Dooley re-invents himself after walking away from UGA sidelines

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s history is filled with some of America’s finest sports writers. In five installments, the AJC will re-publish a story from five of them, three on staff today and two former reporters.

The group consists of current writers Mark Bradley, Steve Hummer and Jeff Schultz and former writers Michelle Hiskey and Dave Kindred.

We hope you enjoy these as much as we do.

This article written by Mark Bradley was published July 18, 1999.

“See this hydrangea?” Vince Dooley says. “It’s named after me.”

He says this almost apologetically, but it’s the truth. This light-blue variation bears up well in cold weather, and the horticulturist pal who bred it considered that apropos. Hence, the Dooley Hydrangea. Some esteemed ex-coaches get stadiums christened in their honor. This one has a flower.

Vince Dooley moves through his yard, pointing and identifying. He conducts this sort of tour periodically, the place having become fairly famous. The Home and Garden network recently did a feature on the stuff growing outside the house on Milledge Circle. “The Dooley Botanical Gardens,” his wife calls the layout, sarcasm seeping.

More than 1,000 kinds of flowers and shrubs dot Dooley’s garden, which covers more than an acre and has spilled into the lot next door, a sliver of which Dooley has annexed from a kindly neighbor. In his kitchen Dooley has two blueprint-sized pages that list the name and location of each bit of flora. He keeps a copy of a thick horticulture text, written by his friend Michael Dirr and heavily bookmarked, in both house and office.

Unlike affluent men of a certain age, Dooley does not play golf. “This,” he says, gesturing around him, “is my golf.”

He pauses by the man-made pond, points to the banana tree. He proceeds over the wooden bridge across the front lawn. He touches one Japanese maple, then another. Japanese maples are his favorites, he allows: “Never met one I didn’t like.”

For their 39th wedding anniversary this spring, Dooley surprised his wife with a towering Japanese maple. Barbara appreciated this somewhat less than anticipated. “She was speechless for the first time in her life,” Dooley says. “She walked out to see if there was some gold or diamonds hanging from it.” A car pulls into the long driveway. It’s Deanna Cook, the oldest of Dooley’s four children, and her friend Claire Reid. “Coach Dooley!” Reid says. “I dreamed about your garden the other night!”

Dooley cocks an eyebrow. “Dreamed about it?” he says. But he doesn’t wave off this odd compliment. He and Reid fall into a detailed discussion of watering. Deanna lags behind, benignly amused. She has seen this before.

The tutorial complete, Reid turns to go. “Here,” says the man who beat the Bear and who won it all with Herschel. “Take this.” He hands her a baby yellow flower, still in its plastic container. He bends again, lifting a gardenia sprout. “Better take this, too.”

The snapshot would fit inside a bittersweet stereotype: Famed coach retires, knows not what to do without the sport that made him famous, winds up puttering around the garden. Except that only the first part is true. Vince Dooley coached his last game on Jan. 1, 1989. In the decade since, he has re-invented himself as athletics director of a flowering program. And what he does in his lavish garden doesn’t constitute puttering.

He’s out there almost every morning, right after he hops off the exercise bike in the pool house. He digs, transplants, waters. “He’s on his hands and knees, ” his wife says. “He gets nasty, gross dirty.”

Then he cleans up, puts on his customary white shirt and red tie, and goes to work. His office is five minutes away. He’s there during the week, at night, on weekends. He’s 66, an age at which, school president Michael Adams says, “a lot of people would be coasting.” Dooley seems only to run faster.

In the course of one June week he flew to Destin, Fla., for the annual SEC meetings; returned to Atlanta for a Larry Munson roast; flew out the next morning for Minneapolis, where he watched the men’s golf team take the NCAA title, Georgia’s fourth of the spring. And in the middle of it all he hired Ron Polk to coach baseball.

“He has more energy than most 20-year-olds,” says Barbara Dooley, who isn’t sure if that is entirely good. The Dooleys’ four children are grown, off raising families of their own. “I thought this would be our time together, ” she says. She pauses theatrically. “I’m still waiting.”

Forty years ago, when Barbara Meshad was an Auburn student, she asked the man she would marry why he spent evenings in the office studying for his master’s degree while the other assistant football coaches played cards. “Because, ” Vince Dooley said, “25 years from now they’ll still be playing cards.”

