A half century ago, plus a few years, Vince Dooley was 31 years old, there was not only was an absence of high expectations with his first team, there were, to be honest no expectations at all except for preachments of doom. Football at the nation’s oldest chartered state university was like being in a dark tunnel without knowing where it would end.
When the grand inquisitors of the time asked legitimate questions such as, “How long would it take to get his program established in the tough Southeastern Conference?” even the head coach, himself, didn’t know. He said he believed that the work ethic and hard-nosed fundamentals would enable his team to compete in a league, relatively speaking, that was as good as it is today.
Nobody was impressed, but he knew his brother, Bill, his offensive coordinator, was a damn good football coach. And, he had faith in Erk Russell, but the genius of his defensive coordinator had not yet surfaced. From that first spring practice, the players knew, however. Erk’s rare leadership would stand the test of time.
The key ingredient was the attitude of the players. They were physical and tough, but also eager and anxious. They wanted to compete, and they wanted to win. No Georgia team has ever been involved with more close games. Those ‘Dogs finished 7-3-1 with three shutouts. There were four seven-point games, one eight-point game. The offense averaged 8.2 points per game. The offense did not turn the ball over and the defense was opportunistic as any defense in memory.
Barry Wilson, a one-time quarterback out of Benedictine in Savannah, returned to Athens earlier this week as the guest of the Touchdown Club of Athens. He was honored for his play against Vanderbilt in Nashville in 1964. He picked off a Commodore pass which set up the first touchdown in the Dooley era which led to Vince Dooley’s first victory, 7-0.
There are no records to confirm, but there were only a few hundred Bulldog fans at Dudley Field that night. Most of them were back home listening to Ed Thilenius call the came on the Georgia football radio network. Truth be known, many who were there probably were attracted to Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry on Friday night as much as the game.
You could have bowled over Georgia partisans with a feather if you had suggested that Dooley would win 201 games and would coach the Bulldogs for 25 years.
One of the reasons the Bulldogs got off to such a heart-warming start was players like Wilson. Quarterbacks don’t like to move from being the focal point of the team. They prefer to run the show, they like managing the game and executing plays.
Quarterbacks are also the best athletes on the team, more often than not.
When the Georgia coaches moved Barry Wilson to end, he did not carp and bellyache. “Hell” he said during an interview when he was in town this week, “I just wanted to play, and we realized early on, Coach Dooley and his staff were going to coach us hard, but we all knew we were going to have fun playing football under that staff.”
At one time, Wilson remembers, there were seven former quarterbacks who started on defense that first year. To get that first victory in Nashville, the Bulldogs had to rely on two big plays by two former quarterbacks. Wilson’s interception and a propitious tackle by George Patton, a big play that came to characterize Patton’s career. With Vandy at the Georgia 4-yard-line late in the first half, Patton caused a fumble which was recovered by the Bulldogs’ John Glass.
“It was the kind of play that we came to expect by George,” Wilson said. “He was quick and he was very smart. He could anticipate and nobody loved to play the game more than George.” Wilson grinned at the notion the quarterbacks playing defense often had some anticipation of what the opposing QB might be scheming across the line of scrimmage.
Wilson became a Georgia assistant following graduation and began a coaching career of his own, culminating in his becoming the head coach at Duke. When it was all over, he settled in Chattanooga for a business opportunity which segued into retirement.
Proud to be Dooley’s first captain, he is equally proud that his “hungry” teammates bonded with the new coaching staff and got their coach off to a promising start which would end up with him becoming a Hall of Fame coach.
After all, the first objective of “Dooley Ball” was not to beat yourself. Dooley’s Dogs were damn good at that. For a quarter century.