On Sunday, when everybody associated with Georgia football was still basking in the afterglow of the season’s 10th victory and the anticipation of a dramatic flip at the top in the BCS standings, the Dooleys of Athens received a phone call from their son, Derek.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Vince Dooley said. “I felt for sure it was going to happen. Then on Sunday when he contacted us and told us, it was difficult. You hurt for your family. You hurt for your son.”
Seldom do the extreme highs and lows of competitive athletics collide like this.
Dooley hired Mark Richt and watched him win two SEC championships in his first five seasons. He saw the program slip back for a couple of seasons and Richt try to navigate through “crises” while four other SEC schools won six national championships and so many called for the coach’s head. Now the Bulldogs are more than relevant again. A second consecutive SEC title game berth awaits, a No. 3 national ranking provides a tease for something even greater and Richt has been listed as a national coach-of-the-year candidate.
“Coaching has always been about surviving a series of crises,” Dooley said Tuesday. “In Mark’s case, he had a charmed life. He didn’t have a lot of criticism until a couple of years ago. So I’m very pleased to see how he’s responded to that. He needed to right the ship and get back to the high standards again, and he’s done that. That doesn’t mean he won’t have another series of crises to deal with again one day. He will. Because once you get up there, you’ll always have crises.”
Tennessee allowed Derek Dooley three years of crises, then they fired him. It didn’t matter that the program was in a crises when the younger Dooley was hired. Lane Kiffin had bolted, and the school pointed to a burning building and told Dooley, “Fix it. Fast.” That was too great a feat for any coach to accomplish, let alone one making the leap from Louisiana Tech to the SEC, his genes notwithstanding.
But Vince Dooley understands the reality of coaching today: A man doesn’t go 4-19 in the SEC at programs like Tennessee and survive.
“I knew the situation,” he said. “They came very close in some big ballgames that unfortunately they didn’t win. I know [Tennessee athletic director] Dave Hart personally. He anguished over this. But in light of the situation I understand the decision. Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech in his first six seasons had 24 wins and 40 losses. In his sixth year he won two games. But until this season he was one of the winningest coaches in football. Coaches don’t get that
kind of time any more.”
Dooley said he had only one question for his son: Why was he not going to coach Tennessee’s final game at Kentucky?
“Derek said he requested that because he felt he would be distraction,” Dooley said. “He said all of the speculation about his job was a distraction before the Vanderbilt game and he felt that hurt the team (a 41-18 loss), so he didn’t want that to happen again. Once he said that, I admired his decision. I felt it was important to get that out because it’s not like they didn’t want him around.”
Anybody close to Georgia football knows how much Vince and Barbara wanted their son to succeed. Dad would catch Tennessee’s game on television in press boxes around the SEC while traveling with the Bulldogs. Mom attended games in Knoxville, dressed in orange. When the schools met, Barbara never was conflicted.
“That’s my baby, and I’m pulling for Tennessee. If the Georgia people don’t understand that, then I just don’t get it,” she once said.
Barbara politely declined to speak Tuesday.
“It’s been difficult, especially on my wife, who takes things harder than I do,” Vince said. “That’s her baby. I told her it will take a while for the pain to go away. She’s hurting more than [Derek]. He’s handling it better than she is.”
Three more victories would heal a lot of wounds. Georgia has three games left: It’s a local rival (Georgia Tech), the SEC championship (Alabama) and a bowl game (in the Utopian experience of two more wins, it’s the BCS Championship game in Miami).
Dooley has been down this road before. He knows Richt is concerned that players’ minds might be on matters not related to the Georgia Tech game. That’s a danger, regardless of what the fans, the alumni, the media and the oddsmakers say.
“Back in 1980 when we were undefeated before the Georgia Tech game, I had a player from the 1927 team talk to the players how they were in the same situation and ended up losing to Georgia Tech in the final game,” Dooley said. “It can happen — it has happened. You have people see that Tech maybe doesn’t have the direction Georgia does and you find yourself looking beyond this week, and that rubs off on players. As a coach, that worries you.”
With Vince Dooley, you always get a story. If it’s not about the Georgia team that went 9-0 in 1927 before losing to Tech 12-0, it’s about Charley Trippi coming back from World War II in 1945. Trippi was invoked when Dooley was asked about the Dogs’ early-season struggles with injuries and suspensions, even after four players returned.
“When Charley Trippi came out of the military, all the players expected he was going to be some Superman, and when he came back the rest of the team just sort of watched him,” he said. “They played LSU, and they just annihilated Trippi. It took a while for that team to respond to crisis. But they eventually did, and so did this team. I know it was devastating playing South Carolina and laying an egg there, and then playing poorly at Kentucky, although I did that plenty of times. But going down and beating Florida was big, and now here they are. I’m really pleased for the whole program and particularly for Mark, since [hiring him] was one of my last decisions.”
He’ll try to focus on that and let time heal everything else.
By Jeff Schultz
Kick bit and pull up a blog . . .