Not until Georgia made him its head coach was Dooley sure that this was his calling. He resisted coaching, thinking it “an insecure business.” He had an offer to go into banking when he left the Marine Corps, and only after some hesitation did he take a job on Shug Jordan’s staff at Auburn. Even then he was readying himself. He spent five years tutoring quarterbacks, then asked to take charge of the freshman team. Just to see if he could actually coach.

Turned out he could. At Georgia, he won 201 games, six SEC titles and a national championship. It was the sort of legacy on which a man, if he chose, could dine out the rest of his life. Dooley chose otherwise. Done with coaching, he turned to scratching the long-deferred itch of overseeing a big business. Georgia’s annual athletics budget is $28 million. That qualifies.

The ascent of Georgia sports — the Bulldogs finished second to Stanford in the Sears Cup standings for 1998-99, a measure of across-the-board excellence — flouts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention that there are no great second acts in American life. A Hall of Fame coach has grown into an increasingly self-assured AD, and this American life has become fuller and richer over time.

Football was all-consuming. It separated him from his family. During the season, he would eat one meal a week at home, then flit back to the office. Barbara Dooley acknowledges that she basically raised the children by herself. “We just knew, ” Deanna says, “that he couldn’t be at all our stuff.”

The family had planned an Easter trip in 1980 to New York and Boston. Midway through the week Dooley told his wife he couldn’t go. A recruit from Wrightsville hadn’t signed. “The hell with Herschel!” Barbara Dooley said. “There are a million Herschels.” She and the kids flew North. Her husband stayed to monitor developments. Herschel Walker signed with Georgia on Easter Sunday.

Summer vacations were focused to a fault. Determined to cram everything possible into a fortnight, Dooley would stop at every historical marker. “It was fun,” his son Daniel Dooley says, “and then it became not fun. We’d be saying, ‘OK, Dad; just get us to the beach.’”

The beach was at St. Simons. Dooley and the kids would go crabbing or fishing all day. Night brought another task. A Tastee-Freez just off the beach served 50 flavors of milkshakes. Every year the Dooleys made it a point to sample them all, buying four a night, trading back and forth.

“I just wish,” Barbara Dooley says, “he could do something halfway.”

With football, there was never a chance. As nice as winning was, the fear of losing was 10 times greater. Perhaps what’s most surprising about this famed coach is how little he misses coaching. “I miss the closeness of the players, the challenge of building a team, the thrill of victory, ” he says. “But I don’t miss the agony of defeat. That just got worse. The older I got, the more I believed I should’ve thought of something.”

Dooley announced his resignation from Georgia after the 1988 regular season. He was 56, in relatively good health; he had undergone an angioplasty to ease a heart blockage in October 1987 but coached that weekend against Kentucky. Although the Jan Kemp academic fraud trial in 1986 led Fred Davison to resign as school president, Dooley had emerged relatively untarnished. He was under no outside pressure to resign.

“I left when I wanted to leave, under the conditions I wanted, ” Dooley says. “How many people ever get to do that?”

There was, his son suggests, one other consideration. Georgia kept winning after Herschel, but the championships stopped. “I think he saw the program had reached a state of complacency, ” says another son, Derek Dooley, “and he needed to clean house. He needed to do tough things to people who’d been good to him over the years.” At that time, Vince Dooley simply could not. He retired as coach having never fired an assistant.

When Dooley resigned as coach he also resigned as AD, agreeing to stay on until a replacement could be found. He considered running for governor as a conservative Democrat in 1990, and he hired a political consultant. But he kept waking up feeling there “was something wrong, ” he says. “Mentally I wanted to do it.” Emotionally, he decided, he did not.

So he asked the next question: What to do with the rest of his life? He asked Charles Knapp, then Georgia’s president, if he could take back the second of his two jobs. Knapp let him.

Nobody said so, but Dooley-as-AD only seemed a layover to some other destination, to TV commentator or executive vice president of some moneyed company. He seemed tentative his first years as AD-only, willing to stand back as Hugh Durham’s basketball teams began to miss the NCAA Tournament, willing to let Ray Goff, his successor as football coach, rise or fall on his own. So painstaking were Dooley’s deliberations on Goff and, to a lesser degree, Durham that they threatened to rip the fabric of Bulldogs support.

