Oh, wow. Now here's a revelation: With the University of Georgia football team heading to South Bend, Ind., Saturday night for the first time ever, the most famous person in the history of the Bulldogs nearly turned Notre Dame's coaching quartet of greatness into a quintet.
Imagine those statues of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz outside of Notre Dame Stadium joined by one of Vince Dooley, another College Football Hall of Famer, but only through his time Between The Hedges instead of around the Golden Dome.
It almost happened.
Well, it could have happened.
"I was with Father Joyce on a plane, and we sat together, and he approached me about the job at Notre Dame," Dooley told me Tuesday regarding a conversation that he rarely has mentioned over the years involving himself and Father Edmund Joyce, who joined Father Theodore Hesburgh back then after the 1980 season as Notre Dame's legendary decision-makers.
Before we continue, Dooley will throw out the first pitch for the Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field on Friday night against the Milwaukee Brewers. Talk about brilliant marketing. With the Atlanta Falcons opening their NFL season Sunday in the Windy City against the Bears, and with Georgia facing Notre Dame the previous night just 90 miles to the East, Cubs officials expect a lot of barking around the Friendly Confines. Given the coming of this Atlanta/Georgia/Dixie theme in their part of the Midwest, they selected the 85-year-old people's choice of the Bulldog Nation as their honored guest.
"Yeah, they told me a couple of thousand Georgia people are coming up, and it's a pretty unique experience since you only get one shot in these situations to get that one throw right," Dooley said, laughing as the southerner of southerners, and he has the Alabama drawls to prove it. He grew up in Mobile, where he lived on the other side of the tracks during segregation from Hank Aaron, and he played quarterback at Auburn. After he followed with eight seasons at his alma mater as an assistant football coach, he lasted 25 years at Georgia as the quintessential SEC icon along the way to six conference titles, 201 victories, the recruitment of some guy named Herschel Walker and a slew of awards from everywhere. He became the Bulldogs' athletics director after that for another 25 years, but here are a couple of things of note: In the Protestant-heavy Bible Belt of The South, he was Catholic, and he remains a devout one to this day. He also was so into Notre Dame football as a youth that he joined "listening parties" to follow the Fighting Irish on the radio. There also was that "little rosary group," which Vincent helped lead in prayer for Notre Dame victories.
So there was THAT Vince Dooley, flying somewhere to a college football conference with Father Joyce, and this was weeks after Dooley used a lot of Herschel to grab his first and only national championship with a victory during the Sugar Bowl against the team of his boyhood dreams. It was the team that continued its glorious run through the ages with another national championship three years before that of Dooley's Dogs. It was the team that had a coaching vacancy since Dan Devine announced his retirement before the season after a solid career. It was the team whose boss of its athletics department turned to Dooley on that flight, asked the question about wearing blue and gold instead of red and black and waited for the answer.
"By then, I'd been at Georgia entirely too long, so I told him that if his offer had been during the early years, I would have jumped at the chance, because I was such a Notre Dame fan during my younger days," Dooley said. "I knew about all of the Notre Dame greats, so it was my ambition to go to Notre Dame, but I told Father Joyce that I'd been at Georgia too long to even think about making a change. So we didn't pursue it further."
Now let this sink in: Since Dooley still had Georgia on his mind, Notre Dame officials shocked reality by hiring Gerry Faust, an overmatched high school coach from Cincinnati. If Dooley takes the Irish job, there is no Faust. Then again, there is no Holtz down the road, because Notre Dame's brutal experiment for five seasons that involved the likeable yet clueless Faust led to the hiring of Holtz, an already accomplished coach who spearheaded the Irish's 11th national championship in 1988 while returning them to such an elite status that they got a national television contract from NBC.
If Dooley takes the Irish job, he also coaches longer, because with Georgia, he retired after the 1988 season, and Notre Dame coaching greats always stick around at least a decade or so. Or maybe, just maybe, Dooley gets homesick at Notre Dame for sweet tea and pine trees within a couple of years after battling the ghosts of the Four Horsemen and The Gipper while trying to ignore the endless comparisons between himself and his lofty Irish predecessors.
"Well, um," Dooley said, laughing. "That's why I didn't go. After all these years at Georgia, I'd already established myself here."
No question about that. Dooley is so popular around the state of Georgia that he flirted with running for the U.S. Senate. Speaking of statues, he has one in the middle of campus in Athens, Ga., where he still lives and where his bronzed likeness is hoisted in the air by two of his players after a victory over Georgia Tech. He accepted an invitation from the Atlanta Braves to spend his 85th birthday Monday night at SunTrust Park on "Georgia Night," and he was assigned to lead the crowd on the big screen in the tomahawk chop and chant. He is a favorite speaker of many around The South and elsewhere, not only for his considerable football knowledge, but because he is a renaissance man. As a Civil War historian, he is working with a co-author on a book involving a Confederate cavalry man from Athens who fought at Gettysburg. He's a frequent world traveler with his wife, Barbara, of nearly 60 years, and he's the king of gardening.
Through it all, Dooley hasn't gotten Notre Dame out of his soul. He never made it to South Bend from Mobile, and the only time Georgia played north of the Mason-Dixon Line during his time as head coach (or anytime, for that matter) was in 1965 when the Bulldogs went to Michigan.
"Actually, we played in Ann Arbor since that was a money game, and it was a one-shot deal like Appalachian State going to Georgia this year," Dooley said. "Georgia, when I came there in 1964, was that team that they would go to a place like Michigan and get a big paycheck to make their budget. That is how bad financially Georgia was back then. I know I would have liked to have played Notre Dame, but Notre Dame was really playing Georgia Tech, because back during the 1950s, Georgia Tech was really good, so that was sort of more of a natural contest than Georgia would be.
"That being said, when I got to the point as athletics director, we almost had Notre Dame on our schedule during negotiations, and we thought it was going to happen, but then they had a change in administrations, and they weren't interested in pursuing the matter anymore."
Nevertheless, Dooley did make the first of his three trips ever to Notre Dame during his only year working for ESPN as a color analyst soon after his retirement. He nearly giggled with the memory, saying, "The whole thing was a thrill, and it was a thrill to go to the chapel on campus, The Grotto, Touchdown Jesus and all of those things that I knew about growing up."
Now, as an accomplished adult on so many levels, Dooley will return to South Bend on Saturday night to watch No. 15 Georgia bring its stifling defense against No. 24 Notre Dame's potent offense.
Where are you sitting, coach?
"I don't know," Dooley said with a chuckle. "That's a good question. I was going to fly up with the team on Friday, but I'm leaving Thursday to speak that night in Chicago to the College of Arts and Sciences that's having an alumni get together, and then I have the Cubs game the next day. Somebody is going to drive me after the Cubs game to wherever the team is staying, which is somewhere 40 miles outside of South Bend on a lake."
Since Dooley will spend all that time around Georgia folks by the end of the week, I'm guessing he'll land in the Bulldogs section, but who knows? After he glances at Touchdown Jesus rising above the stadium in the background, he might try leading the Notre Dame band in the "Victory March."
If nothing else, Dooley will do so in his mind.