Georgia’s Vince Dooley: The man who knew so much

He was a football coach. He could have been anything. When he was an Auburn assistant, his wife asked why, rather than playing cards with fellow assistants, he was studying post-graduate texts. Vince Dooley said, “Because 20 years from now, they’ll still be playing cards.”

He was 56 when he retired as Georgia’s head coach. That was, as wife Barbara would forever note, just when college coaches began making big money. Her husband, however, still had things to do. He considered running for office. He wound up being an athletic director who gave lie to the custom of filling that position with a former coach essentially getting paid for not working. He was as good an AD as he was a coach, which was saying something.

A conversation with the man – this correspondent was lucky enough to have had a few – could go any which way. He could talk history, of these United States or our big old world. He toured battlefields. Indeed, Dooley was on one when word came that Jim Harrick, just hired as Georgia’s basketball coach, was wavering in his commitment. Dooley told his companion: “I’ll deal with that … but first I’ve got to take that hill.”

His garden outside the many-times-expanded house on Milledge Circle became a wonder unto itself. “See that?” he once said to yours truly, pointing to a Japanese maple. “That’s named after me.”

He was so smart and inquisitive that often you wondered why, of all things, he became a football coach. But then you remembered: He won six SEC titles and a national championship over 25 years in Athens. He was great at that, too. He didn’t conjure up a new offense. His teams simply did the basics better than their opponents. His Bulldogs would win every game they were supposed to win, and they would spring enough upsets to qualify as a national power.

This is Georgia-Florida weekend. The Gators had won eight of nine in Jacksonville before Dooley was hired to replace Johnny Griffith. (That house on Milledge Circle? It was vacated by Griffith.) Dooley’s Bulldogs were 17-7-1 against the hated Gators. In 1975, Georgia won on an end-around pass by Richard Appleby. Ten years later, the Bulldogs would overwhelm Florida, ranked No. 1 for the first time ever, 24-3.

That came on a day when Georgia’s quarterback attempted only seven passes. When they can’t stop your running, why throw? The Bulldogs’ national championship was claimed when Buck Belue completed but one pass against Notre Dame. (In Belue’s defense, the completion iced the game.) Dooley took Herschel Walker and won three SEC titles. Georgia’s record over those three seasons: 33-3. Its record in Year 1 post-Herschel: 10-1-1. The man could coach.

The man, though, wasn’t just a coach. He wasn’t a glad-hander – he didn’t play golf – but he could talk until the cows came home. He wasn’t a lecturer, either. If you had something worth saying, he was happy to hear it. He laughed at your jokes. He was an ardent lender of books. (As we speak, two of his rest on the Bradley bookshelf.) He liked watching basketball – he played guard at Auburn.

He had a clear idea of who he was and what he meant to UGA, but he was sheepish about compliments. When he announced his retirement from coaching in 1988, a guy writing for the AJC gushed to the extent that Dooley said, at his press briefing the next day, “I thought I was reading my obituary.” The same fingers are typing these words.

Vincent Joseph Dooley died Friday. He was 90. Not many people have lived fuller lives. Not many have had a deeper hunger for knowledge. I’m sorry he’s gone, but sorrow will fade. What won’t is the honor of having known the man. Reader’s Digest used to run a feature entitled: “My Most Memorable Character.” Vince was mine.