And he knows what to feed hydrangeas and Japanese maples, too. The legendary former coach spent 25 years winning games Between the Hedges, and now, in his retirement, his attention has turned to taking care of hedges -– or, more accurately, the wide variety of plants that grace Dooley’s garden in Athens, Ga.
“If I can be a gardener, anybody can be a gardener,” Dooley told a crowd of about 300 gathered Friday at the future site of Longleaf Botanical Gardens in Anniston.
Dooley and his wife, Barbara, visited the as-yet-unfinished gardens to give speeches during a luncheon aimed at raising money for and awareness about the Anniston Museum of Natural History’s premiere project.
The football coach –- most well-known for leading the Georgia bulldogs to six SEC championships and one national championship and his work with Heisman Trophy-winner Herschel Walker –- stepped up to speak as guests were polishing off their lunches.
He talked about football, his family and his love of gardening, the latter a passion that developed 15 years ago after he audited a horticulture class at UGA.
Now he has a garden with thousands of plants and friendships with expert horticulturalists.
It’s something that still surprises him, Dooley said.
“I was at an international hydrangea competition with 157 of the greatest hydrangea people in the world -– me,” the coach said, remembering a horticulture event he attended in London. “It's like: What am I doing here?"
His good-natured pokes at himself and his wife often had the crowd laughing. But Dooley was serious at times, too.
“Gardening is my golf,” Dooley said, adding that it’s good for the body, the mind and the spirit. He praised his hobby as one that brings people together, unites people in spite of their differences.
To that end, he praised Anniston museum employees and supporters of the Longleaf Botanical Gardens for their hard work.
“This is the best-kept secret in the Southeast,” he said of the garden.
The loud applause for Dooley after his talk made it evident the luncheon guests had enjoyed listening to him. But the standing ovation for his wife revealed she stole the show.
Barbara Dooley spoke before lunch was served and didn’t talk about plants so much as joke about the pains of being a mother of four children and the wife of a famous coach.
Her tales of little boys messing up the toilet seat, and her husband dealing with a tag-along son while trying to coach UGA to victory over Georgia Tech, kept those gathered in continuous fits of laughter.
One of those funny stories included a recollection of her college days at Auburn, the first time she met Dooley.
“I was a student; he was an advisor at church, and today, he would be locked up!” she exclaimed. Barbara Dooley’s reputation as a comedic story-teller preceded her: Anniston resident Becky Hollingsworth said she had come to the event to “get a few gardening tips” from the football coach but mainly wanted to hear from his wife.
“I heard she’s really funny,” Hollingsworth, 56, said before the start of the luncheon.
Other guests also were interested less in gardening tips than in simply listening to whatever the Dooleys had to say.
“I killed some tomatoes several times,” said Alabama Power industrial account manager Brad Mooney of the extent of his horticulture prowess. “I was more interested in Vince Dooley.”
At the end of his speech, the football coach expressed interest in returning to Anniston when the Lenlock Botanical Gardens officially open – an event that’s set for December 2013.
Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.