Remembering Coach Vince Dooley

When Jerry and I were writing One Old Dawg, I attempted to keep that material separate from what was happening at One Ringing Bell. But today is different. We lost legendary Coach Vince Dooley this week. He was such an important person in Jerry’s life, and I grew to love him so much over the years as well. Today, we have put together a post we are sharing on both blogs as well as social media. Coach Dooley will be profoundly missed at our house. We also want to recognize the loss of Charley Trippi, another Georgia legend.

Even after being part of a state championship team under Coach Wright Bazemore at Valdosta, a college scout once said of Jerry Varnado, “He’s too small and slow to play any college ball.”

But Jerry did go on to the University of Georgia. But early on, in his words, he was mostly a blocking dummy. Then in 1964, a new coach arrived—Vince Dooley. Jerry believes Vince Dooley changed the trajectory of his life.

Jerry Varnado, Coach Vince Dooley

Wright Bazemore, Jerry Varnado, Coach Vince Dooley

In the fall of that year, Dooley would speak at an event in Valdosta, Jerry’s hometown. He said of Jerry, "By college standards Jerry is small and slow to be a defensive end, but you wait and see, he’s going to play a lot of football for Georgia. He has a determined attitude and he’s not afraid to hit. These are things you can’t teach a boy.”

And play he did. He rose with the team to play on that 1966 SEC championship team. Coach Dooley’s belief in him made all the difference.

As the Fellowship of Christian Athlete Chaplain for Athens Academy football team, Jerry recently said this to the players, “I remember like it was yesterday Coach Dooley’s first address to the team. He said we would endeavor to do three things: 

"First, Work Hard. That involved giving your best effort every day. Second, Conduct ourselves in a manner that honors our families, our school and our community. This meant endeavoring to do the right thing, on and off the field. Third, Love one another. Care about and support one another, again, on and off the field which included coaches, players, trainers, managers, support staff . . . everyone. He said if we would do those three things, we would win our share of the football games. 

"That was the standard for the three years I played, and we moved from ninth in the SEC with a 2-4 SEC and 4-5-1 overall record, to SEC Co-champions with Alabama with a 5-0 SEC and 10-1 overall record and were ranked fourth in the nation in just three years. It worked for the quarter-century Dooley was the coach! I’m convinced that any team on which the players truly love each other will play twenty to thirty percent above their ability level. Love, the greatest power on earth, motivates and empowers us to play better than we are.” 

A few years ago, when we were writing One Old Dawg, Jerry wrote a piece about Coach Dooley on the fiftieth anniversary of that first year at the University of Georgia. We include that piece below as well as an epilogue Jerry wrote this week.

On Coach Dooley’s knowledge of the game of football: 

“The first year Vince Dooley was here, many people misunderstood him and didn’t know what he was like, particularly players, because he had the good sense to let his assistant coaches do their jobs. He was always there, but he didn’t do a lot of one on one coaching with players on the field.

"I had the fortunate experience of playing for Coach Dooley for three years, but I also served as a graduate assistant coach for three years. I found out then, he indeed did coach, but he did it in staff meetings. He was the mastermind behind the Georgia Bulldogs. He set guidelines and parameters for what we were going to do, and let the assistants execute them. He was an astute student of the game of football. He knew what he was doing and how he wanted things to go.

"The first coaches' meeting I attended, there sat Erk Russell, who was my hero since I played defense, with a notepad taking notes on what Vince said. I knew then Vince commanded respect from people who knew him and knew how much he contributed to the ongoing growth and development of a winning football team.”

On Coach Dooley’s fairness:

“My junior year, I ruptured a disc, had to have surgery, missed half the season and all of spring practice. In the summer, because of muscle spasms, I couldn’t work out much to get in shape for the next year. At fall football practice, Coach Dooley told me I’d reported overweight.

"‘What do you mean Coach, overweight? I’ve been trying to gain weight the whole time I’ve been at Georgia.’

"He said, ‘You’re reporting weight is 188.’

