Originally created 05/11/04

Bulldog Nation pays tribute to Dooley



They lined up as they have for 40 years, asking the coach for an autograph or a picture or a few words of wisdom about the Bulldogs.

This time, however, they had something to offer Vince Dooley in return - sincere thanks.

'Preciate everything you've done for the university, Coach.

Dooley came to Augusta on Monday as he's done every year at this time since he first took over as the Georgia football coach in 1964. The more than 1,000 loyal members of the Augusta Bulldog Club who filled the gymnasium at St. Mary's On the Hill came to pay tribute to Dooley as much as they came to get fired up about a promising football season ahead.

Dooley will retire on July 31 after 40 years of athletics service at Georgia. The athletic director wanted to stay a little longer, and Bulldog Nation wanted him back.

But he'll leave the program this summer better off than when he got it four decades ago.

Thank you for everything the last 40 years.

Most coaches will tell you that making the off-season booster circuit and glad-handing with fans is the hardest part of the job. Football coaches don't usually make the best politicians.

Dooley makes it seems like sitting in a corner and chatting easily with fellow Bulldogs is what he was born to do. If you've ever met Dooley even for the briefest of encounters, you certainly know him as a warm and gracious man.

It might surprise many younger Bulldogs, however, to know that wasn't always the case. He used to be withdrawn in gatherings, and his stiffness sometimes put off boosters.

"He grew from a very reticent personality," said Loran Smith, the noted executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club. "He evolved into a very, very charming Georgia personality, but it wasn't natural to him. Today he's damn near the reincarnation of Dale Carnegie."

Dooley laughs at the idea of himself as being comfortable in the center of attention.

"I think there are things you learn to accept and enjoy because that's part of it," he said. "This is a chance to thank people for their support."

And a chance to thank him back.

You'll always be the best, Coach Dooley.

Ask anyone in attendance Monday and they'll tell you Georgia football wouldn't be what it is today without Dooley. They came up one by one with favorite stories about their Bulldogs - a championship, a bowl game, a particularly joyous victory over Georgia Tech.

"They've been great supporters over the years," Dooley said of his fans. "Sometimes I've tested their loyalty."

The coach who won Georgia's last national championship in 1980 leaves the football program in the capable hands of Mark Richt and the athletic department to a former Bulldog player, Damon Evans. There is talk and expectation for another national title this fall when Dooley is just another one in a sea of red at Sanford Stadium.

"I'm very proud of the program we have and the new leadership," he said. "I don't mind passing the torch."

Hate to see you go.

Dooley remembers coming to Augusta Country Club 40 years ago to meet with what he calls "the loyal of the loyalest" who put on a grandly orchestrated event.

"It used to be a bunch of young lions," he said. "They're not so young anymore."

Dooley called this his last "official" booster stump tour, but the old coach knows his days of promoting Bulldog athletics are far from over.

"I may come down earlier and tour some gardens or fish for a couple of days," Dooley said. "It will be in a more relaxed capacity."

This final tour has already taken him through Charlotte, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., St. Simons Island, and Savannah. He'll continue today in Macon and Wednesday in Roswell and in the coming weeks to Newnan, LaGrange, Columbus, Albany, Duluth, Rome and Atlanta. Now and then he makes a side trip on his own.

"Sometimes the farther they are away, the more starved they are for news," Dooley said. "It's hard to tell anybody anything they don't already know."

At each stop, grateful boosters present tokens of appreciation - a crystal Bulldog in Jacksonville, a Jack Davis cartoon in the Golden Isles, a replica "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" statue in Savannah.

The Augusta chapter will plant a special tree in Dooley's honor on the campus mall on Ag Hill. Not a red maple or dogwood as you might expect, but a Yellow wood to symbolize his 19-6 career record against the hated Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech.

"I thought they liked you, Vince," Smith said, vowing to paint the tree a more appropriate color.

They do love him. Another standing ovation sent Dooley off into the sunset - a soon-to-be-retired Dawg with gardens to tend and fish to catch.

Wish we had 40 more.

"I do, too," Dooley replied.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.