Monday, Jan. 12, 1981
Vince Dooley's 17-Year Itch
By B.J. Phillips
Georgia wins the Sugar Bowl and its first national title.
The night before New Year's Eve, Georgia Head Coach Vince Dooley decided to enforce an early curfew on himself. Weary from the whirl of practices, press conferences and official functions surrounding the Sugar Bowl showdown between his No. 1-ranked Bulldogs and Notre Dame, Dooley passed up a party honoring the teams and went to bed at 9 p.m. It was perhaps his wisest coaching decision of the year. "If I'd gone to the party, I would never have slept again," he asserted. The reason: while Dooley snoozed, Sugar Bowl officials staged a disco contest between Notre Dame's and Georgia's best dancers. The Bulldogs' entry was Herschel Walker, the sensational rookie running back who led Georgia to the only unbeaten, untied mark for the regular season (11-0-0) among major colleges. Walker was as spectacular on the dance floor as he has been on the football field. Reported Dooley: "Herschel won, but it scared me to death when I found out about it. They tell me that he jumped up in the air and came down and did splits. Splits! With boots on! Hamstring pulls, ankle injuries, I shudder to think of the possibilities. That Herschel is something else."
Walker emerged unscathed and, after a see-saw struggle against Notre Dame on New Year's Day, so did the Bulldogs. Georgia turned away a second-half comeback by the Fighting Irish, winning 17-10 to bring home the first football national championship (No. 1 rankings in both major wire service polls) in the school's history. Walker gained 150 yds. on 36 carries. Aside from that, the team was minus 30 yds. on the ground and only plus 7 in the air. But it was a tenacious defense, led by All-America Cornerback Scott Woerner, that helped force Notre Dame errors and won the day for Georgia: a blocked field goal, three interceptions, a fumble recovery and a kickoff that the Bulldogs picked up on the 1-yd. line after Notre Dame's receivers, confused by crowd noise, missed their signals and let the ball drop unmolested. Marveled Dooley: "We seem to find some way somehow to win. This team hangs in there, gnaws at people, and if one aspect of our game is having a bad day, then another phase will pick us up." Notre Dame's Dan Devine, coaching his final game for the Fighting Irish (he announced his resignation at the beginning of the season), was even more admiring: "Georgia is a great team. They are by far the best football team we played this year."
Similar praise has been slow to come for the Bulldogs. Notre Dame was favored, despite having been beaten by Southern Cal and tied by Georgia Tech during the regular season. Pittsburgh Coach Jackie Sherrill was so confident that his once beaten team could jump from third to first in the national championship polls that he ran the score to 37-9 against South Carolina in the Gator Bowl to impress the judges. Florida State, ranked No. 2, was hoping for an Orange Bowl victory to capture the No. 1 spot, but the Seminoles lost 18-17 when Oklahoma scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion in the final minutes. Thus when the final polls were published, Georgia remained firmly on top.
With the national championship, Dooley and his Bulldogs step out of the shadow of Southeastern Conference Rival Alabama and its fabled coach, Bear Bryant. Dooley's 17-year tenure at Georgia is the fourth longest of active college coaches, and his record of 129 wins, 56 losses and six ties is eighth best in the nation. At 48, he has won four S.E.C. titles, an impressive mark in a conference where Bryant keeps shop. Yet Dooley is not haunted by his illustrious rival. "My very first game as a 31-year-old college coach, I had to go to Tuscaloosa and play Alabama. They creamed us 31-3. Welcome to the big time, Vince. But the next year we beat them 18-17. His shadow doesn't bother me. I've had my successes too."
A reserved, contemplative man, Dooley is as much at home with a historical tome as with a playbook (he earned a master's degree in history at Auburn, where he played quarterback and was an assistant coach before going to Georgia). His reserve disappears when the subject is this season's successes.
"I wanted the national championship for personal reasons, of course," he says. "I wouldn't be human if I didn't. But I also wanted it for the players and coaches and the loyal fans who have waited so long and been such good friends over the years." Seventeen years, to be exact.
—By B.J. Phillips.
Reported by Jamie Murphy/New Orleans
With reporting by Jamie Murphy/New Orleans
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