Just occurred to me that I might have done the first interview with Derek Dooley, football coach. In early February 1996, I talked with him about his decision to leave his Atlanta law practice at age 27 to take an unpaid position as a graduate assistant on Jim Donnan’s UGA staff. With Dooley very much in the news this weekend as the new head coach at Tennessee, I thought some of you might be interested in the story of the start of his coaching career.
Here’s my story from Feb. 7, 1996:
Athens — Derek Dooley understands, far better than most, how ugly the coaching profession can be.
Vince Dooley’s youngest son knows all about the stress, the lack of privacy, the loss of family time. He remembers “being 10 years old, thinking your dad can do no wrong, and reading in the newspaper what a terrible coach he is.” And that was tame compared with what he’d hear from the kids at school after a Georgia loss. His mother always told him: “Whatever you do, don’t coach.”
He grew up saying to himself: “I don’t want to be a football coach; I don’t want to be a football coach.”
And so what does Derek Dooley, 27-year-old Atlanta lawyer, do?
He gives it all up – the promising legal career with “the nice paycheck, the house in Buckhead.”
To become a football coach.
For the first time since 1988, there’s a Dooley coaching the Dogs.
Derek started work this month as a graduate assistant on Jim Donnan’s Georgia staff. He won’t draw a salary — not that it would have been much anyway — to prevent the appearance of a conflict of interest, his dad being Donnan’s boss and all. He’ll live for the next year or so on loans and an anticipated fee from his last legal case, which is near settlement.
For a year and a half, Dooley had been doing civil litigation work in the Atlanta office of the Columbia, S.C., firm Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough. He played college football at Virginia, and about six months ago began to reconsider his career choice.
“I enjoyed practicing law, ” he says, “but it really wasn’t that fulfilling. It didn’t compare to being around a football program. I missed the camaraderie, everyone working together for a common purpose. It seems the legal profession isn’t results-oriented. Things drag out. I grew up in an environment where you have a problem, you fix it, you go on to the next one.
“I didn’t want to be 45 years old with a family, making good money — but not happy. Life’s too short.”
So during the holidays he broke the news to his parents. He wanted to coach.
“I was very much against it, ” Vince Dooley says. “I spent two hours trying to convince him he was making a mistake.” In the end, Derek did the convincing, and his dad mentioned to Donnan that the lawyer would be interested in a graduate assistant’s job. Also supportive — but no less surprised — was Derek’s wife, Allison, a medical student in Augusta.
“She thought she had married a lawyer with stability, and now she’s married to a poor football coach, ” Derek says. “Someone said she should sue me for fraud.”
Donnan has known Derek since he was 8, attending uncle Bill Dooley’s football camp at North Carolina. “For a guy to make this kind of sacrifice, to give up a law practice to get into coaching, I’d have hired him as a G.A. anywhere, ” says Donnan, who notes that six full-time members of his Georgia staff first worked for him as grad assistants.
“I’m going at it full steam, ” Derek Dooley says. “I want to be a head football coach, whether it takes me 10, 15 or 20 years.”
Fourteen years later, Derek Dooley is a head coach in the SEC. Says something for following your heart, doesn’t it?
Postscript: A proud Vince Dooley laughed today that he never had a chance of winning that argument with Derek about coaching. “They teach them to argue in the law school, plus he was on the debate team, so I lost that argument in about 15 seconds.”