By Ronda Rich
When history has its final say about the remarkable life and career of Joseph Vincent Dooley, the tabulations will be astounding and the pages many.
We, who knew him, will be reminded that few seconds of his 90 years of life were idle because he was always doing; and if not doing, he was reading; and if not reading, he was thinking. Though given to a tendency to hold most words to himself in social events, when he did speak, it was with a baritone rich, luscious tone that created one of the most beautiful Southern drawls known to the world. That signature voice was born from the purity of words pronounced the way that Mobile, Alabama, natives speak, then layered with the worldly experience of a tour with the United States Marines, then polished up with the four years of college education that a football scholarship bought him at Auburn University.
It’s been almost 20 years now that my phone rang, late morning on Christmas Eve. “Hello, Ronda. This is Dooley.” He usually chuckled when he said that to me because I was the only one who always referred to him as Dooley by mouth or written word. His wife, Barbara, and daughter, Deanna, were amused by it, too, and one or the other would sometimes say, “Well, he’s your Dooley. See if he’ll listen to you because he’s not listening to anyone else.”
That Christmas Eve morning, when he didn’t chuckle, the absence of it shot through my spirit like an arrow. Something wasn’t right. And besides that, I had just seen him at lunch the previous day. Why would he be calling so soon?
He made small chat and then cleared his throat. “Well, uh, listen, I’ve got Barbara here with me and she has some not-so-good news she wants to tell you. Hang on. Here’s Barbara.”
One of the most beloved women in my life took the receiver from her husband. “Ronda?” her voice was tiny, weak, and shivering with tears. “I have breast cancer.”
Hard was how I sat down at the kitchen table as tears sprang from my eyes. It all added up that it was bad before anything was explained. After all, it was Christmas Eve morning and no one loves Christmas more than the vivacious, fun-seeking Barbara Dooley.
It was just as bad as I suspected. The journey was just as hard as we expected. The treatment made her, appropriately, sick as a dog since the Bulldog mascot has been very good to the University of Georgia football team — which will always be viewed as Vince Dooley’s team no matter how many men coach there after him or win more National Championships.
He built the team. And the plowing and sowing are always much harder than the harvest. He will be forever one of college football’s winningest coaches (201-77-10), winner of the 1980 National Championship, and six SEC division titles.
Through Barbara’s sickness, the toughest man we knew became the softest, most dependable husband that an ailing woman could want. Barbara had practically raised four children by herself, watched after everything at home, and took away from Vincent (as she called him always) any responsibility that would divert an ounce of attention from his job.
“There’s one thing about it,” she said firmly after the tenacious beast had finally been beaten away. “If I ever had any doubts how much he loves me, I found out during cancer. No woman could ask for a husband more devoted. He did everything for me and was with me every time I was at the doctor’s office or hospital.” Her brown eyes bored deeply into my eyes for a long moment. “He really stepped up. Big time. I won’t ever forget it. He was a warrior.”
Here’s the part that history will, more than likely, not record — and it’s a shame because it demonstrates that Vince Dooley, who joined the Almighty Lord on October 28, 2022, was more of a man than most even knew. He was a strong believer in the equality of all when few talked about it or practiced it.
I know that for a fact.
As a journalism/broadcasting major, I was a year and a half away from graduating from college and was working, part-time, at The Times, a newspaper in Gainesville, Georgia. I wrote obituaries. There’s a lot of pressure in writing those because the families can be very critical. Like the time that someone had the man who died preaching his own funeral. That ended the obituary writing career of the guy before me.
I loved newspaper reporting but I didn’t want to do only that which most female reporters got to do in the mid 1980s – features, tea parties, and such. One Fall Friday night, there was no one to cover a high school football game. Without another option, they sent me. I didn’t know much about sports but I, literally, dug in my high heels, learned, and worked hard. Within a year, I became the first female to be awarded top honors by Associated Press in sports writing.
That’s how I got to the Georgia Bulldogs and met Dooley who would make such an enormous impact on my life. I was the first woman – just a girl, really – to cover SEC football full-time: all week, at practices, at home in Athens, and on the road. Since women were just a few years in as far as being sports reporters, they had not yet gained the kind of seniority it requires for the plum assignments like the PGA, NFL, and Major League baseball. And in the South, nothing is bigger than SEC football. I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time.
It never occurred to me that we might be making history and trailblazing for others to follow. It was this simple: I had a job to do and I was going to do it.
Dooley had been in quite a few pickles before then but I was a pickle they didn’t see coming nor planned for. No one had to twist his arm to accept me. Neither he, nor anyone on his staff, resented me or made a big deal about the girl sports reporter. I was treated with kindness, graciousness, and respect. They literally opened doors for me – that mannerly gesture did not then, nor now, offend me – and they figuratively opened doors, as well.
To make the locker room situation easy and comfortable for everyone involved, Claude Felton, Bulldog Sports Information Director, went down the three rows of reporters in the press box and asked each one who we would like to interview after the game. He jotted the names down on a pad and at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Claude escorted us to the sideline to watch the end of the game. Then, for post-game interviews, we would find the requested football players sitting in a weightlifting room or other spare room. My access to the players was equaled to everyone else’s. And easily done.
Over the years, when I’ve watched much ado made about women covering male sports, it has further built my admiration for both Claude and Dooley. When the big shove came to give equal funding, recruiting, and attention to women’s sports after years of Title IX languishing about, Dooley — by then he was also the Athletic Director for the University of Georgia — was ready to move quickly and do it with style.
With his skilled oversight, the Lady Bulldog basketball team became successful and a real crowd pleaser while the women’s swim and gymnastics teams chalked up impressive numbers of national championships.
Over the years, Dooley and Barbara became close friends. Every time I visited their Colonial-style home situated amidst the beautiful gardens Dooley lovingly built, he and Barbara would walk me and, in the last several years, my husband, Tink, to the door. Barbara then hugged us good-bye, but Dooley would always walk us to the car, pointing out new plants or trees or expressing worry over a disease that seemed to be spreading.
And, always, just as he had done since the first time we met, he would open the door for me and hold it until I was seated.
My beloved Dooley. He opened a lot of doors for me and I will always be grateful. I’m sure that there are others who feel similarly indebted.