Precious Memories
Barbara Dooley
Barbara Dooley
InsideTennessee sportswriter
Posted Oct 5, 2011


This feature story about Barbara Dooley and her husband Vince Dooley and their son Derek Dooley ran in the football preseason issue of Rocky Top News. It is being re-run on the website this week in advance of the Tennessee-Georgia football game.

The mold for the wives of college football coaches was cast long ago – patient, understanding, supportive and quiet. Barbara Dooley has three of those qualities. In the vernacular of sports, “mama’s boy” is typically intended as an insult. But if the mother is the loquacious Barbara and the son is the lovable Derek it should be taken as a full-blooded compliment.

Derek Dooley, who is entering his second year as the head football coach at Tennessee, is very much his mother’s child. But the proverbial apple also didn’t fall far from the tree of his father, Vince Dooley, the legendary coach of Georgia for 25 seasons who led the Bulldogs to a national title in 1980.

Vince Dooley and Derek Dooley

The fourth child of Barbara and Vince Dooley is also the apple of his mother’s eye, so much so that she still calls him Precious. Vince, who publicly seems to be the stoic Southern football coach right out of central casting, has his own wicked sense of humor – from deadpanning that he had not planned on spending that much when his wife asked over breakfast for a divorce for her birthday – to a playful side, such as when he had some members of the Georgia band blast 40th birthday wishes to Barbara early one morning from their back yard in Athens.

He wasn’t even done that day. Later that evening – Barbara had been away in the afternoon to shop in Atlanta – an 11-year-old Derek ran in the house to tell his mother that a parade was coming down their street. The entire Georgia band was marching, along with neighbors, friends and relatives. The women had gone into the house in Barbara’s absence and acquired something of hers to wear from clothes to jewelry to wigs, and the men had raided Vince’s closet for their parade attire.

“He has an unbelievable sense of humor that very few people see,” Barbara Dooley said of the man she usually calls Vincent. “He is a very private person, but he loves to play tricks, and he loves to joke.”

Vince and Barbara Dooley

Since her birthday falls on September 8 – Barbara will be 72 this year – she rarely received much acknowledgement of life’s milestones because it fell during football season when Vince was preoccupied with his team and rarely even home. At the breakfast table he was usually behind a newspaper – such as when she asked for the divorce, thinking he wouldn’t even hear her. After dashing home for dinner he would head back to the football offices for meetings.

“For many years I cried every birthday because he always forgot them,” she said. “He was so focused on football.”

But Vince did come through for his wife at times over the years.

“I remember one time he ran in for dinner with a sportswriter,” Barbara said. “He used to bring people home. I never knew who was coming for dinner. I thought he had totally forgotten my birthday, and he had gotten me a Dean Martin record album. It was a beautiful song. ‘Everybody Loves Somebody.’ ”

Another time when he knew he would be out of town on her birthday, Vince told the children to go to sleep early that night – Barbara later wondered why they all went willingly to bed – woke up the kids when he got home late from campus, got a cake and held a party for his wife at 12:05 a.m., just minutes into her birthday.

Anyone who witnessed Derek Dooley mischievously chastise his team last season for its lack of shower discipline – even referring to lathering rags instead of the more refined term of washcloths – likely heard the mother emerging from the youngest child of the Dooley clan.

“Was that not hilarious?” Barbara Dooley said in a lengthy telephone interview with Rocky Top News.

Barbara Dooley and a young Derek share a laugh on a family vacation.

“I got all Fs in conduct,” she added. “My mother always said that I had to be the center of attention and so I guess I always have been. My life’s ambition was to be a comedian like Carol Burnett. I remember growing up and watching Carol Burnett and just thinking she’s the funniest – she and Lucille Ball were my two idols. I just thought if they could do what they do … but I fell in love with old Dooley and that ended that.”

She cackled with laughter at the crack about Vince’s age – he is seven years older than his wife – and they met at Auburn University, when she was an 18-year-old undergraduate and he was a 25-year-old graduate assistant for the football team – and it wasn’t love at first sight. Both are Catholic – they met at church – and the union took more than a year to blossom as both dated other people, but they married in 1960, and Barbara’s life as a football coach’s wife began.

