Opinion: Vince Dooley was way more than ‘coach’

As I answered the phone, I saw it was from “Dooley.” More surprising was the offer he was extending to me, “Would you like to go to the flower show next week?” How many times has the football coach called you up to invite you to a flower show? But this only reflected one side of this wonderful and generous man.

I had started a nonprofit organization a few years before called Athletes for a Better World, to develop character, teamwork and service in athletes, and John Wooden had given us permission to use his name to honor nationally one college and one professional athlete whose character made the greatest difference in the lives of others.

I happened to hear an interview on the radio with Vince Dooley in which he was talking about the importance of character. I knew that he had been a great coach at UGA, but I had no idea what he was like personally – but, in listening to him, I decided I needed to meet him. Some days later I was in his office, telling him about my organization and asking him if he would be the chair of a Wooden Committee we would need to form to determine who the recipients of this honor would be. He said, “yes, Wooden was a personal hero of mine,” beginning what would become an over 20-year friendship with one of the finest men I have known.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

I soon learned that he not only loved flowers and trees, but that consistent with his history degree he was a scholar of the Civil War and went off on trips each year to one battlefield or another. Vince was as close to a Renaissance man as you’ll ever meet these days, by excelling in several fields.

Moreover, his willingness to serve countless nonprofit organizations, efforts and causes reflected the depth of his concern and love for others and our communities.

It was only natural that our organization would soon create the “Dooley Awards” – scholarships open to every high school senior athlete in Georgia who made the greatest difference in the lives of others. Every year (since it was a different group each year) at the ceremony Vince would give a variation on the same speech. He talked about the three men he admired most: Stan Musial, John Wooden and Nelson Mandela, describing their character and why they were worthy of respect and emulation.

In my words I always included the following question: have you ever called someone and they didn’t call you back? My answer was, “I have countless times. They were either too lazy, or thought they were too busy, or I wasn’t important enough.” “But,” I said, “Coach Dooley has always called me back the day I called.” One time I called him and he didn’t call back. I was surprised. When he didn’t call the next day either, I thought to myself, “he must be out of the country.” My suspicions were confirmed: devout Catholic that he was, he’d been on a trip to Lourdes, France.

I went on to say that returning calls illustrates respect for the one who has called, attention to detail and a disciplined life. “Be like Vince,” I’d say, “if you’re too busy or important to return calls, or emails, hire someone to do it for you.”

My favorite story of his was of the time he decided (because of his love for trees) to buy a rare tree for his beloved Barbara for their anniversary. He had a backhoe come in and plant it while she was away and then proudly presented it to her. Not caring a bit for trees, Barbara ran out and began searching on the branches for the ring or gift that she assumed he surely had hanging there for her to discover! Like all great men, he could make mistakes, but could also laugh at them.

Remember Musial, Wooden and Mandela, and be like them and Vince, a man who made our world immeasurably better.

Frederick B. Northup founded Athletes for a Better World in Atlanta in 1998, after retiring as Dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. He is the author of “Winning More Than The Game,” and most recently of the musical “David: the Faces of Love,” which he is trying to get to Broadway. He lives in Asheville, N.C.