There is perhaps no one person more singularly identified with the University of Georgia (UGA) than Vince Dooley, the architect of the athletic program’s modern-day explosive growth and the shepherd of all things “dawg.”
In 1964 Dooley, at the age of thirty-one, was hired by athletic director Joel Eaves as head coach of the UGA football team and served in that position until 1988. Dooley succeeded Eaves as athletic director in 1979 and dedicated the next twenty-five years to Georgia Bulldog athletics until his contract was not renewed in a highly publicized power battle with university president Michael Adams in 2003. As a football coach, Dooley is among an impressive group of coaches whose entire careers unfolded on one campus. As an athletic director, Dooley presided over numerous changes in the appearance of the UGA campus through the construction and expansion of its athletic facilities.
Vincent Joseph Dooley was born in Mobile, Alabama, on September 4, 1932, the fourth of Nellie and William Dooley’s five children. Born and reared in the middle of the Great Depression, Dooley was remembered as a short-tempered, irascible youngster who early on recognized athletics might be the only thing keeping him from a life toiling in the shipyards of his hometown.
Dooley attended Mobile’s McGill Catholic High School and was known more for his basketball abilities than his football acumen, though he was named quarterback at McGill as a sophomore and led his team to the Mobile City championship in 1949. Dooley agreed to attend Alabama’s Auburn University with the understanding that he would be able to play both basketball and football, but a knee injury during his junior year brought his basketball career to an end.
Dooley continued to excel at football under coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan, however, and in 1954 was invited to play in the College All-Star Game in Chicago (the All-Stars lost that game to the National Football League Champion DetroitLions, 31-6). With his playing days over, Dooley spent the next two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, an experience that would characterize his coaching style for the next thirty-two years.
Once out of the marines, Dooley returned to his alma mater (where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business management in 1954, and his master’s degree in history in 1963), working first as an assistant coach and then as freshman coach. In December 1963, his life—and athletics at the University of Georgia—changed forever when he accepted the position as head football coach of the Bulldogs.
If Dooley’s 2004 departure from Georgia was considered controversial, his arrival on campus created a similar degree of passionate discourse. Although the Bulldogs had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons under coach Johnny Griffith (a former Bulldog star), there weren’t many among the Bulldog faithful who were excited about the appointment of an untested coach, especially a coach who hailed from one of Georgia’s most hated rivals.
“Looking back, it amazes me that somebody would hire a thirty-one-year-old coach, and only a freshman coach at that, to be the head football coach at a rival school,” Dooley said in 2001. “I was young enough to think it was a good decision, and I was probably the only one who did.” Dooley’s younger brother, Bill, was a member of his first Bulldog coaching staff before serving as head football coach at the University of North Carolina, Wake Forest University in North Carolina, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Although Dooley’s first game as head coach resulted in a 31-3 drubbing at the hands of Bear Bryant’s University of Alabama Crimson Tide, fans warmed quickly to the new coach as he led the team to a 7-3-1 mark and a 7-0 Sun Bowl win over Texas Tech University in 1964.
For the next twenty-four years, Dooley would usher the Bulldogs into the era of big-time, big-business college football, winning 201 games, and six Southeastern Conference championships (1966, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1981, and 1982) and suffering through only one losing season (1977).
Dooley was also celebrated for his good fortune against two of Georgia’s worst enemies: He had a 19-6 record against the Georgia Institute of Technology and a 17-7-1 record against the University of Florida. He was unable to go above .500 against his alma mater, however, posting a twenty-five-year record against Auburn of 11-13-1.
The crowning achievement of his long coaching tenure came in 1980. With a teenager from Wrightsville named Herschel Walker pulling off one exciting run after another and a bend-don’t-break defense coached by Erk Russell, who would go on to rebuild the football program at Georgia Southern University, the Bulldogs moved through the regular season undefeated and headed into the 1981 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, against the University of Notre Dame.
Achieving a 17-10 victory over the “Fighting Irish” at the Louisiana Superdome, the Bulldogs—for the first time in nearly forty years—reigned supreme as the number-one college football team in the country. It is a feat that has not since been repeated at Georgia.
During his time on the sidelines at Georgia, Dooley led the Bulldogs to twenty post-season bowl appearances and at the time of his retirement was ranked third in wins among active coaches. He was named National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Coach of the Year in 1980 and 1982, and was honored as Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year seven times. He has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Sun Bowl Hall of Fame.
When Joel Eaves retired as athletic director in 1979, Dooley was appointed his successor, and the Georgia Athletic Association entered its golden age. During his tenure as athletic director, UGA sports teams won eighteen national championships and seventy-five Southeastern Conference championships, and the program broadened (thanks to federal Title IX regulations, which require female teams to equal male teams) to twenty-one sports. Georgia’s prominence across the board in athletics is amply displayed in the annual results for the Sears Directors’ Cup, which recognizes the top collegiate athletic programs in the country. Georgia finished second in Sears Cup standings in 1998-99 and third in 2000-1.
Dooley led the athletic association’s effort to donate some $2 million to the University of Georgia for the recruitment of athletes and non-athletes alike, and funds have also been made available to the university for the construction and expansion of many facilities on campus.
Dooley was also instrumental in bringing to Athens three sporting events (women’s soccer, rhythmic gymnastics, and volleyball) of the 1996 Olympic Games and served six years on the advisory committee to the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee, whose president, Billy Payne, was a former UGA football player.
Dooley’s forty-year tenure at Georgia was not, however, without its tempestuous moments. Perhaps the most memorable situation came in the mid-1980s, when Jan Kemp, a former developmental studies teacher, successfully sued UGA for wrongful termination after she criticized the university and the athletic association for admitting and maintaining the eligibility of student-athletes unable to perform college-level work. Dooley also made some unpopular (and unsuccessful) personnel decisions involving coaches Ray Goff and Ron Jirsa. The athletic association received another blow to its reputation in early 2003, when a former member of Coach Jim Harrick’s men’s basketball team accused Harrick and his son of financial and academic improprieties. The scandal resulted in a decision by Dooley and Adams to keep the team from competing in the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments that year. In a 2003 Athens Magazine article Dooley said, “We’ve had bruises, black eyes and strong winds of criticism, but we’ve always landed on our feet because we had a solid foundation of integrity as a base value.”
Dooley also made news in the 1980s when he hinted on a number of occasions that he might seek public office, either as governor or as a U.S. senator. He never followed through on those plans, although his wife, Barbara, has twice run for public office, losing primary battles for the Georgia legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 2004 the U.S. Sports Academy presented Dooley with the Carl Maddox Sport Management Award, an award given annually to an individual for contribution to the growth and development of sports through management practices. That same year Dooley was inducted into UGA’s Circle of Honor, which is the school’s highest tribute to former athletes and coaches. In 2011 he was inducted as a Georgia Trustee, an honor conferred by the Georgia Historical Society and the Office of the Governor.