Finally Dooley moved. He fired Durham in March 1995 and approached the hottest coach going, Tubby Smith of Tulsa. Dooley hadn’t known much about Smith personally — before flying to meet him, he had asked the deathless question, “Is Tubby tubby?” — but knew enough to hire him with a minimum of fuss. Smith invigorated the dormant program, taking the Bulldogs to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 his first season.

That administrative triumph seemed to embolden Dooley. He fired Goff in November of the same year. Glen Mason was introduced as Georgia’s coach on Dec. 18. On Christmas Day, Mason announced that he had decided to stay at Kansas. Before the day was done, Dooley had hired Jim Donnan.

As embarrassing as Mason’s withdrawal was, Dooley’s deft recovery kept the Dec. 26 papers from a round of woe-is-Georgia handwringing. Not incidentally, it also gave Georgia a demonstrably better coach.

“He always has a Plan B,” Daniel Dooley says. “When I was playing for him at Georgia, we worked on everything imaginable on the practice field. When it came to games, there was nothing we hadn’t prepared for.”

In December 1963, athletic director Joel Eaves introduced Georgia’s new coach, a 31-year-old whose claim to fame was having coached Auburn’s freshmen, to a skeptical audience. “This is Vince Dooley, ” Eaves said, “and the only thing I can promise is that he won’t panic.”

An athletics director isn’t apt to be beloved. It’s the nature of the job. An AD hires coaches who, if they win big enough, become beloved. An AD reaps private rewards. Even so, the head of this ascendant program remains a target of criticism that seems more pointed than the usual grumbling.

“I’d say he’s respected rather than popular, ” says Gary Hill, an Atlanta businessman who serves on the athletics board. “Larry Munson is popular. There’s no way you can have a constituency as large as (Dooley) has and not have detractors.”

Common grumbles: The four national championships in ‘99 — women’s gymnastics and swimming, men’s tennis and golf — were nice, but why can’t Georgia win one in football? Why was Smith allowed to leave for Kentucky after two seasons, and why did Dooley promote untried assistant Ron Jirsa to replace him? Why don’t the Bulldogs market themselves better? Is it true Dooley and Donnan don’t get along, or that Dooley and the school president aren’t chummy?

“By any measure, this is a good time in Georgia athletics, ” says Adams, president since 1997. “There’s general peace in the kingdom; there’s general winning across the board, and we’re generally sound economically.”

Adams is regarded as more a sports fan than his predecessor, the patrician Knapp. The hiring of Jim Harrick to coach basketball was widely seen as Adams’ doing. Dooley insists it was not. “If it had been, ” he says, “I wouldn’t be here today.” The Dooleys, Barbara reports, have dinner with the Adamses periodically.

“I’m pretty high on what he has done as AD, ” Adams says. “To the best of my knowledge, we have not had a cross word. … People would like to create a division between us, and I would not say we would never have a disagreement. … But there’s a high mutual respect. He has made some significant contributions to Georgia.”

Some of Dooley’s critics are put off by perception, Loran Smith says. “Vince has a reluctant way about him, ” says Smith, executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club. “I’ve told him, ‘Georgia people want to know if you give a damn about Georgia.’ And he’ll say, ‘But you know I do.’ And I’ll say, ‘But you never show it.’”

Goff is a skilled backslapper and joke-teller. Dooley is essentially the anti-Goff. Watch him in public. He makes an effort to say hello, but only after a milli-second’s hesitation that makes it apparent that this is indeed an effort. Born and raised in Mobile and a Southerner all his life, Dooley always has seemed more urbane than his roots. A good ol’ boy? “I don’t think you’d classify me as that,” he says, one corner of his mouth twisting into a grin.

Munson, invariably identified as “the legendary voice” of Georgia football, has worked with Dooley for 34 years. “I don’t know him that well,” is Munson’s revealing admission. “We’re not that close. He’s always kind of kept control.”