"I was at 196. ‘Reporting weight? I didn’t know I had a reporting weight.’

"‘Nobody gave you reporting weight in the spring?’

"‘No, sir.’

"He sat there and thought a minute. ‘Well, you’re still overweight; you’ll need to go to the 6:30 P.E. class for two weeks.’

"This made me angry, because I was disciplined for not doing something I didn’t even know I was supposed to do. But later, when I started coaching, I understood. He knew he wouldn’t be able to explain why I didn’t receive the same treatment as others who reported overweight. If he didn’t discipline me, it would seem he was inconsistent. And who knows, I could’ve forgotten I was supposed to be 188 pounds. Plus, I wasn’t in good shape, and those P.E. classes got me ready to play.”

On how much Coach Dooley cared about players:

“I learned when I coached how much Vince Dooley cared about his players. He had a personal interest in them and did things we didn’t know about. Again, because he didn’t have one on one contact, many players didn’t realize how much he cared. We’d have discussions in coach’s meetings about players and difficulties they might be having, and it’s then I saw he wanted players to be successful in football, in the classroom, and in life.

"He was always liberal in giving graduate assistant jobs to those who needed them. The graduate assistant job is what enabled me to go to law school.”

On Dooley’s dedication:

“After the midday game on Saturday, sixteen-millimeter film would be flown to Atlanta by helicopter to be developed. Later a helicopter brought it back, landed on the practice field next to the coliseum, and the film taken to Vince Dooley’s house.

"After games, there’d be a party at the Dooley’s for recruits that were in town.  Since I lived near Vince when I practiced law, often, a friend and I would go over to the Dooley’s at 10:00 p.m. after everyone left to watch the film with him, as he prepared for The Vince Dooley Show, which aired on Sunday afternoon. He’d leave about midnight and go to the UGA television station.

"Anytime you wanted to find Vince, you could find him at the Five Points Waffle House around 4:30 on Sunday morning after he filmed his show. Then he’d go home, change clothes, go to 8:00 mass and then come to practice at 9:30. Our Sunday morning practices were more of a training, than practice— just a little exercise to get players loosened up. Vince had it early Sunday so players could still attend church. I don’t know when he ever went to sleep.”

On Vince Dooley’s encouragement:

“In the early 1980’s, a friend from Valdosta asked me to be a lay speaker at a downtown church one Sunday. When I was in Valdosta, I visited a friend there, and didn’t know Vince was staying at their home. The Dooley’s daughter was a cheerleader at Valdosta State and they were there to see them play for the small college championship. What I didn’t know is they’d made plans to hear me speak as well. They went to 8:00 mass and then came to church to hear me. It’s also a blessing that Wright Bazemore, my high coach was there as well as my freshmen position coach, Ken Cooper.

"Later on, I ran into Barbara Dooley. She said, ‘As soon as the service was over, Vince looked at me, and said, “Jerry is really an evangelist, isn’t he?”’

"Keep in mind that at that point in time, I was still a lawyer. I wasn’t a preacher. And I was beginning to deal with a sense of calling to preach. To have Vince Dooley recognize a quality in me that lent itself to preaching was one of several factors which led to me leaving my law practice and entering full time ministry.”

So, in many ways, Coach Vince Dooley’s influence has moved far beyond the football field in Jerry’s life. Many players would have this same testimony. Coach Dooley’s life reminds us of a verse in Psalm 1, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1:3)

We were thankful to join other lettermen a few weeks ago to celebrate Coach Dooley's ninetieth birthday. What a joyous time that was, and we treasure the memories.

Varnados and Vince Dooley at the 1966 team reunion
At Vince Dooley's 90th birthday

Jerry concludes with these words, “Thank you Coach for the many ways you helped me in life. Your faith in God, your integrity, and your selflessness have been a model for me and challenged me to live a life that makes a difference for good in this world. I love you Coach, and I’m glad to know you’re in heaven, but I sure am going to miss having you here on earth.”

Please join us as we continue to pray for the Dooley family.  



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