Why Kemp worked to rename UGA’s field in Dooley’s honor

The renaming of the playing surface at Sanford Stadium in Athens after Vince Dooley was not just an accolade to a legendary football coach. It was also a direct result of Gov. Brian Kemp’s intervention.

The governor, an Athens native and die-hard Bulldog, helped orchestrate the renaming of the field at Sanford Stadium after the ex-coach and athletic director.

Our colleague Chip Towers at DawgNation reported that the Republican is "believed to be behind the fast-tracking of this long-proposed movement" that suddenly gained traction in recent weeks. We're told that's true.

He also informed Don Leebern of Columbus two weeks ago that he would not be re-appointed to the powerful Board of Regents for another term. People close to the governor don’t dispute that.

Those two developments are connected, though it takes a crash course on UGA history to grasp how.

To say Kemp is friendly with the Dooley family is like saying Georgia's mascot has a few wrinkles. The governor vacationed with the Dooley family as a child and roomed with the coach's son, Daniel, in college. They remain very close.

Leebern, a Columbus liquor magnate and wealthy benefactor, is the board’s second-longest-serving member in state history, and he’s long been intertwined in every major decision involving the higher education system — particularly those involving UGA, his beloved alma mater.

Vince Dooley stands beside Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife Marty. File photo.

Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's staff discovered that outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal didn't properly submit 64 board appointments, including his attempt to re-up Leebern to another term. When Kemp put forth a new list of appointments, it excluded Leebern and two other regents members. Ouch.

As it happens, Leebern was one of the chief allies of then-UGA President Michael Adams during a tug of war over finances between him and supporters of Dooley, who at the time was the school’s long-serving athletics director.

In "Behind the Hedges," a 2011 book recounting the struggle , journalist Rich Whitt wrote that Leebern pushed for Adams' presidency "and was his chief defender each time Adams stubbed his toe." In return, Whitt wrote, Leebern was given wide latitude to weather controversies that threatened his post.

We, too, were there at the time. It got pretty nasty.

Temperatures have cooled since then, and some officials suggest that Leebern was on board with the renaming of the field. Campaign records show the Leebern network hedged its bets in last year’s GOP governor’s race, giving to both Kemp and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Dooley wouldn’t bite on a query about the behind-the-scenes intrigue in an interview with Towers, instead thanking the state officials and UGA administrators who backed the renaming.

As for Kemp, he told the AJC that Dooley was “very, very deserving” but sidestepped a direct question about whether he intervened on the legendary coach’s behalf.

“Coach Dooley didn’t need anyone pushing anything for him,” Kemp said, “because he had some great offensive linemen doing that for him.”

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