The Lead Dawg


I arrived on campus at the University of Georgia in 1968, 3 years after Coach Dooley got there. It was a big deal to a 17-year-old from Swainsboro, Georgia. After my parents deposited me and all my “college hopes and dreams” at the front door of Russell Hall and waved so long, it hit me. This is where you will be for the next 4 years. So, let’s hope you like it. Back then, freshmen had to live in a dorm, you couldn't have a car, you had to survive on cafeteria food, and you had to go through something called, "freshman orientation". We had people telling us where to go for this and that and how everything worked on campus and how to be a good student in the traditional, “Georgia Style” fashion. Nowdays, the "lefties" would be bristling at such a concept. It would be decried as fascism, denial of individuality, forced conformity and it would require, at the very least, street riots, burning of buildings and tearing down of any convenient, available statues. But back then we thought it was ok, boy were we mindless! Ok, back to the story. Orientation was helpful, but in all honesty, the reality of actually being at UGA was not quite measuring up to the excitement of “looking forward” to going to UGA. The last session of orientation was, I guess you could call it, kind of newcomer's pep rally. Some of the Georgia Cheerleaders showed up along with a few players from the team. They said Coach Dooley might come by. I think he just happened to be passing through, but sure enough he came through the door and that was the highlight of orientation. He was not slick or showy, he was strictly business and he did just what he thought he needed to do. He left a bunch of wide-eyed kids away from home with a simple directive: Study, make your time count, and be there at all the ball games. The cheerleaders cheered and everybody clapped, and I felt a little more like maybe I did belong at the University of Georgia there in Athens. I found out later that he hardly ever did that for freshman orientation. He might have been filling in for Dean Tate. Anyway, from that time on, I was satisfied that we had a good coach.

Just like everybody else, he had some lean years, but Coach Dooley would stick to his guns and was always still standing when the commotion and chaos calmed down. They called him “3 yards and a cloud of dust”, but he was in control. Having said that, if you watched closely, every now and then you could catch him cut loose in a little sideline dance, like when we completed a pass deep in Auburn or Tennessee territory. But that wasn’t for show, that was because he couldn’t help it. He was who he was. In those days, coaches and everybody else in the stands dressed up for Saturday ballgames. Well, I forgot about Erk Russell. His standard outfit was a black shirt, black pants and blood running down his forehead, but everybody else wore Sunday clothes on Saturdays in Sanford Stadium. Dooley was one of the last coaches anywhere to give up wearing a tie to the ballgame. I liked that. Some folks said he was hard to get to know. I don't know about that. My humble opinion is that he just didn't have a whole lot of time for a whole lot of extra small talk.

Coach Dooley had friends all over, and he had friends here. He made trips in and out over the years that most of us never knew about. That’s not unusual for men in his line of work. But I think what did make Vince Dooley unusual and special was not just his expertise as a coach, but his genuine interest in people inside and outside of football and what motivated and inspired them. Like one commentator said, "There was so much more to Coach Dooley than just football." Still, he was famous for keeping up with his former players while still involving himself with each year’s new recruits. He delighted in helping wherever he could. The last time I saw Coach Dooley was a couple of years ago when he came to Swainsboro to honor a former player, Greg “Muddy” Waters at an event at the Recreation Complex. The room was full of former Bulldog team members, but we had a brief visit before he went in. He was gracious and cordial and still made me feel like I needed to "study, make my time count and be at all the games." I will keep trying to do that. In this world we all feel like there are people who should just be around forever. In my book, Coach Dooley was one of those.