ATHENS – Make no mistake about it. There are no split allegiances or conflicted emotions for Barbara Dooley. The longtime First Lady of Georgia Athletics will be decked head-to-toe in orange on Saturday and rooting for the Tennessee Vols.
More specifically, she’ll be pulling for her youngest son, Derek Dooley, who at this moment happens to be Vols’ head football coach, and a beleaguered one at that.
“I’ve never been conflicted about it,” said Barbara, Vince Dooley’s wife of 52 years and Derek’s mom of 44. “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.”
At this point, most of them get it. This is, after all, now old hat for the Dooleys. Derek is in his third season as Tennessee’s coach. So they’ve done the road trip to Knoxville and, after Saturday, will have twice endured the awkwardness of seeing their son on the opposing sideline at Sanford Stadium. They’ve developed sort of a routine for dealing with it.
Vince, the Bulldogs’ head coach and athletic director for a total of 41 years, won’t come anywhere near Sanford Stadium on Saturday. He’ll watch the game on the television in their Milledge Circle home, where he can twist and kick and cringe in private. And Barbara will dress in resplendent orange and go to the game like always. She said she’ll sit in the same UGA press box suite she has for a half-century.
“It’ll be my routine Saturday of entertaining and getting to the game,” Barbara said. “We’ve got a house full of company. I plan on eating, making people happy, then going to the game and sitting in the middle of a bunch of Georgia people. like always.”
As for her husband, she said, “I can understand how Vincent really and truly can’t go into that stadium that he worked in for so many years. It’s such a part of his life. He can’t just go sit in there. Plus, he could never have any privacy and just watch the game.”
As for her son, these are difficult times for him. The heat has been turned up in Knoxville, where he’s 14-15 overall and 3-1 this season. At issue is Derek’s record against ranked opponents. He’s 0-11 coming into the Georgia game. The Bulldogs are, of course, ranked No. 5.
“I don’t have any illusions of grandeur,” Barbara said of Saturday’s matchup. “I just hope Tennessee plays the very, very best they can play. Then we’ll see what happens.”
It’s not likely to get better for Derek if the Vols don’t start winning big games such as this Saturday. He inherited a tough situation, following the failed one-year experiment that was Lane Kiffin. But patience is not generally equated with modern-day college football.
“I think Derek went to Tennessee and the cupboard was really bare. It was bare, bare,” Barbara said. “So I think he’s done a really good job of recruiting his own players in there. But it’s just going to take time. I hope the fans realize you can’t snap your finger and do it. They look at [Nick] Saban, who had tremendous success at LSU and tremendous success at Alabama, but the cupboards were full there. They just needed somebody to point them in the right direction. This is a whole different situation and I think the Tennessee people realize it.”
Barbara also thinks the Vols have been a bit unlucky. She referred to last year’s game in which quarterback Tyler Bray broke his thumb on the helmet of Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson. She became friends with Robinson as they both rehabbed injuries in the Georgia football training room.
“I’m telling Christian Robinson right now to keep his hands and his head to himself,” she cracked. “He killed our season.”
Barbara was asked if she was concerned about her son’s job security.
“Of course I’m worried,” she said. “I was worried when Vince was coaching. Are you kidding?”
She reeled off stories of Georgia fans hanging Vince in effigy, having an airplane drop “Dump Dooley” fliers all over Athens and coming home from vacation to find a for-sale sign in the front yard.
“Come on, I’ve been there,” she said with a laugh. “I got sick from it. Literally I was a nervous wreck. But we knew it was like that when we took the job. I remember Vince saying, ‘just keep a suitcase ready because we never know when they’re going to throw us out of here.’ So I didn’t clean the house for 25 years. I kept thinking we were going to move.”
Alas, they never did. She hopes Derek can stay put as well.