Wednesday, September 16, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Vince Dooley v. Pat Dye, 1982-88

The Auburn Tigers went 0-10 in 1950. That was last season in Earl Brown's disastrous tenure. A 3-22 mark in three seasons was simply unacceptable. In 1951 a young quarterback named Vince Dooley entered the program and a new head coach, Ralph “Shug” Jordon, took over at the helm. Shug began to slowly right the ship. A 7-13 record over his first two years gave way to 7-3-1 and 8-3 campaigns in 1953 and 1954. In the latter year Shug and Dooley did what Auburn coaches are hired to do: beat 'Bama.

Quarterback and coach grew together as Dooley learned from Jordon’s workman-like approach. He returned to Auburn a few years after graduating as a history graduate student and assistant coach. Dooley’s youthful enthusiasm and skill attracted enough attention on Jordon’s perennial winning staffs that the struggling University of Georgia took a chance on him in 1964. As a 32 year old rookie head coach, his first game could hardly have been more difficult. Dooley took a team that had gone 4-5-1 in 1963 into an opener on the road in Tuscaloosa against Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide.

Dooley was too young to be scared. He felt confident of his ability to combine Jordon's wisdom with his own energy and out work older coaches. He prepared his team with feverish commitment all off-season and traveled to Alabama on September 19th somehow convinced that he would shock the football world with a stunning road win. Georgia lost 31-3. Alabama went on to finish 10-1 and win a national title. Dooley discovered to his chagrin that old coaches could work quite hard themselves. Even still, Dooley’s 7-3-1 first-year record signaled an impressive turn around for the Dogs. A year later Dooley had a second chance as Bama opened their title defense in Athens on September 18th 1965.

The Bear was high on his team and told a reporter in the lead up to the game that Steve Sloan was “the best quarterback I’ve coached” – high praise from a man who had coached “Broadway” Joe Namath. Sloan started slowly, even tossing a pick that the Bulldogs ran back for a 10-0 lead. A mistake-filled affair that possessed all the hall marks of a season opener was still tied at ten deep in the fourth quarter before Sloan led a 74 yard touchdown drive to take the lead with less than four minutes remaining. Dooley then did with timely courage what he had failed to achieve by pure effort a year before. He called a trick play. Sophomore quarterback Kirby Moore threw to his End Pat Hodgson at the Georgia thirty-five. Hodgson immediately lateraled back across the field to Halfback Bob Taylor. None of the referees noticed that Hodgson’s knee was down before the pass and fortune favored the brave as Taylor raced untouched for a touchdown, giving the Dogs a chance to tie the game. But the young coach wasn’t done. Perhaps still smarting from his embarrassing first outing and wanting to prove himself on the biggest stage he doubled down and went for two. Moore hit Hodgson again on a pass play thrown from an obvious rushing formation. Georgia knocked off the champ, 18-17. The SEC’s youngest coach had shocked its most revered.

Georgia fans wanted more than notable upset wins. The Dogs had won only two SEC titles since WWII, in 1948 and 1959. Meanwhile Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee had enough SEC trophies to take a bath in, while in-state rival Georgia Tech had done well enough to confidently striking out on its own as an independent. Georgia fans wanted a national power program. Dooley delivered. Three weeks after the Alabama win he took his over-matched Bulldogs into Ann Arbor and ground-out a 15-7 win over then unbeaten Michigan. In addition to organized, savvy and hard-working Dooley was also a genuine intellect. Not many head coaches can boast M.A. theses with titles matching “Senator James Thomas Heflin and the Democratic Party Revolt in Alabama.” When he finally retired in 1988 Georgians all the way up to Lieutenant Governor (now U.S. Senator) Zell Miller expressed public hope that he would enter politics. They didn’t just say that because he had won 200 football games. Dooley was actually mentally qualified for public office.

Brains, work, ethic, ambition and charm all helped Dooley make Georgia Tech’s in-state recruiting edge a thing of the past. UGa gained a strangle-hold on the best in-state talent that it has never relinquished. Over twenty-five seasons Dooley developed and coached that talent pool to a 201-77. He won SEC titles in 1966, 68 and 76 before adding three more in consecutive seasons from 1980-82. He was Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year in 1976 and won the Walter Camp award in 1980. His 8-12 bowl record included a Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame and two Cotton Bowl championships. Most importantly to Georgia fans tired of languishing in Bama and Tennessee’s combined shadow, Dooley earned an elusive national title in 1980 on the back of a phenomenon freshman running back named Herschel Walker.

The 1980 Bulldogs were perhaps the quintessential Dooley team: unfancied, underrated, far from flashy, organized, and fortuitous. Week after week Georgia seemed to possess the favor of the gods. Despite three first-half fumbles at Tennessee the Dogs recovered to beat the Vols 16-15. Clemson out gained them by 206 yards in the first two quarters but eventually lost 14-20. Trailing 13-10 but looking likely to score, South Carolina’s George Rogers fumbled on the Bulldog’s seventeen with five minutes to play, allowing Georgia to hold on. Against Florida Georgia trailed by a point and were pinned inside the ten with only 90 seconds to play. After grinding only as far as the twenty-six yard line with time expiring fast a Gator defensive back slipped in a one-on-one tackling situation and Georgia went seventy-four yards in one play for the win.

