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Farewell to Vince

Farewell to Vince
byLoran Smith
Farewell to Vince
byLoran Smith

When the news came last Friday, on the eve of the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville, that Vincent Joseph Dooley had passed away, I can’t say that I was prepared for it.

I knew what was being said about his failing health, that it was not good, but I fully expected him to regain his strength and recover. There was another book to read. There was another historical site for him to explore. There was another class for him to audit. There was another garden for him to wander through, delighting in the blooms with which he would swoon and whose fragrance would intoxicate him and placate his senses. There was another game for him to watch from his box in Sanford Stadium as he observed the best team in college football playing on the field which was named for him. When the news came, I recalled John F. Kennedy’s death which prompted NBC newsman Sander Vanocur to note that America did not just mourn JFK’s passing, but that “we mourn what he might have been,” reflecting on what the young President might have accomplished as a world leader had he lived. With Dooley’s death, there is the appreciation that he lived long enough to accomplish everything he aspired to do. When he died, there was nothing left on his bucket list.

I was hired in the summer of 1964 as the Assistant Sports Information Director, getting a dream job of working for the remarkable Dan Magill, which enabled me to follow Dooley’s career from a front row seat. Had no idea at the time what a ride it would be, but I became a fortunate Dawg.

Georgia was winning championships, making headlines, which heightened the fun. To be directly connected with the Bulldogs not only was fulfilling, but there was also ancillary fallout that opened doors and brought about opportunities which brought about unforgettable memories.

There were so many things that made Vince unique. He was a fundamentally sound football coach who underscored discipline with an emphasis on running the football, giving priority to aggressive defense, and gaining the advantage with the kicking game. His list of accomplishments and citations confirm that he was one of the outstanding coaches of our time.

However, he was more than a football coach. He is the only coach who spoke to both Touchdown Clubs and Garden Clubs. His favorite magazine was National Geographic, his favorite TV channel, the History Channel. He never passed on an opportunity to explore a museum or tour a famous garden. He was enthralled by splendor of the Keukenhof Gardens outside Amsterdam and the Villandry Gardens in France’s Loire Valley where he reveled in the grandeur of the Chateau du Chenonceau.

Military history intrigued him: battlefields, cemeteries, and museums from Waterloo to the Normandy beaches to the Punch Bowl to Antietam to Verdun to Vicksburg; he tried to explore them all. When he traveled, he made it a point to learn about where he was going and if there was any significant landmark or noteworthy point of interest.

He had an inquiring mind. He had rather read a paper or a magazine than engage in small talk. He was never the life of the party, but he was sociable and had a keen sense of humor. He welcomed each new day with the objective of living it to the fullest. It began with a rigorous exercise routine. It didn’t matter if he were in Decatur or Dubai, he started his day with exercise which I believe prolonged his life, given the history of heart disease in his family. For years, there was a winter vacation to Jamaica that included Bill and Ruth Hartman. Vince never had a better friend and advisor than Hartman, whose sage advice and equanimity Vince greatly appreciated. In Jamaica, there was the bargain of all times with the airlines. We could fly from Montego Bay to Kingston for the tax on the fare which was less than a dollar which led to a raft trip down Jamaica’s inland Rio Grande River. Having grown up on the waterfront in Mobile, he was always home on the water. He was a competent and indefatigable swimmer. I remember a trip to the Cayman Islands with his brother, Bill, when Vince, in search of a queen conch, kept swimming further and further out to sea, which finally concerned our native boat driver and guide. It never fazed Vince, who flew home with his queen conch and the memory of a gratifying excursion in the Caribbean, another experience which brought lasting fulfillment.

Interacting with learned men and intellectuals came easy for him in that he listened more than he talked. Those types were often intrigued by his success in football, which was accompanied with an intellectual curiosity and a desire to shed provincial influences. The many faculty members that knew Vince enjoyed interacting with him and respected his academic bent.

When he was in his mid-eighties, he flyfished the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs, Colorado with rapt commitment to net a blue ribbon trout—not just competing with the fish but enjoying the landscape and environment.

He became a Master Gardener because of his love of plants and the outdoors. He was exhilarated by digging in the dirt. His friend horticulturist Michael Dirr named a hydrangea for Vince. More importantly, it was healthy exercise.

Vince’s home on Milledge Circle became a botanical garden. He owned a farm in Madison County. He belonged to a book club, and he was always eager to board a plane to connect with a place or person that offered something insightful and emotionally uplifting.

If he had not become a football coach, he could have been a college professor. He would have been at home in the classroom.

As a coach, he ran a class program, and while there were disappointments with players who got out of line and failed to stay the course academically, he gloried in those who persevered, earning their degrees, and becoming leaders in their communities.

When he succeeded Joel Eaves as athletic director, he brought a visionary influence that made UGA a pacesetter across the board. He aspired for every coach of every sport to have an opportunity to win a championship.

If you are there for the long haul, there will be some downturns, but Vince handled those with the best possible direction. The Jan Kemp debacle was centered around football, but it was a university matter. At one juncture there was an assistant coach who made a recruiting decision that brought about NCAA censure, but Vince steered the Athletic Association through those troubled waters as well as possible. His flap with Michael Adams was totally unnecessary, but the intransigent former President was determined to push Vince aside. Most presidents across the country would have eagerly embraced an athletic director like Vince who was the all-time great compromiser. He and Adams working together could have brought great results for Georgia. Vince was willing but Adams was not. When it was over, Vince took the high road, refused to become embittered, losing the battle, but winning the war. He enjoyed a great second career as a speaker, author, gardener, and historian.

His was a life well lived.

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