She outlines her life in rollicking and honest fashion in her autobiography, “Put Me in Coach, Confessions of a Football Wife,” which was originally published in 1991 and can still be found in hardback and paperback. It wasn’t a staid marriage, and her husband’s sense of humor is evident, as is Barbara’s.

She tells the story of buying him a big screen television with a remote control for Christmas before it became all the rage and soon realized what had thrilled her, as the perfect present for her husband, was actually a huge mistake.

“I have decided that men actually don’t have an attention span over five minutes, and for some reason they can’t stand to know that there is something going on on other channels that they are missing,” Barbara Dooley wrote in her book. “So in order to cover the works, they go from station to station every three minutes and that way they can watch every single thing on TV. I, on the other hand, go berserk after three flicks and finally get up and walk out.”

So, one evening when all the children were out she put on her best makeup and perfume, teased her hair, wrapped herself in a beach towel and stood in front of the television. She dropped the towel and announced, “Play me or trade me.”

A startled Vince paused and then said, “Would you please move. You’re making me miss a play.”

She got him back a few years later. When a local TV crew arrived at the house to do a feature on Vince Dooley and his family, the sportscaster asked how they spent their time at home now that all the children were away, either in college or married.

“Oh, the minute he comes home now I just throw him down on the couch and start making passionate love,” Barbara answered.

The four children – the oldest son once asked his mother if she stayed awake at night to think of ways to embarrass them – are named, in order of birth, Deanna, Daniel, Denise and Derek.

“We started with Deanna,” Barbara Dooley said.

She wanted the firstborn son to be named Vincent, but her husband “did not want a junior so we named him Vincent Daniel because I loved the name Daniel in the Bible, and we call him Daniel,” Barbara said. “By the time the third one came I said, ‘You know what? We just need the same monogram.’ So then we went to Denise and then we went to Derek.”

Vince missed the birth of Derek in 1968 because he had committed to speak at a coaching clinic in Seattle, Wash. It also meant some extra money and coaches’ salaries were not the six- and seven-figure ones they are now, so he accepted the invitation. A neighbor took Barbara to the hospital.

She was prepared to name her son Darrell or Derek. The doctor reached Vince on the phone and told him the choices, and, unknown to his wife, Vince decided to put it up for vote at the coaches’ clinic.

That may have been a harbinger of the now 43-year-old Derek’s ultimate career choice. He was educated at Virginia, where he walked on as a wide receiver and earned a scholarship for his final two years, and then got a law degree from Georgia in 1994.

Derek Dooley at Virginia

He was a practicing attorney for a firm in Atlanta but couldn’t tune out the coaching whistle and started on the sidelines in 1996 as a graduate assistant at Georgia with college stints to follow at Southern Methodist and LSU and then a pro one for the Miami Dolphins. His first head coaching job was at Louisiana Tech, where Derek also served as athletic director, and then he arrived in Knoxville in 2010.

The mother’s reaction to her son leaving a professional career for a coaching one was visceral.

“I was sick,” Barbara said. “I was physically sick.”

She knew the stress of coaching, especially on a young family, and she didn’t want Derek to endure what Vince did – weeks away from home and not seeing his children grow up.

“It was the stress it put on our whole family and the hours that you are away from the family,” she said. “He knew all that, but coaching today is a whole lot better than when we were in it.”

That is partially because of the tremendous increase in salaries and the tremendous decrease in how often coaches can be on the recruiting trail.

“They have rules now where head coaches can’t get on the road for certain periods of time,” Barbara said. “The first year we were at Georgia, Vince was only home 52 nights out of a whole year. And, and, and we certainly were not financially compensated. We made $14,500.”

Derek is well compensated. His six-year deal at Tennessee is $1.8 million a year. That makes a coaching career a lot easier to accept for a mother who still calls her son Precious when she speaks publicly.

“He just gets so upset lately when I do that,” Barbara said. “But he is. He truly is.”

It’s easy to look at photos of a young Derek and see why the moniker stuck. Plus, he was the last child and lived with his mother after the other siblings moved out of the house.

A very young Derek with Santa Claus.

With Vince busy with coaching and then serving as athletic director for Georgia until his retirement in 2004, Derek was his mother’s main source of conversation, and the two became – and remain – very close.

