Two Simple Words. Thanks Coach!

He was born in Alabama,  but after 50 years here he’s as Georgia as Jimmy Carter, peaches and peanuts. People across the state, across the nation and across generations recognize his distinct voice with its gravelly South Alabama accent. The sound of it transports a person to specific times and places in his past. A few words from the lips of Vince Dooley carry enough magic to reunite old friends and memories, point to the lessons of a father or call up a single wondrous Saturday long forgotten. Thousands of parents and grandparents have driven by his home on Milledge Circle and pointed it out to their children and grandchildren and explained its residents’ significance in the scaffolding of the University of Georgia. Georgians, whether they attended the University or not, are proud to call Dooley their own. His career as a football coach and athletic director is one of the most distinguished in the country. Everyone knows the name Vince Dooley. 

His life details, coaching statistics and accomplishments thicken the pot of data bubbling on the Internet. 

Every move of his muscles and his mouth has been rehashed and reworked and resaid a hundred times over. The single statement that gardening is his golf is quoted again and again. What can’t be immediately found on webpage after webpage, however, is the flesh and bone and thinking person who produced these numbers, won these titles and accepted these awards. It takes time to sift through the facts to find what hides in the lists of accolades.

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HE WASN’T FORMED  in the way that many men who track toward careers in collegiate athletics are. The Dooley name, before his success made it prominent, was not associated with a coaching dynasty like that of the Bowden or Ryan persuasion. His mother and father didn’t initiate him into rabid allegiance to an SEC school or repeatedly expose him to the almost Harry Potter world that powerfully comes to life for a few select fall Saturdays within a Division I stadium. Growing up in Mobile, the background of his life was the blue water and white sand of the Gulf of Mexico with its shrimp boats, cargo carriers and shipyards. He was 16 before he ever attended a college football game, having only listened to Notre Dame contests on the radio before that. (If you know Georgia football and you know Vince Dooley, then you grasp the irony in this.)

Interested in sports from the get-go, he went to Mobile Bears baseball games with his father. His father, an electrician, wired the field and the job came with a couple of season passes. Dooley also followed the St. Louis Cardinals as a youngster. “In the pool hall against the wall, they had all these scoreboards of the teams playing,” recounts Dooley, describing the scene. “There’d be two or three rows of people just sitting there watching the scoreboard, watching that guy who was calling the tickertape as it came through and putting the scores up there [with chalk]. So if you were there watching and your team was at bat and there was a long delay, you’d think, ‘Boy, there must really be something going on.’”

We all know the path he chose and how it turned out.  

A MULTI-SPORT ATHLETE IN  HIGH SCHOOL,  (his school’s mascot was the yellow jacket, another irony), Dooley chose to attend Auburn University because the War Eagles offered him the chance to play both basketball and football. A knee injury ended his basketball career, but he continued to play quarterback for the Auburn Tigers through his senior year. Following graduation with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps for a two-year military stint.

When it was over, he arrived at the place in the road where the rest of his life began. Each possibility offered its own unknowable future. And Dooley had to choose. His Marine Corps colonel invited him to travel as the colonel’s aid, an enticing proposition. He also received an invitation to use his business degree and enter the banking profession, a noble course to take. And his college coach, Ralph Jordan, asked him if he’d like to be an assistant coach at Auburn, an unusual open door for someone so young.

coach 3Vince Dooley discusses his early years while sitting in his home surrounded by University of Georgia memorabilia. Gracie, the family’s white, fluffy shih-tzu, watches from the sofa. He jokes that he’s living in a house full of women and props his foot on the edge of the glass-topped coffee table—wife Barbara isn’t there to admonish him. Beneath the glass sparkles his collection of championship rings, including his recently recovered 1957 championship ring from Auburn. Like a good Georgia boy, he says its value lies in something other than Auburn attaining the top of the heap. What makes it treasured to him is that it houses Barbara’s diamond engagement ring placed in it for safekeeping after Vince, having some success with his football teams, upgraded her engagement setting. Removing the ring from the case and reflecting on its theft several years ago, he says, “That’s what made it extra valuable. It’s special because of the personal part.” 

Each piece has a memory and a meaning.

THE ITEMS filling the spaces of his Bulldog room relate to victories, championships, high points and milestones in his career at the university. Each piece has a memory and a meaning. Several amount to large monetary worth. He’s not the type to grow too attached to these material things, though he doesn’t diminish their place in the order of his universe. They are special, but, he says, “In the long run, the thing that becomes more meaningful is the association with the players. The players come back and say two simple words: ‘Thanks Coach.’” His players weren’t simply pawns he moved in a game. For him they have been a source of lifelong rewarding relationships. He has supported them off the field, too, as he did Billy Payne and Payne’s bid for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. They have honored him, as exemplified by those who participated in endowing the Coach Vince Dooley Scholar Athlete Award.

He replaces the ring and closes the case then eases back in his seat. His hands rest on his lap. This room, that chair have hosted numerous interviews. Yet he talks as though he’s saying it all for the first time to the first journalist who first posed these questions. The responses don’t come off as canned or rehearsed. His banter is friendly, eager, even.

