By: Ron Higgins
It’s hard to sneak a historical fact past Vince Dooley.
Maybe it’s because the man who guided Georgia’s football program for 25 years, from 1964 to 1988, made so much history.
His teams won 201 games, which still ranks him as the second winningest SEC coach ever behind the legendary Bear Bryant of Alabama and Kentucky. He won six SEC championships, tying him with Ole Miss’ Johnny Vaught and Florida’s Steve Spurrier as the second most behind the Bear.
His 1980 team won the national championship. He coached Herschel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner and Maxwell Award winner both in 1982, who is arguably the best running back in SEC history and possibly the finest player ever in the SEC until Florida quarterback Tim Tebow came along. He also coached an Outland winner (Bill Stanfill, 1968), as well as 40 first-team All-Americans.
So all that said, here’s something Dooley didn’t know.
When his 42-year-old son Derek runs on the field at Neyland Stadium on Saturday (which is Vince’s 78th birthday) to open his first season as Tennessee’s head coach in a matchup against Tennessee-Martin, the Dooleys will apparently become the first father-son duo ever to become SEC head football coaches.
“You know, I hadn’t thought of it, but if you think about it, that may be right,” Vince says with a hint of surprise.
He never pondered it, because he never believed he’d be the father of a coach. His wife Barbara, who might be one of the greatest head coach’s wives in history, because of her sassy wit and Southern charm, never fathomed she’d be the mother of a coach.
Derek Dooley’s career path had been clear. When he walked on at the University of Virginia and earned a scholarship as a wide receiver after his second season in 1988, eventually finishing his career with 41 catches, he understood he was more of a scholar than an athlete.
That’s why he graduated from Virginia in 1991, and then earned a law degree from Georgia in 1994. Immediately, he went to work for a law firm in Atlanta for two years before deciding a bad day with a whistle around his neck was more fun than a good day wearing a three-piece suit in court.
So he broke the news to his dad and mom that he was quitting to become a football coach.
“My mother was devastated for my wife,” Derek says. “My father wanted to make sure I wasn’t changing jobs just because I was unhappy. I put a lot of thought in it. How could he argue? He coached his whole life.”
Vince had no case, and he knew it.
“I started to argue with him, but he went to law school and was on the debate team, so I lost that argument,” Vince says. “Though I never thought he’d get into college coaching, it shouldn’t surprise me that he did.
“When Derek played in high school and junior high, he seemed to really coach and work with other players. Still, I thought that was a passing fancy, because he’s a very good student.
“Once he settled in and went to law school, I thought he was well on his way. I even thought about his possibilities of running for public office. I always thought he could be whatever he wanted to be. As it turned out, he wanted to be a coach. I applaud him.”
Barbara knew that her youngest child of four loved the game of football since he was a pipsqueak. Despite a Dooley family policy that none of the kids could go on a Georgia sideline during a game until they were 12 years old, a five-year-old Derek asked his dad if he could go down on the field for the Bulldogs’ annual rival game against Georgia Tech.
Vince told Derek that he could do so only if Georgia was winning big at the end of third quarter. And even then, Derek couldn’t bother his dad or the team. Nevertheless, the night before the game when the Dooleys held a family prayer, Derek put in a request to Jesus for a Bulldogs’ blowout so he could get on the field.
The prayer was answered. Georgia led 42-7 at the end of the third quarter, so Barbara took little Derek down to the field and dropped him off on the sideline.
“About that time Tech scored twice, recovered an onsides kick and was marching toward the goal again,” Barbara says. “I looked around and Derek was pulling on his father’s pants. Vince was trying to shake him off. When Tech scored its 28th point, I saw Derek and Vince exchange words.
“That night when we were in bed, Vince turned to me and said, ‘Barbara, did you see Derek talking to me during the game? Do you know what he said? He said, ‘Dad, don’t worry about a thing. Jesus is just out here having a little fun!’ ”
Nobody has had more fun so far than Barbara with Derek’s unexpected job change. When he showed up in Atlanta in the spring for a Big Orange Caravan alumni meeting, he was met by his mom who was wearing an orange feather boa.
“I had to remind her that the event was not about her,” Derek says shaking his head and laughing. “She has developed a bit of an icon status in Tennessee and I’ve had to ban her from the state.
“Mom has violated my media policies. She does it every day and she doesn’t give a damn. Your power can only go so far. She thinks its fun. She’s not going to think that when we have some bad years.”