“He was my baby,” Barbara said. “We had three children in three years and then we waited and had Derek four years later, so he was always kind of by himself with me, and we were extremely close. His sisters would say, ‘Aw, isn’t he precious?’ And he was the cutest thing. He was so skinny and then all of a sudden he just grew up.”

Barbara is rather amused by the remarks about Derek’s perfectly coiffed hair that the media and fans have made on occasion, but they ring of truth – her son has always been fastidious about his appearance and clothes.

“From the time that child was in nursery school he was anal about what he wore,” she said. “He is immaculately dressed. He grew up like that. My other son I could go to JCPenney or Sears and buy him a wardrobe, and it didn’t bother him. But not Derek. He had to have the latest clothes, the best.

“He would say to me, ‘Mom, I would rather have one expensive shirt than four cheap ones.’ ”

Derek Dooley in an Izod shirt.

Derek played sports and made straight As throughout school. He wasn’t always perfect, though. Barbara found out years later that he would sneak out of the house.

“Derek was so smart,” his mother said. “He watched his brother Daniel, who stayed in trouble and stayed on restriction. Derek knew that if he made good grades and seemed to obey the rules that we wouldn’t challenge him.

“I had calluses on my knees praying for Daniel to get through high school. Well, Derek made all these great grades and if I told Derek to be in by midnight, he was in by midnight. But what I didn’t know until many years later was that he would come in by midnight, park his car in the middle of our driveway and turn out the lights, walk in, turn off the alarm system – and I always made them wake me up to tell me they were there – wake me up to say, ‘Mom, I’m here,’ and then he would go back out.

“Years later, we would be at the lake at night talking and they would be laughing about everything they did. And I said, ‘Derek, please, I don’t want to hear anymore. I thought you were the perfect child.’ But, no, he didn’t get in a lot of trouble, because obviously I didn’t know what the hell he was doing.”

Derek may have been mischievous at times – that should be familiar territory for his mother – but he was also a good-hearted boy.

“He was,” Barbara said. “And he was all boy.”

Near-perfect boys like that tend to marry women who are like their mothers, but Derek didn’t. His wife is Dr. Allison Jeffers Dooley, an obstetrician and gynecologist.

“I think he had had enough of me,” Barbara said, the phone line cracking with laughter. “She is very much like him in a lot of ways. She is meticulous. She is extremely neat. I am a wreck. I have papers everywhere. She is very, very, very organized.

“She is drop-dead gorgeous, let me tell you that. They don’t make them any prettier than that child. And sweet, sweet, sweet. They will never have on my tombstone the word sweet.”

With four grown children, the elder Dooleys now have a lot of grandchildren – 11 at last count with the oldest at 26 and Derek’s last child, Julianna, the youngest at 7.

“They all come about twice a year,” Barbara said. “We meet at the lake. We have a lake house at Lake Burton, and we always go up there on the Fourth of July. It is the most fun thing for a week and then after that we all die. And nine boys may I say. You talk about testosterone and competition.”

Derek Dooley, his wife Allison, sister Deanna, Barbara Dooley, Vince Dooley, daughter-in-law Suzanne and son Daniel.

Barbara certainly is used to being outnumbered by men since she has spent the majority of her life around football – and still does; she will be at Neyland Stadium for every home game this season, as she was a year ago – but there was one male encounter years ago that startled her, at least when she later was told what had happened.

Darrell Royal, the legendary coach at Texas, once entered her hotel room and stripped down while she slept.

“We were at a (football) meeting and Darrell back then was the athletic director at Texas, and he was representing the Southwest Conference,” Barbara said. “I told Vince that I was tired and back then we had room keys, not plastic but regular keys and you got one key. I said, ‘Give me the room key. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.’

“I put a book of matches in the door so he wouldn’t wake me up. I turned the bathroom light on and shut the door so it was just cracked, and I went to bed. Darrell came in my room thinking it was his room. He unpacked and he stripped down, and he walked over to flip (his wife) Edith on the fanny and let her know he was coming to bed, and he looked down and there was white hair on the pillow, and Edith is a flaming redhead.”

Royal got dressed, repacked his clothes and left the room without Barbara ever awakening.