In the 1981 Sugar Bowl few gave Georgia a prayer. The undersized Bulldogs had managed to complete an 11-0 regular season without facing a single opponent that finished in the top twenty. 9-1-1 Notre Dame, on the other hand, had lost only to an eight win USC team on the road. On the Bulldog’s first possession Walker went down to a bruising challenge and was helped off the field. Team doctors told the freshman stud that his shoulder was dislocated and his day was over. But Herschel hadn’t travelled to New Orleans to watch. Nor had he completely eclipsed the previous NCAA freshman rushing total through timidity and caution. He instructed the doctors to pop his shoulder back into place before the next offensive possession. By the time the clock ran down to zero the Irish had gained 328 yards to Georgia’s total was a paltry 138. More astoundingly, Walker accounted for 150 yards alone. The rest of the Georgia rushing attack helped him out with negative twelve yards! Even by the unimpressive standards of a Dooley team, Georgia’s passing on the day was irrelevant. Buck Belue made his one and only completion of the day with two minutes remaining. Georgia relied on gritty defense, special-teams momentum swingers, and the good will of the gods.

In the first quarter with the Irish already up by three UGa freshman Terry Hoage blocked a forty yards field goal try. Hoage was a former walk-on who had literally earned his scholarship by blocking field goals in practice. Georgia recovered the blocked kick and gained yardage but could do nothing on offense with Walker still receiving treatment. A 49-yard kick tied the game before Georgia’s kick coverage team eagerly capitalized on a ND special-teams error to recover a fumble only one yard from the end zone. Walker came back on to put the Dogs ahead a touchdown. Notre Dame held the next kickoff only to lose it again up near midfield when defensive captain Frank Ros put a punishing hit on Irish fullback John Sweeney. The Dogs scored again from a short field, entirely on Walker’s dynamic and tenacious running. Somehow, Georgia led 17-3 at halftime.

Mid-way through the third quarter UGa all-America cornerback Scott Woerner added to his first half interception by batting down a Blair Kiel pass in the end zone that looked certain to find its intended receiver. That play was followed immediately by an Irish field goal miss. Harry Oliver, who had opened the scoring from fifty yards out, would miss another kick later making him just one of four on the day. Keil found enough breathing room to lead one TD drive, making the score 17-10, but late in the fourth quarter with three minutes remaining Woerner added a second pick. He jumped the receiver's route on a slightly under thrown sideline deep ball on fourth down. Georgia only needed to drain the clock to be national champion.

Georgia won, with a 200-yard deficit on offense. Four turnovers and three missed field goals sank the Irish, who no doubt blamed themselves. But a classic Dooley team put up a classic Dooley performance. That was Georgia football from 1964 to 1988: unfashionable, organized, stout. Teams tended to turn the ball over against the Dogs.

Overall, Dooley’s success was emphatic. Against Georgia’s great rival and the coach’s alma mater the story was somewhat more mixed. In the fifteen seasons preceding his national title Dooley was an even 7-7-1 against his former mentor, despite the Tigers’ decreasingly impressive teams. Shug Jordon’s career fizzled out in 1975 with a 4-6-1 valedictory tour. His successor Doug Barfield did about as well as the guy taking over from a legend might expect. A losing start gave way to steady improvement, climaxing with a respectable 8-3 record in 1979 before going 5-6 the year the hated Bulldogs won it all. The University alumni base and administration had little patience after chaffing for years under the Bear’s weighty presence and now suffering the meteoric rise of the Dogs under the tutelage of a former Tiger letterman. Barfield was fired.

Surely the Auburn athletics office did not think of parallels with Vince Dooley when they hired a former UGa standout as their new head coach for the 1981 season. Pat Dye grew up in coastal Georgia, near Augusta. Even in the early 1950s when the Yellow Jackets were the state’s reigning football power, the coastal region was only ever for the Bulldogs. Dye played for Wally Butts, Georgia’s longest serving and most beloved coach before Dooley. He made all conference three times and all-America in 1959 and 1960. After a few years in the NFL and CFL Dye returned to college ranks as an assistant at Auburn’s first nemesis, Alabama. Dye learned under the Bear for nearly a decade, and learned well. He took his first head coaching job at East Carolina in 1976 and won almost fifty games in six seasons before moving on to Wyoming. In 1980 he began to turn the Cowboys around, earning the school its first winning record in quite some time. That resume was more than enough for Auburn fans desperate to turn the table on the school’s two more favored rivals.

Dye’s first year didn’t give Auburn fans too much to cheer about. In the two final games of a 5-6 1981 campaign Auburn lost to defending national champions Georgia and played poetic victim to Bama for the Bear’s 315th win. Auburn fans did not enjoy sitting in Legion Field watching Coach Bryant surpass Amos Stagg’s win tally. But Dye turned things around, as his former mentor must have suspected he would when he advised him not to take the Auburn job in the first place. The Bear knew that Dye would not be intimidated. Amongst many qualities essential for coaching success Dye possessed a remarkable confidence. He commented during his first year that Auburn sat geographically between two schools that had combined to dominate the SEC for the previous twelve seasons. His only comment on that fact was:

“Well, they aint got nothing but people. You can talk about the Alabama mystique and the Georgia mystique, but they’ve done it with people. Hell, we’ve got people, too.”