Unhurried, engaged, invested, his demeanor demonstrates why so many people have followed him, have worked so hard for him, have been willing to risk losing in order to win for him. A person can’t help but want to please this man. Not that he demands accolades or recognition. He doesn’t. He’s more than humble in that regard. What Dooley demands, or rather gets a person to demand of himself, is that a person never fall short of his capabilities, never put in less than pushing the limits of his personal best.

Learning has defined his adult life. “There is a joy to learning,” he says. “I’m a perpetual student because I wasn’t that good of a student early on.” He smiles. 

AS DOOL.EY’S ears intercept the next question, his brow furrows and he looks away a moment to gather his thoughts. He leans in. Leadership is the topic. Two years in the Marine Corps and another eight years in the reserves gave him ample time to develop his skills and hone his style. “Your mission and your men, those were the two most important things,” he says. “That stayed with me.” But he adds, “I think it never ceases to develop. I think you’re constantly learning about leadership.”

While an assistant coach at Auburn, he took classes in the off season and finished a master’s degree in history. At the same time, he prepared himself for a future in coaching. He examined the strategies of coaches like Bobby Dodd, Bear Bryant and John Wooden. He says, “I always tried to study successful coaches and take what was the best that suited me and my personality from each one.” His diligence served him well. That future in coaching came quicker than expected. Only 31 when he accepted the position as Georgia football’s head coach, he continued developing his expertise, beginning with acquainting himself with the university’s strong traditions.

Being associated with a university campus has advantages, and from the beginning Dooley availed himself of the pleasure of them. During his coaching years he took classes related to leadership, military history (“Something that would stimulate my mind and get me ready for another campaign,” he says.), Civil War history and such. Coach Dooley was frequently spotted in the library using its resources. After the 1988 football season he transitioned to solely serve the university in the capacity of athletic director, which afforded him time and opportunity to broaden his scope of interests to things like art history and horticulture.

Nonetheless, education has not been a selfish pursuit for Dooley. As a coach he encouraged academic excellence among his players. Meeting high standards in the classroom was as important as being great on the gridiron. Seven of his players won the prestigious National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame post-graduate scholarship. Eleven of his players won the NCAA post-graduate scholarship. Seventy-seven of his players earned academic All-SEC recognition. Furthermore, he and his wife Barbara established the Dooley Library Endowment Fund in 1988 to benefit the University of Georgia libraries and, therefore, the student body, plus they later endowed three student-athlete scholarships in football and men’s and women’s basketball.

Even now, every morning while he works out, he listens to lectures in the Great Courses series, a collection of discourses by top professors in every field of study. “”It’s a great way to go to school,” says Dooley. “You can turn on the teacher when you want to and turn him off when you’ve had enough of him. If you miss something, you can go back and repeat the course.” If he’s not consuming a lecture (or giving one), he’s devouring texts. Over the summer, his leisure reading included the 688 page Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

Over the years he has immersed himself in the subjects of horticulture and history. One horticulture class led to another and another and another. Applying his education, he has turned his yard into a mini-botanical garden. Dooley says, “I’ve got so many plants, it’s hard to find space. I have to pick up a plant and pick up a shovel and go looking for a place to put it.”

His book titled Vince Dooley’s Garden: A Horticultural Journey of a Football Coach recounts how he fell in love with plants. He quips that he’s “an inspiration to anyone who wants to write a book about something he doesn’t know anything about.” He, however, knows far more about gardening and horticulture than his quick wit reveals. These days he speaks about gardening nearly as often as he gives speeches about football, rattling off Latin genus and species as smoothly as he rattles off memorable plays. He has given presentations around the U.S. and traveled to England and Belgium for that purpose as well.

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…he hs immersed himself in…horticulture and history. 

In addition to writing personal histories such as Dooley: My 40 Years at Georgia, Vince Dooley’s Tales From the 1980 Georgia Bulldogs and Dooley’s Dawgs: 25 Years of Winning Football at the University of Georgia, he has also applied his knowledge of history and his acumen with research and synthesis to writing books such asHistory and Reminiscences of the University of Georgia and A Tiger Walk Through History: The Complete Story of Auburn Football From 1892 to the Tuberville Era. Georgia fans must tell themselves, of course, that he wrote that latter title from a sterile intellectual perspective. Earlier this year he published his first scholarly piece, “A Year Like No Other: Football on the University of Georgia Campus, 1942,” in Georgia Historical Quarterly, the journal of the Georgia Historical Association.

THROUGH HIS RELENTLESS STUDY of the Civil War he has made himself a leading authority on the subject. His next book, Cobb’s Legion Fighting Bulldog, is in process. It tells the story of a man from Athens, Colonel William G. DeLony, who fought in the Civil War. He married a girl from Savannah and they corresponded by letter prolifically. Dooley says, a gleam in his eyes, excited about the research involved in the undertaking, “Hundreds and hundreds of letters between the two, both before the war and during the war, are over at the Hargrett Library. Using that as a basis—the letters between the two—is the foundation of the book.” 

