ATHENS, Ga. – No celebration of Georgia’s recent national football championship can be complete without looking back on the foundation Vince Dooley began putting in place more than half a century ago and culminating when Dooley and the Bulldogs won the national championship in 1980 by defeating Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl.
It was the first on-field title won by Georgia, which had been voted national champions five previous times by a variety of polling organizations recognized by the NCAA at the time.
Georgia’s bid for back-to-back national titles came up short the following year when Pittsburgh slipped past the Bulldogs, ranked No. 2 at the time, 24-20 back in the Sugar Bowl. They finished on the season at 10-2 with the loss to the Panthers.
Sure, the Bulldogs, who defeated Alabama 33-18 in the recent CFP national title game, endured some trying times since Dooley’s departure as coach following the 1988 season. But, current coach Kirby Smart seems to have taken at least one page out of Dooley’s playbook in returning Georgia to the top of the FBS.
“Plan your work, work your plan,” is one of the many beliefs that Dooley took to heart. And just like Dooley’s early years as coach in Athens, it took Smart some time to scale the mountain of college football and break Georgia’s 41 year title drought.
Dooley grew up in Mobile, Ala. and was almost immediately drawn to sports. Long before Major League Baseball found markets in the Deep South, Dooley became a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and in doing so discovered his first sports hero: Stan Musial.
“He was a great player and someone who you wanted to be like,” Dooley said. “To me, he was a great warrior and the greatest knight.”
Dooley would go on to attend McGill Institute, a Catholic school in Mobile. It was there where the family values learned at home were reinforced and would go on to play a huge role throughout his coaching career.
“The school was very disciplined and tough,” he said. “Some of us boys would tend to be boys … but the Christian values stressed at the school got us back in line pretty quickly.”
Dooley’s mother also had a guiding hand in developing many of the key elements in Dooley’s approach to life and dealing with other people he would meet.
“Manners will take you where money won’t,” was one of the many teachings Dooley took to heart at an early age. He would take that with him throughout his coaching career and into retirement.
A multi-sport standout, Dooley competed in football, basketball and baseball while at McGill and considered basketball to be his favorite sport.
“Basketball was fun,” he said, “and football was work.”
While growing up in Mobile, a young Dooley gave little thought to attending college and believed he would just go into the workforce as a nation was still digging itself out from the depths of the Great Depression and recovering from the aftermath of a World War that ended just less than three years before Dooley graduated in 1950.
Those thoughts slowly, but surely, began to change when it became increasingly apparent Dooley was a talented athlete in all sports across the athletic spectrum.
He became a starter in football (quarterback) and in basketball as a sophomore at Auburn. A knee injury early the following year put an end to his basketball career and Dooley, who was a member of the ROTC program while a student at Auburn, left school to join the Marines. He spent two years in active duty and was discharged with the rank of captain and was instilled with values that only reinforced the values taught by his parents at a young age.
“The service really taught leadership and discipline and other values that are so valuable when applied to sports,” the legendary coach said.
He returned to Auburn to continue playing football and later became the first former player to return to join then-coach Shug Jordan’s staff. And more lessons followed.
“(Jordan) was all about maintaining a sense of normalcy,” Dooley said. “He always had great patience with players and with situations.”
Behind the scenes during his time on Jordan’s staff, Dooley was looking down the road and having plans to one day become a head coach and lead a program of his own.
He had offers to take over at Texas and Arkansas but turned down both schools. Texas eventually hired Darrell Royal as coach and the Razorbacks tabbed a young Frank Broyles to assume the coaching duties in Fayetteville after Dooley made the decision to remain on Jordan’s staff. He was also asked to assume to leadership of the freshman team at the school.
Dooley knew that becoming a freshman coach would be a double-edged sword on his way to becoming a head coach.
On the one hand, he would be in charge of his own team and oversee every aspect of leading a team on a daily basis, something that would become important in taking that next step up the coaching ladder. But, there was also a prevailing downside.
“Most schools were reluctant to hire a freshmen coach to become a head coach … that’s really not a hell of a qualification,” said Dooley in explaining the other side of the coaching coin.
But Georgia took a chance on the 31-year-old Dooley when Johnny Griffith was fired after three seasons (1961-63) as coach and going 10-16-4 (.400) during his short time at the school.
“I’m sure people were asking ‘who the hell is Vince Dooley,’” the new coach recalled about the time agreeing to take over the Georgia program.
He didn’t wait long to show the Bulldog faithful who Vince Dooley was and what he was all about.
Georgia finished 7-3-1 in his first year at the school and capped the season with a 7-0 win over in the Sun Bowl. The Bulldogs slipped to 6-4 the following year and managed just a 2-3 record in conference play. The eight-place finish the SEC standings that season turned out to be the lowest finish in Dooley’s tenure at the school. It was also the first of just four losing seasons suffered in his coaching career.
