Overwhelmed. Excited. Feeling like a little kid on Christmas morning. My inner sports fan geeking out like nobody’s business. All of those feelings and emotions coursed through my veins when Molly told me I had the opportunity to interview the legendary Vince Dooley not only for the blog but for Historic Macon’s Design Wine Dine event.
A little backstory, in case you’re new to Macon and the South, or just not a big college football fan. Coach Dooley was and still is one of the University of Georgia’s most successful coaches. He began his coaching career in 1956, at Auburn, where he played quarterback for the Tigers from 1951-53. In 1964, Coach Dooley became head coach at the University of Georgia and he was the head coach until 1988. During his 25 year tenure as head coach, Dooley compiled a record of 201-77-10 and only had one losing season. Dooley also won six SEC titles, the 1980 national championship, was SEC coach of the year four times, and was the recipient of four different 1980 National Coach of the Year awards. In 2010, Dooley was awarded the Paul “Bear” Bryant Lifetime Achievement Award for what he did for Georgia football on and off the field. From 1979-2004, Coach Dooley also served as the athletic director for UGA, and during that time, the UGA athletic program brought home 18 national championships, 75 SEC titles, expanded the program to 21 different sports and his last hire, before retiring, was the current football coach, Mark Richt. After retiring in 2004, Dooley started to garden and has since been recognized as a master gardener. His garden has also been recognized as one of the premier gardens in the Southeast.
That brings us to now. On February 18, I got the chance, well, in my opinion, honor to interview Coach Dooley and ask him a few questions about his gardening, life after retirement, and of course, a little football.
What inspired you to take up gardening after retiring?
“I have always enjoyed learning and historically audited courses, history, civil war, and I was curious about trees and plants. One course led to another that led to another and it became a lifetime learning, it gives me great satisfaction. I enjoy being outside and working in the garden because I don’t golf. Gardening is my golf.”
What’s your advice to beginning gardeners?
“It’s important to take classes to learn. Get a good mentor. Plant plants that give you confidence. Dr. Armitage said ‘If you can’t grow flag iris, you can’t grow anything because it’ll grow everywhere.”
I read that Dr. Dirr and Dr. Armitage are your mentors when it comes to gardening? How did they help you when you started out? What about them inspired you to start gardening? Do you still talk with them?
“Good teachers will inspire their students. Both are exceptional professors. It’s like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson coming along at the same time. It happens maybe once a generation.” Coach Dooley has been to England, Belgium, and is going to Cape Cod this summer with Dr. Dirr. Coach, Dr. Dirr, and Dr. Armitage are still friends and get together all the time, both professionally and socially.
Do you have a favorite plant or tree in your garden? What’s currently blooming in your garden? How is the recent cold snap affecting your garden?
“Whatever is doing its thing is my favorite, I have a garden of all seasons. There’s something going on all the time. Flowering apricot (prunus mume) is blooming right now. I have three different kind, double pink, light pink (weeper), and red. Witch hazel is blooming, I have a bronze one and a yellow one. The camellias are blooming, but they’re closing back up because of the cold. The plants have to be ‘tournament tough’ and I have them hunkered down close to each other during the cold.”
What about a favorite time of the year?
“I like spring, summer, fall, winter. I really like all the seasons because I have something blooming all the time.”
You have a hydrangea and a rose named after you. What was it like to find out you were getting two different types of flowers named after you?
“I have a hydrangea and a camellia named after me. The camellia is the Vince Dooley camellia, it’s Georgia red with yellow staining. There’s also a native azalea named after me. The late Dr. Walter Homeyer, from Macon, along with the late Dr. Daniel Nathan, were the ones who created the Vince Dooley camellia.” Coach Dooley also said that he’s not sure where the idea that he has a rose named after him came from but said he’ll have to get one named after him since it’s one of the more popular questions he gets asked.
If you could create your own plant, what would it be?
“I think it would be something herbaceous. Dahlias and peonies are two of my favorites. Acer palmatum (Japanese maple). Camellias.”
Does Mrs. Barbara help you in the garden or are you left to your own devices?
Coach Dooley got a good chuckle out of this question. “Barbara and I have an agreement, she’s in charge of domestic affairs, everything inside the house, and I’m in charge of foreign affairs, everything outside of the house.”
You’re a Southern icon, especially when it comes to football. Does gardening have any similarities to football? Whether it be the time you spend in the garden on a day to day basis or even willing the plants to grow the way you want them to grow?
“Gardening is similar to football in the fact that I get satisfaction out of it. People develop and grow and make contributions. It’s the same with plants. “
I closed out the interview with Coach Dooley by asking him a few football questions. I mean, as sports editor for the blog and an avid Georgia fan, I felt like I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask him a couple of football questions. It’s not every day you get to talk to one of the most successful coaches from one of the most successful football conferences in the country.
How do you think UGA will fare this season in the East? Who do you think will win the SEC in December?
“Georgia has an excellent chance in the East this year. It’ll be tough and you have to give Missouri credit last year, for winning games against the odds and us losing critical games. If we win the East, the rewards are unlimited, the SEC Championship, the National Championship. But we have to start with the small things first.”
How is being a consultant for a brand new football team different from being the head coach or even the athletic director?
“When I came to UGA, I had to rebuild the program. It was a successful program that had had a few tough seasons but still had great history, great traditions, and great fans. It’s just part of what goes along being a team in the SEC. Kennesaw is a new program, starting from scratch, no history, no traditions. I like the challenge. The big difference between being a consultant and a coach or athletic director, is I don’t have to make any decisions. I just give advice and they make the decisions.”
What do you think of the new playoff system in college football?
“I’m glad we have a playoff system, it’s better for the sport. 20 years ago I was on a committee that made the recommendation for a college football playoff and I’m glad to see that it came to fruition this last year.”
Coach Dooley will be presenting how he transitioned from the football field to the garden on March 6 from 1pm-2pm, with a book signing from 12:30-1pm. It will take place at the Blacksmith Shop, which is located at 655 Poplar Street.
GO DAWGS and until next time,