Life is a masterpiece: The Vince Dooley story

Vince Dooley achieved football immortality for his 25-year stint as the head football coach at Georgia, winning one national title and six SEC championships. If there were a Mt. Rushmore of SEC coaches, the face of Vince Dooley would be etched on it. But to think of him merely as a coach does disservice to the man he is.

ATHENS, Ga. – Life is a masterpiece.

In 1980, Vince Dooley received a phone call from a group of Mobile nuns. The call came on the eve of the national championship game pitting Dooley’s Georgia Bulldogs and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The nuns, whom Dooley had known since childhood, were effusive in their praise for the Mobile, Ala., boy who had grown up and was now standing on the precipice of glory.

“Oh we’re so proud of you, Vincent!” the nuns gushed.

Then the nuns wondered if Dooley might score them tickets to the game.

“So I said, ‘Of course!’” Dooley recalls. “I wasn’t going to turn the nuns down.”

Arriving the morning of the game, the Sisters ran in the room and threw their arms around Dooley in adulation. He gladly handed over the tickets as the nuns said their goodbyes and began for the door.

‘Now Sisters, don’t forget,” Dooley said, stopping them for one small request. “Say a little prayer for the Bulldogs!”

“Oh no,” the nuns replied, clasping their tickets. “We’re praying for Notre Dame!’”

Now, almost 40 years removed from that moment, the demigod of Southern football sits on a sofa in his Athens man cave, the remnants of his inalienable coaching life surrounding him: hundreds of miniature bulldogs in various sizes, portraiture hanging on walls, framed programs and signed 8x10s. On a coffee table rests The Legion’s Fighting Bulldog, a thick compilation of letters by Lt. Col. W.G. Delony, a Civil War soldier considered the first Georgia bulldog, edited by none other than Vince Dooley himself.

When Dooley speaks, his voice has an aristocratic quality: a scratchy, plantation timbre that harkens to the Old South. There is something majestic about him, almost regal, and as he tours his great-columned home and the gardens along its perimeter, it is clear that here, Dooley has found peace.

Perhaps the more natural telling of Vince Dooley’s story would involve a step-by-step chronicle of his life, from the streets of Mobile, where, as a boy, he used to draw up plays between cars; to the oaks of Auburn, where he quarterbacked the team from the “loveliest village on the plains,” became a coach, and met the love of his life. Then on to Georgia, where he first ingratiated himself with the history of the program, reading up on men like Charley Trippi, Frank Sinkwich and Wally Butts, before leading his team out of muck of mediocrity to success at the highest plateau, becoming a Georgia man for life.

And from Georgia to this man cave, where bronzed heads of trophies stick out like humanoid pillars, where knick-knacks and encased memorabilia, now fading and yellowing, are housed. But the more fitting illustration is made through a series of vignettes, moments adding tiles to a beautiful mosaic patched together systematically for over eight decades. The great games in which he participated — the joy of victory and the anguish of defeat. And people: individuals who came within his orbit that made his time richer, fuller.

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The life of Vince Dooley evokes certain themes: Love, Commitment, Loyalty, Laughter, Integrity, Hard Work, Humility, Preservation, Knowledge and Winning. He is a serious and intriguing man but doesn’t take himself too seriously. He once shaved his head in an attempt to motivate his team. Three months later, they paid homage by bringing home the 1976 Southeastern Conference crown.

Cloistered now in this verdant nook of Athens a mere two miles from Sanford Stadium, Dooley has downsized his life to speaking engagements, gardening, exercising, reading, writing, and traveling. He admits he doesn’t frequent fine restaurants, preferring to eat at home. A lifelong learner and historian, Dooley enjoys watching lectures called “The Great Courses” during his daily exercises, sponging up knowledge in disciplines ranging from philosophy and European history to cathedrals and the Civil War.

A world traveler, Dooley schedules a cruise with his family every other year. His voyages have taken him to South Africa, Italy, Alaska, Poland, China, Japan, the Panama Canal, the Mediterranean, and every section of France including the most recent, Bordeaux — “a great wine region,” he says.

Dooley is a man of faith and prayer, the haphazard statues of saints dotting his lawn a reflection of his Catholic faith.

He is enthralled with the personalities of American History, and believes perhaps the most intriguing of all is Theodore Roosevelt.

He has said many times that “gardening is my golf,” and there is something poignant he finds among the hydrangeas and katsura trees. Later, as he is strolling through the front yard, the impressive canopying foliage standing guard over the estate like plume-headed soldiers, I ask, “Who planted all these gardens?”