“He packed up and got out,” she said, her infectious laugh peppering her words as she recounted the episode.

The encounter with the wrong wife didn’t end there, though.

“Vince went out for his morning run and next door to us Darrell had opened up his sliding glass door and his drapery, and Vince jogged into his bedroom,” Barbara said. “Edith started screaming. She was standing there in her pants and bra. Darrell came out of the bathroom and said, ‘Dooley, you don’t owe me any apology. You don’t have any idea what almost went on in your room last night.’ ”

Though Barbara can bring a room to its knees in laughter with her stories – she is very popular on the speaker’s circuit – she is also a woman of considerable Southern charm and manners.

She discovered upon meeting Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt – their paths finally crossed in person last May at the Go Red for Women luncheon in Knoxville, which raises awareness of heart disease and stroke – that she had a kindred spirit.

Barbara knew Summitt as nearly everyone else did – from watching her intensity and outbursts on the sidelines. Then, the two met at the luncheon and Barbara encountered a woman of impeccable manners and grace.

“I loved meeting her,” Barbara Dooley said. “And what I really loved is I had just finished my song and dance (she told the Royal hotel story at the luncheon) and, honey, she jumped right up – she was going to speak after me – and started singing ‘Rocky Top.’ She was the cutest thing I have ever seen.

“We would be in deep trouble together. She knows it, and I know it. I could spend a lot of time with her and love it.”

Barbara Dooley is an accomplished woman in her right. She earned her bachelor’s and masters degrees from Auburn in speech therapy and guidance and counseling. She has worked as a speech therapist and opened a bagel shop. She was on the board of directors of the Georgia Lottery Commission and has been a chairperson of the United Way campaign and the United Way Volunteer of the Year. She has given her time to raise money and spirits for battered and abused women, Toys for Tots, March of Dimes, Easter Seals, Special Olympics, Paralympics, epilepsy, diabetes and, on a very personal note, breast cancer awareness.

In 2005, a mammogram confirmed her worst fear, and the news came three days before Christmas in a phone call from her physician.

“We were having our Christmas Eve dinner then because of bowls,” Barbara said. “We always worked around bowl games. So we were having it on the 22nd so Derek could get to his bowl, and we (Georgia) would be in a bowl.

“That’s when it came. When I got word my children were literally walking in the house at 5 o’clock when the phone rang. It knocked me to my knees. It truly did, but I was determined I was going to get through Christmas Eve so we went through opening presents. We went through the dinner. As we finished dessert I just decided that I should go ahead and tell them while they were all around the table.

“I said, ‘I have some news,’ and they were all excited because they thought I was going to take them on a trip for Christmas. They said, ‘Oh, where are we going?’ I said, ‘We ain’t going nowhere.’ And so I told them and it was just pitiful. I think they took it worse than I did.”

The children may have recoiled over the years from some of their mother’s words and antics, but they would be crushed without her.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Barbara said. “I know that.”

So, she steeled herself for the battle, prevailed over the disease and became an advocate for breast cancer awareness, mammograms and regular checkups.

“I went every year, and that’s how it was caught,” Barbara said.

Barbara Dooley remains active beyond her extensive volunteer work and speaking opportunities. She is also a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Upchurch Realty, which is based in Athens, Ga., and handles properties throughout the Southeast.

Dooley joked that she would be happy to acquire property in Knoxville and suggested that Vince Dooley take the athletic director position at Tennessee for a couple of years.

“I can drive Precious to practice,” Barbara said, collapsing in laughter. “That would be his worst nightmare.”

Derek completed his first regular season with a record of 6-6 after splitting the first four games, losing four straight and then finishing with four wins. A Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina – in which the officials mishandled the clock in the final seconds, costing the Vols a win – left Derek Dooley with a 6-7 record and a steaming mad mother. The North Carolina game mirrored the LSU one in that Tennessee was celebrating on the field when the officials huddled and then the game continued. Derek Dooley should have been 7-6 and had a legitimate shot at 8-5 if not for too many men on the field at Baton Rouge.

“It was horrible. It was an absolute nightmare,” his mother said. “I was so sick for that kid. I was just sick for him. First of all I know how it hurts to lose. But to lose twice in one season and we have never – Vincent said the same thing – we have never in all of our football life seen anything like that.