The 1966 season saw Georgia win the SEC championship for the first time under Dooley, who was in just his third season with the Bulldogs. They swept through the conference season with a perfect 5-0 record and suffered its only loss midway through the year with a 7-6 setback against Miami. Georgia ended the year 10-1 after defeating SMU 24-9 in the Cotton Bowl.
Georgia and Dooley continued to pile up the wins over the next several years. A second SEC championship under Dooley came in 1968 and the Bulldogs appeared in seven bowl games after winning the Cotton Bowl against the Mustangs.
They would not win another conference title until 1976 when the Bulldogs also played in a bowl game for the fourth straight year.
The excitement in Athens was short lived as Georgia slid to sixth place in the SEC standings the following year. It was the worst finish since also finishing sixth during the 1969 season.
This time Dooley’s squad managed to rebound from that disappointing sixth-place finish to place second each of the next two seasons.
But even the heartiest of Georgia followers could have predicted where that climb would take the Bulldogs as fall camp opened in 1980.
Before Dooley led Georgia to that 1980 national title and cementing his place in college football history, his name became entwined with a young player who burst onto the scene earlier that year and remains one of the all-time college gridiron greats.
“To me, Herschel Walker is the best running back in college football history,” Dooley says.
“There were three things that really set him apart,” the former Bulldog coach added. “Number one, he had world-class speed, number two, he had so much natural strength and number three, he was incredibly self-disciplined.
“Even today he is the best conditioned person at whatever age he is,” Dooley continued. “He also had a great ability to always say the right thing at the right time.”
Walker, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1982, went on to play in the United States Football League with the New Jersey Generals (1983-85). He joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1986 before being traded to Minnesota in a blockbuster deal five games into the 1989 season. He later played for Philadelphia (1992-94) and the New York Giants (1995) before returning to Dallas in 1996 and closed out his NFL career the following season.
Walker has hinted at running for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.
“I am big supporter of Herschel Walker … and will help him in any way I can,” Dooley said.
In his storied 25-year career as coach at Georgia, Dooley’s teams averaged eight wins per year and finished his coaching career with a 201-77-10 (.715) overall mark. His teams lost just 35 non-conference games, including 10 losses in bowl games. Dooley led the Bulldogs to 20 bowl games in his 25 seasons as coach where Georgia was 8-10-2 in those contests. His teams also won six SEC championships during his time at the school.
Dooley became the athletics director at Georgia in 1979 and turned his attention to that position after retiring from coaching in 1988. He retired from the school in 2004.
Dooley, who has authored two children’s books about UGA, the school’s popular mascot, has also worked as a consultant with the football program at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta.
The legendary coach was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994 and has also been enshrined in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (1978) and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (1984). In 2004, he was inducted into the UGA’s Circle of Honor, which is the school highest tribute to former athletes and coaches.
On Sept. 7, 2019, the playing field at historic Sanford Stadium was renamed in honor of Dooley prior to a game against Murray State that was won by the Bulldogs 63-17.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
One of Dooley’s many notable assistants during his tenure as coach at Georgia was his younger brother, Bill, who would later become a successful head coach in his own right at the collegiate level. Bill Dooley coached North Carolina (1967-77), Virginia Tech (1978-86) and Wake Forest (1987-92).
The two siblings found themselves on opposite sidelines at the Gator Bowl at the end of the 1971 season as Georgia overcame a field goal in the third quarter by scoring a touchdown moments later to come away with a 7-3 win over the Tar Heels.
Bill Dooley owned a 162-126-5 (.561) career coaching record in 26 seasons. He died in 2016 at the age of 82.
Derek Dooley continues to follow in his father’s footsteps and is leaving his own mark in the coaching ranks.
The young Dooley began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Georgia in 1996 and later spent time as an assistant at SMU (1997-99) and LSU (2000-04) before moving to the NFL for two seasons (2005-06) with the Miami Dolphins. He returned to the college ranks to become the head coach at Louisiana Tech (2007-09) and Tennessee (2010-12). After additional stops with the Dallas Cowboys (2013-17) and the University of Missouri (2018-19), Dooley has worked as an assistant with the New York Giants since 2020. He has a 32-41 (.438) collegiate coaching record in six seasons.
“There was very little in the way of specific advice,” the younger Dooley said. “There was no constant talk of Xs and Os. He always believed in letting his children flap their wings on their own. But, he delivered enormous lessons while we were growing up and the values we cherish in our society are the same values we saw in our father every day … and it’s impossible not to admire those things.
“My father was, and is, all about integrity and dignity,” he added, “and that kind of personality will always stand the test of time.”
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.