This hint of aloofness can hurt Dooley, especially in those precincts, as Barbara Dooley notes, “below the gnat line.” The schism regarding Goff seemed to break on geographic lines. His support, and the distrust of Dooley, was greatest in South Georgia, Goff’s home turf.

Still Vince Dooley remains Vince Dooley, winner of 201 games and six SEC titles, the best football coach Georgia has ever had. “You go to Dublin and Vidalia, ” Loran Smith says, “and I guarantee you the same people who might be lambasting Vince at the coffee shop would get excited if he walked in. ‘Come over here, coach Dooley, and sit with us.’ “

Dooley isn’t a micro-manager. He meets with the 20 head coaches four times a year, but much of the intraoffice communication is left to his lieutenants. Rarely does he stop by football practice. It surprises some people, who figure that an old coach couldn’t help but look over the new one’s shoulder.

When Donnan was offered the North Carolina job, Dooley gave him a $300,000 raise. Donnan now earns roughly $800,000 a year, almost twice what Dooley was making when he quit coaching. “Coach Dooley has been very upfront with me, ” Donnan says. “He wants us to win the SEC.”

Dooley consistently describes football as “the engine that drives everything, ” and he showed with Donnan and the Sanford Stadium Sky Suites that he is willing to spend money to make money there.

Among Georgia’s other coaches, the perception is that Dooley is somewhat less profligate. Only when gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculan and women’s basketball coach Andy Landers threatened to take the athletics department to court did they get what they perceived as raises commensurate with the status of their sports. But that was five years ago, and the two remain Georgia employees doing superior work. Yoculan’s team won the last two NCAA titles. Landers’ Lady Dogs reached the Final Four this spring.

“As a coach, you always fight for what you want,” Tubby Smith says. “But coach Dooley took care of (men’s basketball) — he got us new offices, new baskets, a new logo — and he took care of me financially.”

There was a time when Yoculan spent Sundays stuffing 10,000 flyers into envelopes to get out the the word about her gymnasts. Today, she has a full-time secretary. This year, the gymnastics team took a chartered plane to a meet in Chapel Hill, at a cost of $15,000. “Coach Dooley, ” she says, “gets better and better in terms of responding to the needs of a team as it’s earned. … Today, there’s no excuse for not being successful at the University of Georgia. We’ve got it all.”

The one criticism that seems to hold water involves marketing. Georgia does the basics but not much more. “Dad’s old-school,” Daniel Dooley says, meaning that the AD doesn’t feel comfortable trumpeting himself or his program. If you win big enough, people will know. Still, Landers says, “What we’ve done has gone quietly unnoticed. … As a collection, our coaches might not have an equal.”

Asked if he has a model for Georgia athletics, Dooley’s answer is simple: “Just for every program to compete at the highest level.” The Bulldogs are, he says, “getting close” to that. His goal of having every scholarship endowed by private donations is one-third accomplished. The size of the football weight room has been doubled. Even the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, long considered a showplace, is in for a renovation.

“If Georgia is going to sponsor a program, coach Dooley wants it to have the wherewithal to win not just the SEC but a national championship,” says John Shafer, the Mississippi AD who was Dooley’s deputy for 16 years. In the spring, Georgia dedicated a private clubhouse and a short range for the men’s and women’s golf teams. The price tag was $900,000. Even Dooley marvels at the clubhouse appointments — a separate room for “grip repair,” the steam-equipped men’s showers. “The ol’ golf scholarship,” he says, eyes dancing. “Pretty rough, huh?”

Once, AD-only might have seemed thin consolation for someone who aspired to live in the governor’s mansion, but in the decade since he stopped coaching Dooley has warmed to his vocation. He is secure enough now to admit mistakes and cut his losses. This spring, he fired Jirsa after only two seasons and reassigned baseball coach Robert Sapp after three, replacing them with established winners in Harrick and Polk.

“I never knew I had two jobs,” Dooley says, “until I gave up one.” And if he had to rate himself as an athletics director? “I’d say I’m up there amongst ‘em.” He means at the top.

