Vince Dooley: Sugar Bowl Legend

By Ted Lewis for the Allstate Sugar Bowl

[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2020 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]

Vince Dooley likes to tell the story about how as a 14-year old he travelled with his friend and friend’s father from their home in Mobile to New Orleans to see the 1947 Sugar Bowl between Georgia and North Carolina.

Only Dooley didn’t have a ticket, and he didn’t have enough money to purchase one. So, he sat on the curb outside Tulane Stadium, listening to the crowd as the Bulldogs and All-American Charley Trippi capped a perfect season with a 20-10 victory against the Tar Heels.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘One of these days, I’m going to get into that Sugar Bowl,’” Dooley recalled more than 70 years later.

Boy, did he.

Five times during his 25-year College Football Hall of Fame tenure as Georgia’s coach from 1964-88, Dooley would bring his teams to the Sugar Bowl. Only fellow Hall of Famers Bear Bryant, Johnny Vaught and Bobby Bowden had more Sugar Bowl head coaching appearances.

To be sure, Georgia lost four of those five games – to Arkansas in 1969, Pittsburgh in 1977, Pitt again in 1982 and Penn State in 1983. But it’s worth noting that those five Georgia teams brought in a combined record of 50-2-2 and their opponents were 49-4-1. So, the Bulldogs weren’t exactly facing chopped liver. In fact, in all five games a chance to win some version of the national championship existed for at least one of the participants.

That obviously includes that one Georgia victory – 17-10 over Notre Dame in the 1981 game – handing the Bulldogs their only undisputed national championship.

“I’d probably have felt better outside on the curb than on the inside losing those games,” said Dooley, who would go 201-77-10 with six SEC titles at Georgia. “But I’ve always had a great affection for New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl. And the one Sugar Bowl we did win was one that really counted.”

It certainly did.

Coming off a bowl-less 6-5 season in 1979, Georgia, led by sensational freshman Herschel Walker, started with a come-from-behind 15-14 victory against Tennessee. From there on using the familiar Dooley elements – emphasis on the running game, solid defense, playing for field position and ahead-of-its-time attention to detail – the Bulldogs rolled through a perfect regular season, the Bulldogs’ first since 1946.

There was one exception to the way the Bulldogs won games – in the Florida game, Buck Belue hit Lindsay Scott for what turned out to be a stunning 93-yard touchdown pass with 1:03 left to give Georgia a 26-21 victory. It’s still the most-famous play in the program’s history.

“Those type of things falling into place have to happen in order to win a championship,” Dooley said.

That good fortune followed in the Sugar Bowl.

Freshman Terry Hoage, who wasn’t supposed to make the bowl trip, blocked a first-quarter field goal attempt that would have put the Irish up 6-0. And after a tying 46-yard field goal by Rex Robinson, Notre Dame was confused on the kickoff and Bob Kelly recovered for Georgia on the Irish 1.

Walker would score from there but suffered a separated shoulder on the play. He would return though, scoring another touchdown and winding up with 150 rushing yards, somehow 23 more than Georgia’s total yardage for the day.

And in the waning minutes, on third down from the Georgia 47, Belue would complete his only pass of the game – a seven-yarder to Amp Arnold – and the Bulldogs kept the ball until the finish.

Maybe it wasn’t just good fortune though.

Dooley was known for a structured, organized approach to football, one that stressed preparation. Analytics before there was analytics, if you will.

“He could just anticipate things so well,” said longtime Georgia sportswriter Tony Barnhart, who collaborated with Dooley in his 2005 autobiography. “In the 1965 opener against Alabama, which was the defending national champion, Georgia used a hook-and-lateral to get a touchdown late in the game, and he’d decided before they ran it they would go for two to win the game.

“The players had never heard of having a separate two-point play. But they ran one, got it and beat Alabama 18-17.”

Added Charlie Whittemore, a wide receiver on Dooley’s first Sugar Bowl team and later a longtime coach and administrator at Georgia, “Coach Dooley studied situations like when to go for it on fourth down, so he didn’t waste a timeout thinking about it.

“He studied things like substitution patterns and personalities. And when you coached for him, he’d give you his philosophy and then let you coach without looking over your shoulder all the time. Coach Dooley is a very intelligent man.”

Nobody ever disputed that, or the way Dooley looked on the sideline – more like the history professor he likely would have become had it not been for football – white shirt, thin tie, usually red, and a sweater when the weather occasioned it.

