Knoxville — Dooley.
Thy name is Georgia football.
Say it again: Dooley. That is the password to access the Bulldogs’ best memories. It opens the vault to a 1980 national championship, six SEC titles and a quarter century of good, hard, earnest Saturdays at Sanford Stadium.
Every Georgia coach since Vince has tried to keep pace with the name. And has fallen back.
Today, this most treasured Bulldogs surname is cloaked in the radioactive orange of Tennessee.
A Dooley will rally to “Rocky Top,” not “Glory, Glory.” A Dooley will scratch Smokey behind the ears, not Uga.
That was Vince’s boy, Derek, in the Volunteers locker room Friday night being introduced as Tennessee’s 22nd head football coach.
He stood just to one side of the big board on which legendary Tennessee coach Gen. Robert Neyland’s seven maxims of football are displayed like Commandments 11 through 17. And this Dooley paid homage to someone else’s legendary coach and everything he spawned.
“Thank God The General knew what he was doing,” he told the crowd assembled.
“There is nothing more important than an institution’s culture and an institution’s tradition. ... It is going to take me some time to feel the heart and soul and spirit of this place but when we do, we’re going to embrace everything out there. There’s nothing more important to me than that.”
Lawyer turned coach
How different it would have been had Derek done as his brother and stayed in the real world. The intentions were there. He went through all the trouble of slogging through law school and passing the bar, then setting up a nice, safe little life for himself with his Ob/Gyn wife, Allison.
But the football gene was dominant. No matter how his family pushed back against the idea, Derek chucked it all to begin anew as a lowly grad assistant coach on Jim Donnan’s staff at Georgia in 1996.
Seeing how it all worked out, there is one important lesson to take away from his example: Kids, don’t listen to your father.
“He has taken his own path, different on some occasions than I would like,” Vince said.
“After finishing law school he had a great practice and he came and told me he wasn’t happy, he wanted to coach,” Vince remembered. “And I started to argue with him. But they teach you to argue in law school plus he was on the debate team, so I lost that argument in about 15 seconds.”
And now all his father had left to say was how proud he was to see his son arrive as a head coach in the only conference the elder Dooley has ever known.
Derek took the Dooley name for a ride through the subterranean levels of coaching. He was handed nothing, bouncing from SMU (receivers coach), to LSU (where he hooked up with Nick Saban to coach tight ends and coordinate recruiting) to the Miami Dolphins (following Saban as an assistant) and then to his first head coaching job.
To land that, he had to go to a part of Louisiana few tourists ever see, Ruston and the campus of Louisiana Tech. That is a quirky little program, out of place even in its own conference, the Western Athletic, with its fellow members in Idaho, Nevada, California and Hawaii.
And his name came out of the bushes to claim this job in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s sudden departure for USC. At least four other coaches of higher profile took their names out of consideration before Dooley, a career 17-20 at Louisiana Tech, landed the gig.
Ah, but that name is right in the middle of it now, a headliner in a conference that has produced five of the past seven national champions, with a standing appointments against both his father’s old school and his mentor’s (Saban) current one.
Circle Oct. 9; that’s when Tennessee visits Georgia.
At any point between then and now, might Vince Dooley be spotted wearing the Volunteer colors?
“It would have to be a very special occasion where I might subtly and very conservatively wear something that might be orange,” Vince said. “It’ll take me a long time to adjust to that.”
Saturday, Derek offered, “I am going to get him to come around at some point. I can’t guarantee it, but I can promise you my mother is wearing orange right now. She will be a lot easier sell than Dad. He’ll be thinking orange, though, that’s what’s important.”
Derek has had little time to ponder either the little eccentricities or the big-picture phenomenon of a Dooley getting the job at Tennessee. He touched down in Knoxville shortly after 8 p.m. Friday and has wasted no time breaking out the Grade A coachspeak.
“All I’m focused on is: No. 1 putting together a good staff; 2. trying to salvage this recruiting year and; 3. starting to implement the structure and the organization of how we’re going to develop the program. Anything beyond that is wasted thinking,” he said.
Expect many border raids in the years to come as a man typed as a tireless recruiter tills familiar ground. When asked about the many recruiting contacts he has made in his coaching travels, Dooley began a long list with, “Obviously it starts with my roots in Georgia ...”
His initial task has been to try to calm the Tennessee faithful after Kiffin’s drive-by in Knoxville. His predecessor was here but 13 months, treating what these people believe is an ultimate destination like a way station.
Respect for league
Without mentioning any names, he made it clear that while he, like Kiffin, might be relatively young (41) and untried with a famous coach for a father, the similarities end there.
He is to Kiffin what cornbread is to a California roll.
“I grew up in the SEC,” he said with a reassuringly southern lilt.
He drove home the point, drawing a contrast between himself and his often controversial predecessor: “I want you all to know I have a lot of respect for this league. I have a lot of respect for the coaches in this league, and I’m always going to conduct myself in that manner. I think you can have positive relationships with other coaches, you can show respect for other coaches and still keep the competitive edge.
“If you’re going to look for sound bites and things from me that is going to attack other programs and disparage people, that’s just not who I am.”
For good measure, one of Derek’s sons is named Peyton, although dad is forced to admit he wasn’t intentionally honoring Tennessee’s patron saint of quarterbacking. Just a happy coincidence.
And at no time, he said, did he consider naming his other son Herschel.
The Tennessee community has approached this hire cautiously, given Derek’s relatively low Q rating. But it still has been a grand parade compared to when a 31-year-old Vince Dooley came to Georgia in 1963. He was but a callow freshman-team coach at his alma mater, Auburn, thrown into the deep end with the Bulldogs.
“My qualifications were 10 times less than Derek’s,” Vince said.
Saturday, his boy was given the mid-level star treatment as he was shepherded around the Tennessee-Ole Miss basketball game.
Outside, on the big rock where students had obscenely posted their thoughts on Kiffin earlier in the week, someone Friday night painted the message: “Just do it Dooley.”
It is their name now.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com