Dooley Field honor required some political football

Fourth in a series. Every day this week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will present a story on the many influences of Vince Dooley at the University of Georgia. The field at Sanford Stadium will be named in his honor Saturday.

Most inside the program are pleased to talk about Saturday’s occasion of the University of Georgia naming its football field after Vince Dooley. Until, that is, the conversation turns to the politics that it took for it to happen.

Ask about that, and folks suddenly get quiet or vague.

“I’m going to plead the Fifth on that,” said Billy Payne, who played football for Dooley at Georgia before his stints as chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and Augusta National Golf Club. Payne allegedly led the lobbying efforts of the UGA football lettermen for this to happen.

“I’ll just say I appreciate the governor. I’ll leave it at that,” said Daniel Dooley, Vince’s oldest son, who grew up as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s best friend and roomed with him in college.

Kemp has not made a statement about the decision to name the field at Sanford Stadium after Dooley since the state Board of Regents’ unanimously approved the proposal of UGA President Jere Morehead at a meeting in May. At that time, Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Coach Dooley didn’t need anyone pushing anything for him because he had some great offensive linemen doing that for him.”

Part 1 of the series | Part 2  | Part 3

Even Vince Dooley himself is a bit dodgy on the subject.

“I know (the politics of it) has been brought up on several different occasions,” Dooley said in a recent exclusive interview with the AJC. “Some people have written some columns about it, and then the lettermen got really into it, as I understand it. But I never took part in any of that, as you know.”

No, Dooley has always prided himself on remaining “above the fray.” Now his wife, Barbara, she’s been known to jump down in there sometimes.

She did when asked about the matter.

“It’s only because of Don Leebern; that’s just the bottom line,” Barbara Dooley said this week. “I had no idea that man had so damn much power. But he did.”

Indeed, two things had to happen for the grass-roots effort to have Dooley’s name become perpetually associated with Sanford Stadium to become a reality: One, Kemp had to be elected governor. That happened in November. Two, Leebern (along with Richard Tucker) needed to be removed from the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents. That happened in February.

Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan leveraged a technical mistake made by previous Gov. Nathan Deal when he reappointed Leebern and Tucker to their regent's posts shortly before he left office in January to ultimately remove them from the board. Leebern and Tucker were longtime co-chairs of the regent's facilities committee, and reportedly stood in opposition to Dooley's name being included on UGA's football facility.

Leebern did not respond to a request for comment this week. Suzanne Yoculan, the former Georgia gymnastics coach who has a committed, live-in relationship with Leebern, told the AJC that “he supports naming it Dooley Field. He was against naming the stadium.”

So were a few people, apparently.

Naming the field after Dooley rather than putting his name on the stadium in some way was a compromise. Changing the stadium’s name to “Dooley-Sanford Stadium” or Sanford-Dooley Stadium was a movement among Dooley supporters not long after he retired from UGA as the school’s athletic director in 2004. But in addition to Leebern, several other influential individuals were against that.

One was former UGA President Michael Adams. Another was the Charles Sanford family.

Charles Sanford was the grandson of Steadman V. Sanford, the person for whom Sanford Stadium is named. Dean of UGA at the time, and later the university’s president, Steadman Sanford is the person most responsible for making the Bulldogs’ football stadium a reality in 1929.

As the story goes, after an undefeated Georgia team lost to Georgia Tech 12-0 in Atlanta to end the 1927 regular season, Sanford vowed that the Bulldogs should never again have to play one of their home games against their rivals in Atlanta.

According to UGA historian Loran Smith, Sanford convinced 300 Georgia people to sign notes with the bank pledging $1,000 each to the stadium-building project. Sanford Stadium was officially dedicated Oct. 12, 1929, before a game against Yale. Twelve days later, the great stock-market crash took place.

“Yet they did not have to call a single note,” Smith said.

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Steadman Sanford died in 1945 at the age of 74. His grandson, Charles Steadman Sanford Jr., became the unofficial protector of his grandfather’s legacy. A successful banker, Charles Sanford spent much of his career in New York City. While Adams was UGA’s president, Charles Sanford donated the lead gift in a $12.5 million campaign to build a student center for Terry College of Business. And so, Sanford Hall was dedicated in 1997.

Years later, Smith said he called on Charles Sanford in New York for a story for the football program. Smith said Sanford made it clear then that he not only was against adding any additional names added to the stadium, he also opposed any naming of the field as well.

“But if you look at the stadium today, it is more Dooley than Sanford,” Smith said.

Charles Sanford died Sept. 4 of last year. Sept. 4, coincidentally, also happens to be the Dooley’s birthday, who turned 87 on Wednesday.

Why Leebern, a UGA football letterman, would stand in the way of such an honor for Dooley is complicated. According to several people familiar with the situation, it stems from Dooley declining to promote Yoculan to an associate athletic director’s position toward the end of her tenure as UGA’s gymnastics coach. Leebern subsequently backed Adams in the power struggle that resulted in Dooley’s retirement in 2004.

“Vince and Don were very good friends for many years, and Don turned on him,” Barbara Dooley said. “And, man, when he turned, he turned. Of course, when he turned, I turned on him. Vince didn’t, but I did.”

But did it really require all these political machinations for Dooley Field to become a reality?

It likely would have happened eventually, political experts say, but the governor and the Dooleys being extremely close definitely fast-tracked the process.

“The Dooleys stood up early on and said, ‘Brian Kemp is our guy,’” said Brian Robinson, a former spokesman for Deal and current owner of Robinson Republic. “That means a lot to a candidate in a contested primary. When a candidate becomes a governor, being able to pay back someone that is special to you is as gratifying as any official act can be.

“This is not cronyism. This is an appropriate honor for someone who is an icon to the Dog Nation. No one can say Kemp is paying off a supporter by doing this. It’s a case where the governor was able to do the right thing with his influence.”

Indeed, quite a few influential people seem quite pleased that, from Saturday forward, football games will be played at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium.

“I hoped for it as much as all the people who ever played for him,” said Payne, who played offensive and defensive end for Dooley from 1965-68, winning two SEC championships. “This is a long time coming for an incredibly remarkable man, a man of exceedingly great intellect, multiple interests, well read. He’s such an inspiration to me and he has been since 1965 when I first met him.”

Payne will be in attendance this weekend. So will the governor.