 2011, The Georgia Historical Society named him a Trustee, quite a signature honor but deserving for this over achiever who had a passion to learn and keep learning. When the Georgia Center for Continuing Education opened in 1957, the iconoclastic director, Hugh Masters had a slogan for all printed matter: “Learning Has no Age Limit.” There was a slash across the word age. That could have been a Vince Dooley motto.
One of his favorite quotes, which he keeps handy, is that of the genius artist Michelangelo said on his 87th birthday: “I’m Still Learning.” Vince Dooley turned 87 this week.