ATLANTA – Before there was Kirby Smart vs. Nick Saban, another young second-year Georgia coach took on an Alabama coaching giant.
Vince Dooley was only 33 and trying to establish his program at Georgia when the Bulldogs opened the 1965 season with an 18-17 win over mighty Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide.
The following spring, Dooley and his wife Barbara encountered the indomitable Bryant at the Southeastern Conference’s annual meeting in Destin, Florida.
“Barbara made some remark to Bear Bryant in kind of a cute way and Bryant turned to Barbara and said, ‘Look here, young lady, don’t forget I’m the man who made your husband famous,’” Dooley told The Associated Press this week with a laugh.
Indeed, the win over Bryant helped establish the Dooley’s long run of success. The following season, Georgia won its first of six SEC championships under the coach.
Long before Dooley was lifted onto the shoulders of his players after coaching the Herschel Walker-led Bulldogs to the 1980 national championship, he had his first postgame ride after beating Bryant in 1965.
Georgia’s showdown with Alabama for the national title on Monday night has rekindled Dooley’s memories of both big wins.
Smart won his first SEC title this season, putting him one year ahead of Dooley’s pace. Now Smart is looking for a national championship against his mentor, Saban .
“There’s some similarity in the second year,” Dooley said before adding that “the stakes are much higher, let’s put it that way.”
Dooley, 85, will be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the championship game. He says he is grateful he’ll be watching from a private box, because even now he can’t sit through a game, especially one this big. He has to pace, a nervous habit that lingers from his 25 years on the Georgia sideline.
“I move around, sure,” he said. “I’ll be in a box but I’ve got to have some walking room.”
For Dooley, an Auburn grad and little-known Auburn assistant when he was hired by Georgia, there always was something special about the Alabama rivalry. His introduction was harsh, in his very first game with the Bulldogs to open the 1964 season.
“I got a real education my first year,” he said. “That was my first game, which was a heck of a way for a young coach to get started, playing Alabama in Tuscaloosa with Bear Bryant the coach and Joe Namath the quarterback.”
Namath led the Crimson Tide to a 31-3 win.
“But in the long run it helped us to become a better team,” Dooley said.
Dooley won 201 games – third in SEC history behind Bryant and Steve Spurrier. He was Georgia’s athletic director from 1979-2004 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.
Dooley still is often seen at Georgia’s Butts-Mehre football building and sometimes sits in the audience for Smart’s weekly news conference.
He said he never would have predicted Smart could have taken the Bulldogs to the national championship game so early in his career .
“I’d think he would be the first to admit that in order to do what he’s done, a lot of things have got to fall in place,” Dooley said.
Dooley believes the first key was having running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy all return, instead of entering last year’s NFL draft. He said a second key was the play of freshman quarterback Jake Fromm. Also, he said the improved kicking game “has been like night and day from last year.”
Some of the strengths of this Georgia team remind Dooley of his 1980 championship team.
“The team has a lot of similarities,” he said. “A run team and the difference is you have two runners instead of run. Also, our defense was very, very good, and this one is. And the kicking game, good kicking games.”
Dooley said Smart’s experience as Saban’s former longtime defensive coordinator on championship teams at Alabama should help him on Monday night.
“Kirby has been there before,” he said. “He’s been there when they won the championship.”
Dooley sees more success ahead for Smart.
“Sometimes it has to all fall in place, but he has taken advantage of that,” Dooley said. “The ballclub really plays well and is resilient and has a lot of the intangibles. A lot of good things have happened to him. What is good about the outlook is he has had two good recruiting years back to back, which gives a good indication of good things to come.”
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