Barbara Dooley loves all her kids, but Derek, easily the youngest, will forever be the apple of her eye. She nicknamed him “Precious,” and one time she had bumper stickers printed which she sent to Derek’s college teammate and roommate that said, “Throw the ball to Precious.”
“Derek is Barbara’s baby,” Vince says. “They spent a lot of time together. The first three children were all close in age, and Derek came five years later. When the older ones all went off to high school and then to college, Derek and his mother had this close relationship for several years before he left for college.”
Because of that strong bond, Derek, who had been head coach at Louisiana Tech for the last three seasons after coaching seven years for Nick Saban at LSU and with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, was in a quandary when he secretly interviewed for the Tennessee job.
When Pete Carroll suddenly left USC for the NFL, it caused a chain reaction that ran through Knoxville all the way to Ruston, La. In early January, USC hired Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, who had been with the Vols’ just one season. Eventually, a call was made to Dooley to gauge his interest in the UT vacancy, and his biggest challenge during the interview process was not telling his mother.
“Derek told me that he was interviewing and kind of kept me informed of what was happening,” Vince recalls. “Then as it got closer to becoming a reality, he said, `Don’t tell Mom, she has a tendency to get overly excited.’
“I didn’t tell her until all of a sudden when Derek had the job. Then she gave us both hell for not telling her, but that’s difficult.”
The wrath of Barbara Dooley was minor compared to the fact that Derek was hired shortly before national signing day, so he didn’t have enough hours in the day.
He had to hire a staff, attempt to keep recruits that had committed and begin to earn the respect of an emotionally-wrought team playing for a third coach in three seasons.
And there were calls from his dad.
“He’d call and say, `Do you know who so-and-so is?’ ” Derek says. “I’d say, `No, I don’t know who that is.’ He’d say, `What do you mean you don’t know who that is? He was all-conference in 1962?’
“I said, ` Dad, I don’t even know who my defensive end is, give me a chance.’ ”
Derek quickly won over his new team. The first time Tennessee senior linebacker Nick Reveiz heard his new coach speak, he smiled.
“When I heard his Southern drawl, I was comforted,” Reveiz says. “I’m from Knoxville, so I knew he’d understand and respect the tradition of Tennessee.
“At the very first team meeting when he said he understood he had to earn our trust, that went a long way with most of our players. He set up one-on-one meetings with every single player, it didn’t matter if you were a walk-on or on scholarship, if you were a freshman or a senior.
“He wanted to meet you and sincerely know everything about you. He doesn’t just want to know what you can do on the field. He wants to know how he can help you off the field to make you successful as a person.”
This past summer when the Vols had some off-the-field problems, Derek quickly assessed the situation and meted the punishment swiftly and fairly. While he admits he doesn’t have a hot line to his dad, he knows he’d be foolish not to seek his counsel.
“Where I use him most is when you have to make tough decision,” Derek says of Vince. “He ran an organization for 40 years a leader (first as Georgia’s coach, then as athletic director) and was very successful. He’s a tremendous resource for me.”
Derek will especially need his father’s support this year. Since 1992 when the SEC split into divisions, there have been 36 new head coaches at the 12 schools, and just 19 of them had winning seasons in their first year.
Poppa Dooley knows what his son, with a team picked to finish fifth in the Eastern Division, is up against it.
“I know what he’s going to go through,” Vince says. “He’s got a heckuva responsibility in a program that isn’t near like it used to be. He’s got a tough job in this conference trying to bring it back. He’s going to go through some tough times, no question about that.
“They are so many things that get out of control that are just frustrating, particularly when you can’t do anything about it. When you’re coaching, you can do something yourself. But when you’re not coaching (like Vince), it’s frustrating, particularly when it’s your son out there.”
But know this. Even in year one, Derek won’t tolerate a team that doesn’t bring the fight. He remembers his first team at Louisiana Tech in 2007 when it lost 58-10 at LSU.
“We didn’t compete and I was really upset at us rolling over,” Derek said. “In the locker room after the game, I hear some of our coaches say, `Keep your head up, you fought hard.’ I said, `Bull! Put your head down!’ because I was embarrassed. Not because of the score, but just how we competed.
“I told them, `Next time we come here, I’m bringing a box of Sharpies and we’re going to have some pictures so you can go get their autographs.’ That’s how we played.
“Over the course of two seasons, I was proud about how we began competing in those games. We led LSU at the half last year (losing 24-16). Again, it’s not always the result when I leave the field.
“I always say to our team, `When our fans leave the stadium, what are they going to say about you? Are they going to be proud about how you competed or not?’ ”
The Dooleys and the Vols’ fans start getting answers this weekend.