Like most people who attended the University of Georgia before 1988, I only knew Vince Dooley as one of 80,000+ fans sitting in Sanford Stadium. On football Saturdays, he was the man running up and down on our sidelines, chopping at the air with his fists, frequently grimacing with clenched teeth, or kicking phantom field goals as he urged his team on. Before every game at his weekly press conference, he would downplay the Dogs and their chances, while he always talked about their next opponent as if they were the ’72 Dolphins. You would, occasionally, see him walking across campus, with the most instantly recognizable profile in Georgia. Long before my tenure there and for a few years after, he was always coaching on the Bulldogs sideline, for 25 seasons, until he stepped away voluntarily in 1988, the winningest coach in UGA history.
While I was watching all those games, it never occurred to me that one day Coach Dooley and I would actually become friends. As is well known, Coach was passionate about history, and through the invitation of GHS President and CEO Todd Groce nearly 20 years ago, Coach got involved with the Georgia Historical Society. We invited him to speak at the Georgia Day luncheon, and he killed it, as he always did. Todd asked him to serve on our Board, he accepted, and from that point on he became among the best friends and loyal supporters this institution has ever had. He served on our Board for many years, served as Board chairman from 2016-2018, and was inducted as a Georgia Trustee by GHS and the Office of the Governor in 2011.
This also meant that he was a regular visitor to our Savannah headquarters, and I never missed an opportunity to bust his chops when he was in the building. I well remember the first time I met him.
He had come to the GHS Research Center while preparing for a speech he was giving to the Hibernian Society here in Savannah just before St. Patrick’s Day. Todd called down to my office and asked if I’d like to meet Vince Dooley. I was upstairs before he hung up. Coach greeted me warmly after Todd told him I was a double-Dog and asked what years I was there; 1982 to ’88, I replied. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “those were good years.” Indeed they were. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Every time I saw him, he wanted to talk history, and I wanted to talk football. His recall was incredible. No matter what game I brought up from his long tenure, he could talk about it in detail—the plays he called on this down or that, what it was like coaching against the Bear or Bobby Dodd. The 1965 trip to the Big House at the University of Michigan. The Appleby to Washington stunner in the 1975 GA-Florida game. Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott, 1980. Kevin Butler’s 60-yarder against Clemson, 1984. The first night game at Sanford Stadium, September 6, 1982. And by the way, he often corrected me as to dates if I got my years mixed up. Beyond remembering his own games, Coach was a student of the history of college football nationally and could talk widely of games, players, and coaches from the early decades of the sport.
I’ll never forget the first time his name popped up on my cell phone. I was doing laundry one evening in my garage when my phone rang, and I looked down to see “Vince Dooley.” Needless to say, those calls never went to voice mail: “Hey Coach!” “Stan, Vince Dooley,” he’d say in that inimitable gravelly voice, as though I wouldn’t know who he was otherwise. I cannot for the life of me remember what he wanted in that first call, but I’ll never forget that moment.
Over the years my colleague Laura and I always marveled that we were so fortunate to spend so much time with this living legend. He had us over to his house in Athens, showed us through his beloved gardens, introduced us to family, had dinner with us, signed footballs and books for us, invited us to speak to his book club. When my father died last year, he took the time to send a very moving personal note.
He was a living legend, yes, but through all the time I got to spend with him, the thing I remember most about him was his humility and his kindness to everyone that met him. He was, until January of this year, the only man who ever won a national football championship at Georgia, and until the day he died he was the physical embodiment of the state’s flagship university. He was revered, beloved, and worshipped for those things. Fame doesn’t usually rest easy on anyone’s shoulders, and that could have been an incredibly heavy burden to bear. But Coach Dooley, a United State Marine before he was a legend, embraced all of it and seemed to carry it lightly through all those years.
Naturally, he couldn’t go anywhere in Georgia without being recognized by everybody. It would have driven me crazy, but he loved it. He never got tired of it. He couldn’t eat a meal without it being interrupted several times, but he always patiently signed autographs, shook hands warmly with strangers, smiled for selfies.
I well remember being with him once in Athens, and we stopped at a Subway to eat lunch. The poor guy behind the counter got so nervous taking Coach’s order that he couldn’t function properly. Coach responded instantly, reaching over to shake his hand, introducing himself and making small talk, putting the kid at ease. He left him grinning from ear to ear. This particular living legend was always approachable, engaging, and humble. As was said of Jackie Robinson, so was it true for Vince Dooley: he had the capacity to wear glory with grace.
There won’t ever be another like him. Nothing against Kirby Smart, or any other UGA football coach, past, present, or future. But there won’t ever be another one who spends 25 years coaching at the state’s flagship university, wins like he did, steps down in his late 50s after shaping countless young lives, and then spends the next 30+ years continuing to learn, to teach, to give, to serve, to influence all around him, all while drawing from a seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy, time, talent, and kindness.
Traveling the state, making new friends, taking selfies, shaking hands, signing books, telling stories, spreading goodwill everywhere he went—just by being himself, Coach Dooley made the rest of us feel better and be better, and that’s no easy or common thing.
What I shared with him was not exclusive to me: after his death everyone on social media posted a picture of themselves with Coach Dooley. He certainly won football games that we’ll all remember; in the immortal words of Bud Robertson, oh my goodness yes. But Coach Dooley was so much more than that. There’s an old saying that people won’t remember what you said to them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
And therein lies Coach Dooley’s true genius: He made us feel, all of us, that we were his friend, that we were important to him, that he enjoyed our company. What a gift to have and to share, and he did it freely and without hesitation long after most of us would have fled to the hills, and he did it every day until his very final days.
I only knew Vince Dooley as a coach from afar, way up in the student section, and I never played for him. But somehow, through the blessing of working for the Georgia Historical Society, I was lucky enough to get to know this man of incredible accomplishment through the playbook of friendship.
As E.B. White wrote so eloquently, “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Thank you, Coach Dooley, and Godspeed.