His name alone conjures images of a stoic head football coach stalking the sidelines between the hedges at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, where he coached from 1964-1988, leading the Bulldogs to 201 victories, six SEC championships and one national championship in 1980. In 1994, Dooley’s legend was cemented when he was named to the College Football Hall of Fame.
But Vince Dooley has since made a name for himself on a different field, where success is measured in buds and blooms rather than touchdowns. Here, in Vince Dooley’s garden, the seasons change, but they never end.
Dooley and his wife, Barbara, have spent the past 40-plus years in a home in Athens, Ga. Over the years, Dooley has turned the acres surrounding the house into a blooming wonderland.
It started back around 1996, when Dooley decided to audit a few college courses taught by famed UGA horticulturalist Michael Dirr.
“I’ve always been one to look around and simply wonder, what’s that? Why does that change colors?” Dooley remembered last week.
He was no stranger to the classroom. He often took classes in history or the Civil War. But this was different.
“I honestly thought I would take one class and that would satisfy my curiosity,” Dooley said. “But that one class led to another, and another.” That led to a garden, and a couple of world-renowned mentors: Dirr and Allan Armitage, who runs the research gardens at UGA.
“I don’t play golf, but I love getting out,” Dooley said. “This is my fix.”
Dooley will share the roots of his plant obsession on Friday as part of a luncheon on the future site of the Anniston Museum of Natural History’s Botanical Gardens. Proceeds from the luncheon will go towards the botanical gardens.
“We knew that SEC fans would know of the Dooleys,” said Jean Ann Oglesby, president of the museum league board. “Put gardening with sports, and raise awareness for our future botanical gardens.”
Participants will get a sneak peek of the gardens-in-progress, enjoy a picnic garden catered by Alan Martin, chef of the Victoria Restaurant, and then hear both Barbara and Vince Dooley give their program, titled “Every Home Deserves a Garden.”
A full-grown anniversary gift
An icon in her own right, Barbara Dooley has made a name for herself by being more than the dutiful coach’s wife. With a quick wit, Barbara shoots from the hip, telling stories about sharing her husband first with football, now with gardening.
“Whatever he spends, I match him in shoes and jewelry,” Barbara said last week.
“Yeah,” Dooley added, “she matches me 10-to-one … her 10 to my one.”
Although she jokes often about her husband’s plant obsession, Barbara has been known to put her foot down when it comes to something she’s attached to. For example, providing shade for the azaleas at the Dooley home is a large common mulberry tree. It’s a favorite of Barbara’s because of the unusual, lumpy, gnarled character of the bark. The couple’s disagreement over the fate of the tree was documented in the book “Vince Dooley’s Garden: The Horticultural Journey of a Football Coach.”
“Dirr and I wanted to take it down because of its commonality, plus my having to clean up the mulberries that make a mess of the walkway,” Dooley wrote. “We both backed off when Barbara’s Lebanese blood got boiling as she emphatically stated, ‘Don’t touch that tree! It has character!’ We agreed — out of fear for our lives!”
Barbara also likes to tell the story of her 39th wedding anniversary. Dooley brought in a crane and a landscaping crew to plant a full-grown Japanese maple in their front yard. After it was planted, he turned and said, “Happy anniversary!” Barbara thought her husband was joking.
“I thought, ‘I know there’s a diamond necklace up in there,’” said Barbara. “There was nothing.”
Running out of space
Dooley has faced the same problem that every gardener, even the novice, eventually must tackle: lack of space.
Over the years, the two-and-a-half acres surrounding Dooley’s home have been consumed by more than 100 varieties of azaleas, camellias, Japanese maples and hydrangeas – to the point he’s had to lease an additional three acres from his neighbors so his garden can continue to grow.
He loves architectural plants – “weepers especially,” he said.
Dooley has an area he calls “Weeper’s Creek,” where a white footbridge crosses over a small stream. A bald cypress called ‘Cascade Falls’ and other weeping trees and shrubs grow alongside the stream.
“When I was coaching and we’d get beat, I’d go out to the creek and weep,” he said with a laugh. “It just made sense to call it Weeper’s Creek. But I don’t cry so much there anymore.”
As part of his horticultural education, Dooley had to learn the proper botanical names of plants, meaning he had to master what he calls “Southern Latin.”
“At least I know all that studying paid off,” he said. “Now, I often find that I know more botanical names than common names. But the whole process is fun.”
Dooley is used to being recognized and approached by fans – football fans mostly, but that’s starting to change as his reputation as a gardener grows. If pressed, Dooley admits that he’d rather talk plants than football.
“I meet people who are just as passionate about plants as they are about football,” he said. “And they’re just as competitive.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
Vince and Barbara Dooley
What: “Every Home Deserves a Garden,” a fundraiser for Anniston’s Botanical Gardens.
When: 11:30 a.m. Friday
Where: Future site of the Botanical Gardens, at the end of Museum Drive in Lagarde Park (at the top of the hill just past Berman Museum).
Tickets: $100 per person; $50 for museum members; includes picnic-style lunch by the Victoria. Advance purchase required.
Where to buy: Tickets are available at the museum, Tyson Fine Wines & Things, BB&T Bank and Noble Bank & Trust.
For more info: 256-237-6766, www.annistonmuseum.org