“And he experienced two in one season. It was brutal. In the bowl game they absolutely took it away from Derek. They just took it away from him. They should have never had time to set up and kick a field goal. They gave them one second and put the ball in play. I am going, ‘This cannot be happening.’

“But we all got Derek after that and his brother – who lives and dies with Derek; he is right by Derek at every game – and he said, ‘Derek, just think, this is going to be the greatest trivia question in Tennessee football history. What coach won seven games in a season but only ended up with six?’ And we laughed.”

Laughter has bonded the Dooley family for decades, but Barbara finds herself living and dying with every play for Tennessee in a way she never did when Vince was at Georgia.

“Watching him coach is a hundred times worse than watching my husband,” Barbara said. “Because that’s my baby. Even Vince can hardly watch.”

Derek entered after the sudden exit of Lane Kiffin to Southern Cal, and the cupboard was pretty bare, especially after Kiffin’s first highly rated recruiting class was gutted by attrition by reason of transfer, arrest or general conduct. He has the program on the right track, especially with an emphasis on recruits of high character as well as football skill, and after the scandal fatigue of Kiffin and then men’s basketball, Tennessee fans overall appear to be patient and pleased with Derek Dooley.

“Do you realize he’s been there 18 months and y’all have fired the basketball coach, fired the baseball coach, the AD has resigned, I mean, c’mon, what in the heck is going on up there?” Barbara said.

“He said (in the spring) recruiting is tough with all of this going on and other schools are just beating him (up over it) to death with the chaos,” Barbara said. “Hopefully, when they get a new athletic director, it will slow down.”

The mother can’t do anything about the turmoil except wait for it to end, but she can make trips to Knoxville, and she is a frequent visitor in the fall.

“I make all the home games,” she said.

Vince Dooley also makes the trips and will be in town for the Georgia game, which Tennessee hosts this season.

“He might not go to the stadium, but he’ll be there,” Barbara said. “He didn’t go to the stadium here. He stayed home and watched it on TV.”

Barbara will be in the stands, wearing orange and singing “Rocky Top.”

“Of course I will; he’s my baby!” she said. “If people don’t understand it I feel sorry for them.”

Barbara is an Auburn graduate – the Alabama-Auburn rivalry is one of the richest in sports history – but if Derek had ended up in Tuscaloosa in his career, his mother would be shouting Roll Tide.

“Of course,” she said. “If people don’t understand that then I do really feel sorry for them.”

But Barbara expects to be clad in orange for years. Her son has the Vols steered on the right course, and he and his family like the area.

“I see Dooley there for a long time,” Barbara said, referring to him for the first time by his more formal, that is, coaching name.

She also notices a difference in Derek from his father, and it is perhaps a generational one. Vince was consumed with football so family matters were left to Barbara. Derek is hands-on with his family of three children, two boys, John Taylor and Peyton, and a girl, Julianna.

“It’s shocking for me to see him take care of those kids like he does, because his daddy was so focused on what he was doing,” said Barbara, who relates in her book that when Vince was left once with their young child and faced with changing a diaper, he hosed off the toddler in the yard.

“Sometimes he wouldn’t even see his children in a day. In fact, Vince only ate dinner with us one night a week for years. He would eat with us on Wednesday nights.”

Derek, if he hasn’t already, will have to get used to his mother’s forthrightness, as she has no intention of ever simmering down, despite the efforts of others in the family.

“His daddy has been trying for 51 years,” Barbara Dooley said. “I am myself, period. I am nobody else. That’s just how it is. And my husband figured that out a long time ago.”

The narrative of her life has many openings from coach’s wife to speaker to advocate to Realtor to survivor to mother.

“I’ve never planned anything; it just kind of happens,” Barbara said. “So I am kind of waiting to see what’s ahead. It’s exciting. Really and truly, I have always said I approach life as jumping in to anything and everything, and I have. I have tried everything I wanted to try, and I have enjoyed it.”

Football falls will now be spent in Knoxville where Barbara will cheer and love unconditionally the man who will become Tennessee’s favorite son if he brings SEC and national prominence to the Vols.

“He’s a good man,” she said. “I think what you see is what you get with Derek. He’s sort of like me.”



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