“When I was coming up, just about all of the coaches at least wore ties,” Dooley said. “I was about the last of the Mohicans.”

There was one time when Dooley veered from the norm.

In 1976, Georgia’s second Sugar Bowl season under Dooley (and the first of the SEC’s tie in with the Sugar Bowl), initially the offensive linemen and then most of the rest of the team, shaved their heads in a show of solidarity.

Dooley promised the players that if they won the SEC championship and beat Georgia Tech, he would do the same. They did (“It’s raining sugar from the sky,” legendary Georgia radio announcer Larry Munson said after the ‘Dogs beat Auburn to win the title). Dooley kept his promise, although in the words of defensive coordinator (and famously bald) Erk Russell, “It set bald heads back 40 years.”

But most of the time it was the calm demeanor on and off the sideline, with a gentlemanly Southern drawl carried over from his upbringing in Mobile, that you saw.

“Some coaches holler and scream, but he was never like that,” Whittemore said. “And he didn’t think he had to be in charge every play like you see most coaches now.

“One thing he would do was challenge the assistants a lot more in the weeks we were playing somebody we were supposed to beat. He didn’t want to let them slip up on us because we weren’t prepared.”

Dooley was only 31 when Georgia athletic director Joel Eaves lured him from Shug Jordan’s staff at Auburn to replace John Griffin who’d gone 10-16-4 in three years after replacing longtime future Hall of Famer Wally Butts.

Given Griffin’s short tenure, Dooley famously warned his wife, Barbara, not to get too comfortable in Athens. Almost six decades later, they’re still at the same address they moved to six months into his tenure.

It proved to be the perfect marriage of man and school.

Back then, Georgia was basically just another large state university, catering to the youth of the state.

But during Dooley’s tenure – which included serving as athletic director from 1979-2003 – the school became one of the top public universities in the country, attracting top students from around the world while keeping many of those from the state who might have gone to Duke or Virginia or the Ivy League.

At the same time, Dooley’s teams were consistent winners, perhaps not at the level of Bryant’s teams at Alabama, but he had only one losing season in a time when schedules contained few patsies.

“Every great college program needs an icon,” Barnhart said. “Alabama had Bryant, Auburn had Jordan, Ole Miss had Johnny Vaught, Georgia Tech had Bobby Dodd, Arkansas had Frank Broyles and so on.

“Vince Dooley took what had always been a pretty good Georgia program and elevated it to the national level. They had a four-year run there (43-4-1 from 1980-83) when they were better than anyone in the country.”

Those years did contain two disappointing finishes in the Sugar Bowl.

In the 1982 game, Dan Marino’s TD pass to John Brown with 35 seconds left lifted the Panthers to a 24-20 victory. The following year, No. 2 Penn State held off the top-ranked Bulldogs, 27-23. The latter loss cost Dooley and Georgia a second national title.

“You have to have outstanding teams just to get to that position,” Dooley said. “Unfortunately, the people we played were a little bit better those nights.”

Although Georgia did beat Texas, 10-9 in the 1984 Cotton Bowl, that served only to deny the Longhorns the national title.

But as Dooley named one of the chapters of his autobiography, “Regrets, too few to mention.”

One thing he did not regret – stepping down from coaching in 1988 at age 56 after some heart issues and to devote more time to being athletic director at a school which committed early to championing women’s sports.

Perhaps leaving coaching when he did enabled Dooley to outlive most of his contemporaries. At 87, he’s still remarkably active – he thoroughly enjoyed his return to New Orleans last year to be inducted into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame.

Dooley has received many honors over the years, but none more meaningful that the one before this season’s home opener when the area “between the hedges” at Sanford Stadium was named “Vince Dooley Field.” It was an action many felt wouldn’t happen until Dooley was no longer around to enjoy it.

“It was very important to my family,” Dooley said with characteristic modesty. “And the fact that so many worked so hard to make it happen made it very special to me.”

The night before the ceremony, more than 800 players and their families attended a banquet in Dooley’s honor.

One of those players in attendance was George Collins, an All-America guard on the 1976 team.

Collins was “raised Georgia,” in Warner Robbins, but Dooley won him over as well.

“Once you were around Coach Dooley, you knew he was the kind of guy you wanted to play for,” Collins said. “Basically, the man’s life was Georgia football. The integrity of the man was incredible. Coach Dooley’s tenure had everything to do with what Georgia football is today.”

So, there’s at least one stadium Vince Dooley will never have trouble getting into.

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