At home in Athens, Vince Dooley says “gardening is my golf.” Photo by Al Blanton / Saturday Down South.

His 84-year life bursting with abundance, Dooley has lived completely. He has shaken hands with famous entertainers, U.S. Presidents, and the Prince of England; he’s hoisted championship trophies; he’s remained faithful to the same woman for 58 years; he’s authored books on a range of subjects, carried the Olympic torch and chaired a Civil War Trust that saves battlefield lands dating back to the Revolutionary War. He serves as Chair of the Georgia Historical Society and is a lifelong Rotarian. He spent five years as a consultant for the upstart Kennesaw State football team, now in its third season. He has spoken before thousands, rapt at attention, all across the United States. He has lived at the same address for more than half a century.

His life reads like a fiction novel, only stranger. A dynamic supporting cast will fill his pages: a grizzled, cigar-chewing Minnesotan named Munson; a once-in-a-generation running back named Herschel; an Italian barber named Salvadori; a priest/mentor named Father Gus; and a doting wife named Barbara who has more personality and scrap than a Swiss Army knife.

Then there are the football coaches with whom he once shared the trenches. Listen to their names: Bear, Shug, Erk, Dog Brewer, Holtz, Bowden, Vaught, Majors, Dye, Sherrill and Joe Pa. And the players he once coached: Happy Dicks, George Patton, Jimmy “The Greek Streak” Poulos, Little Bobby Etter, Mike “Moonpie” Wilson, Ben Zambiasi, Bill Goldberg (yes, that Bill Goldberg) and Buck Belue.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Dooley has drawn from the cisterns of human experience such that he makes life look like an art form.

The Art of Loyalty

For 41 years of his life, Vince Dooley patrolled the Georgia campus, his duties overlapping for a decade, as from 1964-1989 he held the position of football coach, and from 1979-2005 the position of athletic director.

Although there were many suitors along the way, there were only two instances when the bonds of Dooley’s loyalty to this great Southern institution were seriously threatened, when the gusts of fate could have blown in a different direction.

Vince Dooley

For many, Vince Dooley remains the face of Georgia football. Photo courtesy of University of Georgia Athletics.

The first occurred in the winter of 1965, when administrators from the University of Oklahoma invited him to campus. Dooley, just off an injury-plagued 6-4 campaign, was a hot commodity, while Oklahoma was two years removed and limping from the exodus of Bud Wilkinson, who had cemented his visage on the Sooner relief by winning three national championships and fourteen conference titles.

“At first, I was not really that interested,” Dooley recalls.

In his early days of coaching, Dooley had scouted and studied various coaches: Bear Bryant, Maryland’s Jim Tatum and Wilkinson, among others. “Bud Wilkinson was, early on, a hero,” Dooley said.

So when Wilkinson phoned, Dooley listened. “(He) called me and said, ‘you ought to at least go out there and see.’”

After Dooley toured the Norman campus, school president Dr. George Lynn Cross took his recruit to the same spot where, many years previous, the job had been offered to Wilkinson. “He said to me, ‘you’re standing where Bud Wilkinson stood when I offered him the job and I’d like to offer you the job,’” Dooley said. “I thanked him, but then I thought about it. How are you going to follow Bud Wilkinson?”

Upon his return to the Georgia campus, Dooley received an outcry of support. Ultimately the sublimity of Wilkinson’s legacy, coupled with the homebound cries of the Georgia faithful, kept Dooley anchored in Athens.

The second instance occurred in 1980, when his alma mater came a-calling just as Dooley was preparing his undefeated Dawgs for the national championship game against Notre Dame. Auburn, the institution in which he’d spent a decade of his life, contacted the 17-year Georgia veteran to see if he had any interest in the head coaching job after the discharge of Doug Barfield.

“I realized my roots were deeper and more recent at Georgia than they were in Auburn. Had the offer come five or six years earlier, I might have jumped the Chattahoochee to go back. In the final analysis, I had just been at Georgia too long. It was just too late.” — Vince Dooley

Scheming to limit Walker, Penn State held the vaunted back to 103 yards and one score. The 27-24 win brought Paterno’s first national championship to Happy Valley. After the game, Dooley, exhibiting his usual class, commented to the The New York Times, “They deserve being ranked No.1 in the country.”

