Vince Dooley — a great coach, and way more than that

This column by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley was published on on Sept. 4, 2019.

Vince Dooley just returned from Croatia. He wanted to learn about the war that ravaged and reconfigured the former Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century. “It all came apart after Tito died,” Dooley said, sounding like both teacher and student, which is how he has spent his 87 years. For all the events in this overstuffed life, the thread that runs through it is of continuing education.

I know that sounds a bit arid, and for that I’m sorry. Dooley is anything but arid. He’s whip-smart and wicked funny. He’s among the great conversationalists. He can talk about anything. He knows something about everything. This week is one of celebration because he led the Georgia Bulldogs to 201 victories, six SEC titles and a national championship, but this is a man who’d have merited celebration had, on that momentous Easter Sunday, Herschel Walker signed with Clemson.

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Dooley was a football coach, yes, but that wasn’t the half of it. When he was a grad assistant at Auburn studying at nights for his master’s, his soon-to-be wife — who has always dared to pose the pertinent questions — asked why he didn’t spend his time playing cards, as other grad assistants did. “Because 25 years from now,” he said, “they’ll still be playing cards.”

Technically, Vince Dooley isn’t a Georgia alum — he’s an Auburn grad — but he stands as a shining example of the University of Georgia above and beyond its athletic department. He would audit a UGA class every spring. (That’s a fringe benefit, often untapped, of being a university employee.) He took a bunch of history courses, and he took one on art and another on wine, and yeah, he took one on gardening. And there, as is invariably the case with Dooley, hangs a tale.

The teacher was Michael Dirr. Dooley would go from student to something of a collaborator. The two have given lectures together. The grounds around Dooley’s Milledge Circle home have become a flowering wonder. “The Dooley Botanical Garden,” Barbara Dooley has dubbed them, and she makes it clear she has had nothing to do with it. Her husband is the one out there on hands and knees. He’s the one who can go on forever about the Japanese maple.

In 1999, Dirr said of Dooley: “He is a student in the classical sense of the world. He sinks his bulldog teeth into a subject, and there is no letting go.”

Dooley vacations were never just navel-gazing trips to the beach. A Tastee-Freez on St. Simons served 50 flavors of milkshakes. The Dooleys would buy four a night in the attempt to sample all. En route to the coast, the family would stop at every historical marker. “It was fun,” son Daniel said, “and then it became not fun. We were like, ‘Dad, just get us to the beach.’ ”

Said Barbara of her husband: “I just wish he could do something halfway.”

But there are, as she knows better than anyone, no half-measures with this man. His interest in history led to him being — long after his days as Georgia’s coach and athletic director — chairman of the Georgia Historical Society. He has written books on the Bulldogs, yes, but also books on gardening and an essay combining history and football for a scholarly journal. (“Footnotes and all,” he emphasizes.) This sort of stuff isn’t why the sod between Sanford Stadium’s hallowed hedges is being named Dooley Field, but can we separate the coach from the man?

Apologies again. I know you want some football. My two favorite Dooley lines are football-related, sort of. On Oct. 17, 1987, Georgia fell behind 14-0 in Nashville. On the sideline, its head coach began suffering chest pains. Said Dooley: “I thought, ‘I’m having a heart attack and we’re losing to Vanderbilt.’ ”

The Bulldogs would win 52-24. Two days later, Dooley was admitted to Emory for emergency angioplasty. The ol’ AJC went whole-hog with this, including in its pages a detailed diagram of the human heart with an arrow indicating the blockage. On Oct. 24, Dooley stood on the field in Athens — the one that, come Saturday, will be named after him — before the Kentucky game and greeted this correspondent thusly.

“I saw that diagram in your paper,” he said, “and I told Barbara, ‘Thank goodness I didn’t have hemorrhoids.’ ”

Lars Tate scored late that day to give Georgia a 17-14 victory. Afterward, captain Mack Burroughs handed Dooley the game ball and said, “We’re just glad you didn’t keel over.” Said Loran Smith: “Today’s slogan was, ‘Win one for the ticker.’ ”

When Tate scored the winning touchdown against Georgia Tech the year before, Dooley ran so far down the sideline that he said, “I almost scored myself.” This time, as a slight concession to his health, the coach moved only seven yards — but he punctuated it with a hop.

As unflappable as Dooley was in real life, he could be a wild man during games. Legend holds that, in trying to will a field goal through, he swung his leg so high that he booted a assistant upside the head. Dooley’s recollection is that his bit of body English inadvertently impacted a squatting equipment manager in the hindquarters, which is a more tepid tale. (Ah, well. Print the legend.)

So there. That’s your football allotment. One of the SEC’s five greatest head coaches — the others: Bryant, Saban, Neyland, Spurrier — will receive a signal honor Saturday. But the famous field, you should know, won’t be the first thing to bear his name.

Twenty years ago, he pointed to a flower in his garden and said, almost sheepishly: “See this hydrangea? It’s named after me.”

The Dooley Hydrangea is blue. It blooms in July. It’s very pretty.