And they did; one in particular. Dye didn’t beat ‘Bama his first year, or compile a winning record. But his confidence beat out the Bear in the state’s most important recruiting struggle and secured Auburn the services of a young man named Bo.

The huge, irrepressible back powered for 4,303 yards in four seasons and claimed a Heisman Trophy. Jackson’s presence in the Auburn backfield helped Dye lead the Tigers to their best decade since the fifties. From 1982 through the 1990 season Dye never won less than eight games. In those nine seasons Auburn won ten games three times and eleven once. More importantly, the Tigers moved out from under their conference rivals’ dominance, winning the SEC championship four times. Dye even turned the ables on the Bear in 1982, giving the 'Bama legend only his sixth Iron Bowl loss in a quarter century in his last ever regular season game.

Dye’s Auburn career did not finish well. In September 1991 a former Tiger defensive back Eric Ramsey gave tapes of phone conversations between himself, Dye and several AU boosters to the Montgomery Advertiser. The conversations involved discussion of various payments that had been made to Ramsey with Dye’s knowledge. The controversy eventually led to NCAA sanctions, but as with all things in the SEC the W-L column tally proved the bottom line. Dye went 5-6 and 5-6-1 in 1991 and 1992 before the school finally pushed him out. Auburn fans would quite rightly argue that everyone was cheating in the 1990s. That doesn’t make cheating right, but it also doesn’t necessarily detract from an otherwise outstanding coaching career. And through the 1980s Dye’s career was just that. Great, even by comparison to Vince Dooley.

Dooley and Dye coached against one another seven times, each one leading a former rival against his alma mater with consummate professionalism. Dye held a clear edge, going 5-2 against Dooley. But those figures certainly reflect the careers of Herschel and Bo. Walker played three years in Athens before jumping early for the pros after the 1983 season. His first year he ran for an NCAA freshman record 1,616 yards - despite missing an entire game. In 1982, the only time the two lined up in opposing backfields as college players, Bo made an impressive but incomparable 829 yards as a freshman. Georgia won the head to head contest that year in Auburn, 19-14. In three seasons with Herschel Walker on the team the Dogs had lost only one regular season game and none in the SEC. From 1983 to 1985, with an uncontested Bo Jackson in the limelight, Auburn won three straight over Georgia.

In many ways Dye’s Tigers were the mirror image of Dooley’s Bulldogs. Dye generally ran the triple option wishbone well after it had gone out of style elsewhere. If he wanted to get flashy he switched to the deep-set I. Like Dooley he relied on tough running and rarely tried passing play deeper than the opposing linebacking corps. On November 12th 1983 Bo Jackson and the Tigers walked into Sanford stadium to meet the Bulldogs between the hedges. Even without Walker, Dooley had his Dogs at 8-0-1. Georgia hadn’t tasted defeat in conference play since 1979. But Dye’s 1983 Tigers were a different class than his first two teams. When Dye had his first team meeting in the spring of 1981 he told his players:

“I’m going to the Sugar Bowl and anyone who doesn’t want to go with me can leave.”

The confidence and will to win that made Dye think he could stand toe to toe with the Bear and Vince Dooley caused dozens of Auburn players to quit by the end of spring ball. But by 1983 it had bred a like-minded team. Before the final three minutes of the 1983 Georgia-Auburn contest the visitors had ground 359 yards, led by Bo Jackson’s less-than-innovative power running. In answer the Dogs only managed 90 yards running into the teeth of a Tiger defense that simply refused to move. Dye ran a 5-2 defense, front loaded against the SEC’s run-first approach. Anchored by monster nose-tackle Dowe Aughtman and shored up by lighter, faster linebackers like Gregg Carr, conservative offenses struggled to turn the corner on Auburn. And Dooley was certainly conservative with the ball.

Without Herschel Walker the Bulldogs couldn’t find the extra gear. In the final three minutes quarterback John Lastinger finally found his rhythm and led the Bulldogs on an 80 yard TD drive, making the score 13-7. Georgia safety David Painter recovered an onside kick and suddenly the decision looked in doubt for the first time all day. But Dye’s gutsy team booked its place in the Sugar Bowl after all. After seemingly catching a lifeline the Bulldogs managed negative six yards including two Auburn tackles for loss. After decades of Dooley-Bryant dominance in the SEC the Tigers had finally turned the corner.

Though Dooley coached at Georgia a quarter century, his very best years were clustered in the early 1980s when Herschel Walker was carrying the ball. But the decade as a whole belonged to Dye. Two coaches (who each graduated from the other’s school) perennially hovering around 10 wins and sharing six SEC titles in ten seasons. Two Heisman Trophy running backs each wearing the same number; both leaving lasting legacies as their programs’ favorite sons. That was SEC rivalry at its very best.

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