September 10, 2019

Vince Dooley gets a special birthday present

            The third-year head coach was already on his way to becoming a legend when I saw him for the first time. Vince Dooley had reignited the championship fever by the time I got to the University of Georgia in 1966. And from Sanford Stadium’s student section, I witnessed the 34-year-old work the red and black sideline.
            By the time I was in my 30s, the future Hall of Fame coach and I had become friends. Dr. Fred Davidson, UGA’s president, appointed me to the athletic board. For 14 years, I got to see the inner workings of one of America’s most successful collegiate sports programs. Vince Dooley’s signature is on its foundation.
            The evening before the legendary coach was honored with the dedication of Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 7, I got a chance to visit with the honoree. There were at least 799 others there to shake his hand, too. But for a few minutes, we reminisced and swapped stories—fishing, hunting and, of course, the Olympics.
            I remember the day, prior to the 1996 Olympics, Coach called and said, “Dink, we’re taking out the hedges from Sanford Stadium for the soccer games. Don’t you want some to plant on your farm?”
Of course I did.
Several years later, I reported, “Coach, you’d be proud of how my piece of the hedge has grown.” The master gardener laughed and said, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you can’t kill privet hedge.” Last Friday night we laughed, again, about that.
As chairman of Athens 96, I also got to see the inner workings of the four Olympic events at the University of Georgia. Not long after Atlanta got the bid for the Centennial Olympics, the athletic board was meeting on St. Simons. I was sitting on the balcony of the King and Prince Hotel and listening to the banter between Vince and Billy Payne, the Bulldog who was the genius behind the Olympic idea.
It was a giddy time. The world was really coming to Atlanta and Georgia. And there I was, watching Billy and his beloved coach puff ceremonial cigars. In between laughs, Vince said, “Billy, when I first heard about your wanting to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, I thought: All those football licks to the head have finally gotten to you.”
Billy was in the crowd at the Dooley reception, too. And while he won’t take credit, he was a leader among the Bulldogs who have advocated—for years—to have their coach’s name added to the UGA gridiron. But the first person I saw Friday night was Loran Smith, the sideline sidekick of the immortal play-caller Larry Munson.
The Tate Center’s banquet hall was packed with Bulldogs whose names were growled over the radio by Munson. Barry Wilson, George Patton, Scott Woerner, Tommy Lawhorne, Tommy Lyons, Happy Dicks, Mike Cavan, Tom Nash, Mack Guest, Ray Goff, Kent Lawrence, Kirby Smart, Frank Ross, Herschel Walker, Buck Belue and Lindsay Scott were just a few of the lettermen who were there to express love and loyalty to their coach. I could have asked, in my best Munson-like voice, “Whatcha got, Loran?” and he could have named them all, from memory.
Back in 1966—when I was watching my first Bulldog game—I never imagined what would happen over the next half-century. But in retrospect, I can appreciate how Dooley Field came about—and, very befittingly—three days after Vince turned 87.
Happy birthday, Coach.