At the same time that he satisfies his drive to acquire and put information to purposeful use, to delve deeply into topics of interest and master them, he generously shares his wealth of knowledge. This past spring he made the trip to Augusta to speak to the local Civil War Roundtable group. “History is such an important part of our lives,” he says. He serves on the board of the Civil War Trust, a non-profit organization committed to preserving Civil War battlegrounds. He’s the vice-chair of the Georgia Historical Society and was the 2014 recipient of the organization’s Sarah Nichols Pinckney Volunteer of the Year Award. He and Barbara are members of the Friends of Purification Church, which is dedicated to preserving Georgia’s first Catholic church and cemetery located in Sharon.

DOOLEY THE AUTHOR, Dooley the historian, Dooley the horticulturist, Dooley the public speaker are plenty to impress, plenty to keep him busy in the waxing years of his eighth decade. Add Dooley the humanitarian to it and the picture of who he is begins to round out. His service, often in collaboration with Barbara, to the Salvation Army, Georgia Easter Seals Society, Boy Scouts, Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School and many other non-profits has pointed thousands of lives in positive directions. He lends his name and face to the benefit of groups like St. Vincent de Paul and Right From the Start that serve families in Georgia. The heights he goes to to help others are dizzying. At age 80, he and his son and grandson raised $47,000 for Extra Special People and parachuted from a plane to prove their dedication to the charity.  

At last, in recognition of his contributions to his fellow man, Vince Dooley Field has been christened. In Honduras. For futbol. At Esperanza Middle School. A square metal sign on a post shorter than the field’s namesake marks it as such. It’s doubtful that Dooley would have allowed anything more.

For the past three years, Dooley (Barbara joined him this past spring) has participated in mission trips with Bob Hope, founder and co-chairman of the HAVE Foundation, and his “Wilderness Team” to aid the people of Agalta Valley in Honduras. Dooley says, “Each year we go down and do work at the village and also at the school.” Capitalizing on Dooley’s knowledge of plants, Hope got him involved with the landscaping of the school and the design of the soccer field, which, incidentally, lies between hedges. Despite Dooley’s resistance, Hope succeeded in naming the field in honor of him. Dooley says, “To paraphrase the church a little, never in the history of volunteerism has somebody done so little to be rewarded so much.”

Vince Dooley rises early to meet his own challenge to do much with his treasures of time and talent.

ECHOING THE SENTIMENT TO HONOR A MAN who has had greater impact than he can appreciate from his perspective, Monsignor Donovan Catholic High School also has plans for a Dooley Field. In this case, though, Dooley, whose wife and children have supported the effort to build a Catholic high school in Athens from the moment the idea was spoken aloud, insisted that it not be named for him. He asked the school to tag it Dooley Family Field. So it shall be. It’s yet to be seen if it, too, will come with hedges. 

coach 5In the end, to really know a person, look at the people with whom he keeps company, observe the friendships coursing below the media radar. Back before Dooley’s first season at the helm of Georgia football, Dr. Dan McCall, current pastor emeritus at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, sent him a letter wishing him well. In the 1960s, letter writing was still in vogue. Thus, at the end of the season, Dooley replied, thanking McCall for the encouraging words. This gave McCall the window to write and request to meet Dooley.

McCall, who calls himself a “sidewalk alumnus” of the University of Georgia, went with Dooley’s permission to watch a 1965 closed spring practice. Afterwards, he and Dooley chatted. “My expectation was that we might visit for five minutes, then I would be on my way and he on his way,” recounts McCall. Instead the meeting went from the field to the locker room to Dooley’s office to dinner with Coach and Barbara to a 50-year friendship and counting. They were the same age, they’d both played college football (McCall played at Davidson College in North Carolina), they’d both served in the military after college (McCall in the U.S. Army), they’d both earned undergraduate degrees in business, they shared interests in faith and family and they followed many of the same sports figures. Theirs was an inevitable friendship. It has endured through the busyness of careers and raising children (each has four) and the demands put upon a public figure.

 “We talk about football rather seldom now,” says McCall. “Now we talk more about books we’ve read, ideas we’ve come upon and goings-on among our family members. We both enjoy learning. He has the most insatiable appetite for learning of anybody you ever saw.” They see each other four or five times a year and talk on the phone. Dooley’s relentless schedule of engagements—McCall frequently introduces Dooley at events, including a recent appearance for the Greater Augusta Sports Council—and meetings and volunteer activities pack his calendar. “He gets by with less sleep than I do,” laughs McCall.

McCall adds, “We both realize the most important thing is the human response to our Creator.” Vince Dooley knows that he has been given much and that much is expected. Daily, as he inspires others to aspire to their best selves, he rises early to meet his own challenge to do much with his treasures of time and talent.

The state of Georgia stole a star from Alabama, a man who changed the face of collegiate athletics at her flagship university, but who also has added to her literary deposit, her horticultural heritage (a hydrangea, camellia and azalea have been named for him), her historical database, her charity coffers and her pop-culture. Football aside—though it can never be set aside—Vince Dooley, the man once hoisted on triumphant shoulders, stands on his own as an icon.

In two simple words, thanks Coach.

This article appears in the August-September 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.


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