The Art of Herschel

No two men in the history of the SEC are more cosmically intertwined than the tandem of Herschel Walker and Vince Dooley. It seems one cannot be mentioned without mention of the other. From 1980-82, Georgia experienced the finest years in the history of its program, as Dooley guided the phenom from Wrightsville, Ga., to a national championship his freshman season and the Heisman Trophy his junior.

In total, Walker rushed for 5,259 yards and 49 touchdowns in only three seasons. He averaged an incredible 159.4 yards per game and rushed for over 200 yards on nine occasions. Staggering numbers.

Georgia’s most famous duo. Photo courtesy of University of Georgia Athletics.

But numbers don’t always provide the complete profile. Walker, a rare fusion of speed and power, was as feared a back as there ever was in the Southeastern Conference. It was something to see — No. 34 rumbling forward, shoulder pads wide and lowered, cutting, slashing, assaulting, and then, turning the corner as three, four, five men converge. Just when they feel they have him bottled up, he slams it into high gear, hitting the sideline, flashing past like a runaway ghost, his silver pants with red-black-and-white piping, the apoplectic fans hopping, howling, standing in awe, like depot passengers watching a train go by, and then, crossing the goal line, powering down, handing the ball to the nearest referee as if he’d been there before, as if he knew he belonged there. Touchdown Georgia. Touchdown Georgia!

“Nobody had his speed,” Dooley says. “”In addition to having world class speed and great strength, Herschel was the most mentally and physically toughest player I have ever coached.”

“Our best player was a great guy,” Buck Belue told SDS. “He really cemented the culture. He was the toughest guy I ever played with. He had that shoulder injury, and seeing him suck it up and go back in there against nation’s top-rated D and take the pounding was incredible. He had talent, but those characteristics set the tone for the rest of the team. Our best guy is a team guy and he’s tough and let’s go win some football.”

The site of Herschel Walker racing past and over defenders defined college football in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy of University of Georgia Athletics.

Yet for those who believe Herschel was alone responsible for Georgia’s success, one must fail to consider the talent Dooley brought to campus to complement him. Buck Belue. Lindsay Scott. Scott Woerner. Amp Arnold. “Herschel might have been the main player, but he had an incredible supporting cast,” Dooley told SDS. “The defensive Herschel was a guy named Scott Woerner. There were some terrific players around (Herschel). He’d be the first to tell you that. You can’t just win on one player. There are 22-plus players. All important. You might have one that was the most important, but you can’t win without the rest of them.”

A Final Thought

Vince Dooley became a famous man for the work he did among grassy fields, where an oblong sphere was pitched and caught, where men broke and tackled. Accordingly, history will judge him as a football coach. He will be remembered through accolade and honor, by title and records, more so than the work he did to usher to hundreds, if not thousands, of young student-athletes, green with inexperience, college kids standing at the intersection of life, from the status of plebes to doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and clergymen.

If history will look at him through myopic eyes, he does not use the same lens of self-analysis. He has used his renown and fortune to sample from life’s buffet of worthwhile indulgences. He served his country as a United States Marine. He is more a family man than a football man. He understands the priority of faith, and it doesn’t arrive on the line below football — or anything else.

Little by little, he has systematically recused himself from public life, and as the years march by like cadets in a pass-in-review, he has found solace as a fan and onlooker to his chosen sport. Walking away from the game of football does not sting him now; he is happy with the pursuits of his post-gridiron life, the fruits of which are assorted and many.

His is a life that’s won more than it’s lost. His scales will tip in favor of laughter and mirth when balanced with the dull weight of tragedy and crises. He is a man who cannot be pigeonholed into a lone category or defined by simple explanation.

He is a man who marvels at the world, and at nature. He has looked at it and found it exquisite. He has made prudent use of the most precious commodity: Time. He has chosen to trade the offer of a numb, dispiriting life for one that is full and thorough.

He will never go down as the winningest coach in SEC football history. Doubtless there are those who will not consider him the best. But, perhaps no one in SEC coaching history has led a more complete life than Vincent Joseph Dooley.

And there is nothing more spectacular.


Several years ago, Buck Belue gave Vince Dooley a ride back to the hotel after a Georgia-Florida event hosted by former Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel. One of Belue’s friends rode in the back seat. During the drive, a song by the R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire came on the radio. “We all got a laugh,” Belue said. “We recognized that music being from the ’70s and ’80s. After Coach Dooley got out, my friend couldn’t believe that we were jamming to Earth, Wind & Fire with Coach Dooley in there.”

Al Blanton is a freelance writer for Saturday Down South. Follow Al on Twitter @alblanton78.

Source: Saturday Down South

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