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RIP Vince Dooley, and the High Stakes for the Tennessee Game

Vince Dooley looks out over Sanford Stadium. Credit: Richard B. Russell Special Collections Libraries

Legendary Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, Damn Good Dawg, died at 90 last week.

Before writing this, I spent a few hours scouring the internet for a pithy quote from Coach Dooley to include here. The Dawgs face Tennessee next week in what will be one of the biggest, most important games at Sanford Stadium in decades. Between his showdowns with the Vols as a coach and his son Derek’s ignominious end as Tennessee’s head coach in 2012, I thought there had to be at least a small burn buried in an interview somewhere. But nope, I couldn’t find a thing.

Maybe a more skilled researcher than I will dig something up before the game, but I doubt it. Coach Dooley had grace and gravitas. He was never the trash-talking sort. If the stereotypical “Southern gentleman” actually existed, it was Coach Dooley. He had an accent that could melt butter, and was happy to take the time to speak with anyone who crossed his path or wanted a word.

I met Coach Dooley briefly when I was in school around 2012 or so. I didn’t get the pleasure of carrying on a conversation with him. Those who did all have memories to last a lifetime. A poster in the Reddit thread on Dooley’s death said the coach—a noted Civil War buff—audited his history class and attended a 10-hour field trip to the Chickamauga battlefield with the students.

My favorite recounting of a conversation with Dooley came from a college friend who spoke with him about his favorite dining choices in Athens. In that old Southern drawl, the kind you just don’t hear anymore, I can practically hear him say, “Barbara likes that Last Resort, but I prefer the Chili’s.”

Coach Dooley will be honored before the Tennessee game, along with Charley Trippi, another legendary Bulldog who died since our last home game. Normally, honoring arguably both the greatest coach and greatest athlete in Georgia sports history would raise the stakes of a game. However, I don’t think it’s possible to raise the stakes for this one any higher.

For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, Tennessee is rolling this year. The Vols are 8-0, with an upset of Alabama to boot. While we were busy brushing aside Florida 42-20, Tennessee demolished Kentucky 44-6. Quarterback Hendon Hooker is a legit Heisman contender, while receivers Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman have been big-play machines. They ain’t a fluke or a joke. They’re legit, and Kirby Smart will need the Dawgs to be on their A-game to come out with a win and control our destiny in the SEC East.

Do you remember what the 2017 season felt like? That season, we arrived in the College Football Playoff picture well ahead of schedule. Every game, every win, felt like catharsis, like the program’s destiny was changing before our eyes. It was intoxicating in a way even the national championship campaign last year wasn’t.

That’s what Tennessee fans are experiencing right now. They’re in the midst of a fantastic run unlike any they’ve experienced since Phil Fulmer was in charge. We’re a more talented team, and will be the favorite to win, but those Tennessee players beat Alabama, and now they believe they can beat anyone.

That’s where the X-factor comes in: the ticket-holding fans and Athens. The Vols have played a couple of road games against tough teams this year, going to Pitt and LSU. But Pitt plays in the sterile atmosphere of an NFL stadium, and the typically rowdy Death Valley was subdued for LSU’s nooner against Tennessee.

Sanford Stadium at 3:30 p.m. will be a much more hostile environment than anything they’ve seen this year. It’s incumbent on those with enough money or fortune to secure a ticket to make it the loudest we’ve ever heard. Louder than LSU in 2013. Louder than Notre Dame in 2019. Louder than Arkansas last year.

This season, Vol fans have crawled out from under every rock and crevice between Memphis and Mountain City, and they’ll be crawling all over Athens this weekend. I’ve enjoyed a nice decade-plus of silence from those orange-clad cretins, and I’d love nothing more than to shut them up again.