The Dooleys have lived in the house on Milledge Circle since they moved to Athens in 1963. The place has undergone eight additions — pool, pool house, various dens and sitting rooms. The living room bears no hint of football. A “Goosebumps” video sits atop the big TV, evidence that grandchildren congregate there. On the walls are framed letters from Robert E. Lee and Napoleon, evidence that the head of this household has a sense of history far deeper than last night’s “SportsCenter.”

He has spent more than 40 years around athletics, yet Dooley seldom watches a game on TV. He works. He studies. He reads. Not long ago, he and Barbara were going somewhere in the car and he asked her to sit in the back. He was listening to a book on tape about the Civil War, and he had a map of a battle spread on the passenger seat. “So much of history, ” Dooley says knowingly, “is geography.”

Dooley takes a class at the university every spring, has since he was coaching. The gardening bug came from sitting in on Dirr’s lectures, and before that there were forays into art, which led to tours of major galleries, and wine, which took him to the vineyards of Napa Valley. Last month, Dooley spent two weeks in England, touring gardens with Dirr. “(He) is a student in the classical sense of the word, ” Dirr says. “He sinks his bulldog teeth into a subject, and there is no letting go.”

Football cramped Dooley’s passion to educate himself. Coaching made demands that being athletics director does not. An AD has a chance to have a semblance of a normal life. Dooley, who missed seeing his children grow up, is trying to make it up with the eight grandchildren. The Dooleys just built a house on Lake Burton in North Georgia, the first summer house they’ve ever had, and the whole clan gathered there for the Fourth of July.

Last summer, Vince and Barbara toured South Africa. A few years ago, he went skydiving over Monroe with Daniel and Derek. A few years before that, the Dooley men went fishing in Alaska’s Windy Bay. A stiff wind blew their boat ashore, stranding them on the rocks. “We’d been told we’d freeze if we got in the water, ” Daniel says, “and if we got off on land the bears would get us.”

His sons were getting worried. Dooley was having a fine time. “Men, people pay big money for this, ” he said, meaning the extreme experience. “We’re getting it free!”

After a few increasingly anxious hours, the crew was rescued by a passing boat.

This isn’t what you’d call a risk-averse family. Dooley sits on the board of, Daniel’s nascent Internet company. Barbara has a daily radio show and remains the gregarious counterpoint to her circumspect husband. “They’re like Lucy and Ricky,” Deanna Cook says.

Ten years ago, it was tempting to see Vince Dooley as a caretaker, an old football coach in over his head. Today, he commands nationwide respect. “When he speaks, people listen, ” says Greg McGarity, a Georgia grad who now is assistant AD at Florida. Today, the old coach is proud of himself and his program and, with a contract that runs through June, 2001, has no plans to abdicate.

“My friend Vincent, ” says Don Leebern, the influential booster from Columbus, “is at peace with the world.”

Georgia had introduced Harrick at a news conference on March 31. April Fool’s Day found Dooley and his grandson Patrick — along with Gary Hill and his son Alex — on the Civil War battlefield in New Market, Va. Late in the afternoon, Hill phoned his office and was told that Dooley needed to call the athletics department immediately.

“Gee,” said Alex Hill, who, at 11, is old enough to remember Glen Mason, “I hope it’s not something with Coach Harrick.”

The four were standing in a low spot, bad for cellular service. “I’ll call,” Dooley said, “but first I’m going to take that hill.”

They took the hill. Dooley called the office. Harrick had pulled out, he was told. The four got in their rental car and headed for their next stop. Even as they retraced Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah campaign, Dooley told Hill he might have to break off the tour to fly somewhere to interview a basketball coach. Then he said something that was vintage Vince: “Either he’s coming or he’s not coming, and we can deal with either eventuality.”

Three hours later, Dooley sat in the lobby of an inn in Luray, Va., addressing an Athens news conference by pay phone. By then, Harrick had changed his mind again, but other issues were at hand. The inn’s restaurant was about to close. Hill held up a menu. As he told a faraway audience why he had agreed to take Harrick back, Dooley pointed to an entree.

The briefing done, Dooley asked if the restaurant served Chivas Regal. It did. He ordered one on the rocks and walked toward the restroom to wash up. Then he stopped. Just another frenzied day in the life of an AD, and Vince Dooley, as advertised long ago, had not panicked. He had, however, reconsidered.

“Make it a double,” he said.