Opinion: Coach Dooley: He wore glory with grace

Like most people who attended the University of Georgia before 1988, I only knew Vince Dooley as one of 80,000-plus fans sitting in Sanford Stadium. On football Saturdays, he was the man running up and down our sidelines, chopping at the air with his fists, frequently grimacing with clenched teeth, or kicking phantom field goals as he urged his team on.

While I was watching all those games, it never occurred to me that one day Coach Dooley and I would become friends. Through the invitation of Dr. W. Todd Groce, Georgia Historical Society (GHS) president and CEO, nearly 20 years ago, Coach got involved with GHS and became among the best friends and loyal supporters this institution has ever had. He served on our Board of Curators from 2007 until his death, including as board chairman from 2016-2018, and was inducted as a Georgia Trustee by GHS and the Office of the Governor in 2011, the highest honor the state of Georgia can confer.

This also meant that he was a regular visitor to our Savannah headquarters, and I never missed an opportunity to bust his chops when he was in the building. Every time I saw him, he wanted to talk history, and I wanted to talk football. His recall was incredible. No matter what game I brought up from his long tenure, he could talk about it in detail — the plays he called on this down or that, what it was like coaching against the Bear or Bobby Dodd. The 1965 trip to the Big House at the University of Michigan. The Appleby to Washington stunner in the 1975 Georgia-Florida game. Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott, 1980. Kevin Butler’s 60-yarder against Clemson, 1984.

I’ll never forget the first time his name popped up on my cell phone. Needless to say, those calls never went to voicemail: “Hey Coach!” “Stan, Vince Dooley,” he’d say in that inimitable gravelly voice, as though I wouldn’t know who he was otherwise. I cannot for the life of me remember what he wanted in that first call, but I’ll never forget that moment.

My colleague Laura García-Culler and I always marveled at how fortunate we were to spend so much time with this living legend. The thing I remember most about him was his humility and kindness toward everyone he met. He was, until January of this year, the only man who ever won a national football championship at Georgia, and until the day he died he was the physical embodiment of the state’s flagship university. He was revered, beloved and worshipped for those things.

Fame doesn’t usually rest easy on anyone’s shoulders, and that could have been an incredibly heavy burden to bear. But Coach Dooley, a U.S. Marine before he was a legend, embraced it and seemed to carry it lightly through all those years.

Naturally, he couldn’t go anywhere in Georgia without being recognized. It would have driven me crazy, but he loved it. He never got tired of it. He couldn’t eat a meal without being interrupted several times, but he always patiently signed autographs, shook hands warmly with strangers and smiled for selfies.

I remember being with him once when we stopped at a Subway for lunch. The poor guy behind the counter got so nervous taking Coach’s order that he couldn’t function properly. Coach responded instantly, reaching over to shake his hand, introducing himself and making small talk, putting the kid at ease. He left him grinning from ear to ear. This particular living legend was always approachable, engaging and humble.

As was said of Jackie Robinson, so was it true for Vince Dooley: he had the capacity to wear glory with grace.

There won’t ever be another like him — 25 years coaching at the state’s flagship university, winning like he did, stepping down in his late ‘50s after shaping countless young lives and then spending the next 30-plus years continuing to learn, teach, give, serve and influence those around him, all while drawing from a seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy, time, talent and kindness.

Just by being himself, Coach Dooley made the rest of us feel better and be better, and that’s no easy or common thing.

The friendship I shared with him was not exclusive to me: after his death everyone on social media posted a picture of themselves with Coach Dooley. He certainly won football games that we’ll all remember. But Coach Dooley was so much more than that. There’s an old saying that people won’t remember what you said to them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

And therein lies Coach Dooley’s true genius: He made us feel, all of us, that we were his friend, that we were important to him, that he enjoyed our company. What a gift to have and to share, and he did it freely and without hesitation and he did it every day until his final days.

I only knew Vince Dooley as a coach from afar, way up in the student section and I never played for him. But somehow, through the blessing of working for the Georgia Historical Society, I was lucky enough to get to know this man of incredible accomplishment through the playbook of friendship.

As E.B. White wrote so eloquently, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Thank you, Coach Dooley, and Godspeed.

Stan Deaton, Ph.D., is senior historian and Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society.