Farewell to the Trench Fighter

Sports has a funny way of being almost symmetrical at times.  As college football practice is underway, for the first time in 29 years Va. Tech has a new head football coach.  Frank Beamer is off enjoying retirement presumably by golfing a lot and being heavily invested in the grandkid business.

In his place steps Justin Fuente, who by all accounts has done most everything correct in his short few months on the job.  By that I mean he’s shown due respect to the accomplishments of Frank Beamer, but at the same time is going about the business of making the Virginia Tech program his.  Now those who cover the team will tell you that there is one big difference in Blacksburg as opposed to the Beamer era.  Beamer was open and accommodating with the media which made him one of the media’s favorites to cover.  Fuente is a little more closed off.  I believe he looks at it as part of his job, but not his primary job.  Access is severely restricted to practices and players under his watch.  That’s his style and the media is just going to have to adjust to him – and probably very carefully selected players – talking to the media once a week and after games.

While Fuente goes about building a Va. Tech’s future and honoring the immediate past, another part of Va. Tech football history passed away this week.  Bill Dooley coached Va. Tech from 1978 – 1986 and became at the time the winningest football coach in Virginia Tech history winning 63 games, losing 38 with 1 tie.  This week he died at his home in Wilmington, North Carolina at the age of 82 from what was termed natural causes.

He’s being rightfully honored for his place in Va. Tech history because before Dooley arrived in Blacksburg, the football program wasn’t in the best of shape.  Jimmy Sharpe may have been a great assistant coach to Bear Bryant at Alabama, but he was the classic example of a good assistant not making a great head coach.  In the two years prior to Dooley’s arrival, Sharpe and his wishbone offense were just 9-12-1.  To be completely fair however, Sharpe’s scheduling philosophy and Dooley’s were polar opposites.  Sharpe loaded up on SEC programs like Alabama and Auburn.  During his 9 seasons in Blacksburg, Dooley played William and Mary 8 times, Richmond 8 times, Wake Forest 7 times, VMI 7 times, Vanderbilt 5 times, East Tennessee State twice, with one meeting apiece from James Madison and Rhode Island.  Florida State appeared on his early schedules, but as the Florida State program began to rise under Bobby Bowden, they were suddenly off the schedule.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with playing those in-state teams and Virginia Tech continues to do it (this year it’s FCS Liberty), but sometimes the meetings among the group of William and Mary, Richmond and VMI were in the same season, something that cannot and would not happen today.  He likewise has the distinction of being the last Virginia Tech coach to lose to VMI, a 6-0 loss that occurred when I was in Junior High School in the early 80s.

Born in Mobile, Alabama Dooley and his distinct Southern drawl played on the offensive line at Mississippi State.  He was the brother of long time and legendary Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, and the uncle of former Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley.  He actually got his first full time coaching gig on his brother’s staff at Georgia, but he wasn’t there very long.  In 1967 Dooley took over as the head football coach at the University of North Carolina, long known as a basketball school.  In his tenure at UNC, he won three ACC Titles in 1971, 1972 and 1977.  Keep in mind that North Carolina has only won 4 ACC titles total and hasn’t won a conference championship since 1980. At UNC, his Tarheels posted the school’s first 11 win season and he was the first North Carolina coach to mine what is now called the “757”, the tidewater area of Virginia where frankly about 75% of the best players in the Commonwealth can be found.  Out of that area, he recruited from Lafayette High School in Williamsburg, a pretty fair future NFL Hall of Famer named Lawrence Taylor.

But, it was the allure of the dual roles of head football coach and athletic director offered by then Va. Tech president William Lavery that enticed Dooley to move from a stable school in the ACC, to an independent football program at Virginia Tech.  He has been quoted as saying that his biggest failure in Blacksburg was not getting the Hokies into a conference for football.  That didn’t happen until the Big East Football Conference was formed in 1991. His biggest accomplishment was getting what was basically a little regional football program in a stadium that had no bleachers in the North End Zone and rickety old high school type bleachers in the South End Zone into three bowl games, and posting the school’s first ever bowl win in the 1986 Peach Bowl.

He wasn’t the most dynamic personality in the world.  He had a tendency to say the same things at every weekly press conference.  He had a few go-to phrases like telling the media that every player on the opponent was “outstanding” and beginning almost every answer with the phrase “well, there’s no doubt about it.”  If you want to talk media friendly though, Bill Dooley was it.  Keep in mind though that in those days, Media coverage consisted of the three local stations in Roanoke-Lynchburg, the Roanoke Times and the School Newspaper. I remember while helping the guys in the sports department at WDBJ in Roanoke going with either Mike Stevens or Roy Stanley to shoot football practice.  Now a days you get into practice for 20 – 30 minutes to watch a bunch of standing around and stretching.  Then, you could literally shoot the entire practice and get as close as you wanted.  You see, Dooley nicknamed the “Trench Fighter” didn’t care.  His offense was as vanilla as his weekly coaches show, and so he knew that the opponent knew exactly what Va. Tech was going to do…line up in an I-formation and run the tailback and occasionally work in a play action pass.  His assistants would sometimes joke that his favorite play call was “Hey Diddle Diddle, Let’s Run it up the Middle” but Dooley was responsible for beginning the tradition of Va. Tech Tailbacks nicknamed the “Stallions” that frankly continues until today.   Dooley was a true meat and potatoes guy, and he believed that you won games by being physical on the offensive and defensive lines.  At North Carolina, one of his former players said that Dooley used to tell his team there were only two places in the world where you could become a better man, the Marine Corps and Spring Practice.

Despite what appeared to be a rising football program under his watch, his tenure in 1986 was marred by an NCAA investigation.  The NCAA claimed that Dooley violated scholarship limits.  My recollection of the story was that Va. Tech told Dooley he could remain the football coach but would have to step down as the athletic director.  Dooley responded by suing the school for $3.5 million for breach of contract.  The parties settled the case and in exchange for Dooley getting $700,000.00, he was to resign as both football coach and athletic director.  Whether the idea was to keep his resignation under wraps or not until the end of the season, even in the mid-80s without cell phones, Twitter and Facebook, word leaked out one Thursday night that he had resigned effective at the end of the season.  I remember that like it was yesterday.  I used to work into the evenings on Thursday Night at WDBJ just getting everything ready for Friday Football Extra on Friday Night.  I had the good fortune of producing that show for five years and what it did for me, is frankly it’s own chapter and book.  Somehow the newsroom got a tip that Dooley had resigned.  Roy Stanley who was anchoring that night’s sports, placed a call to Dooley’s wife, confirmed the story and it led that evening’s news.  Today, it would have hit twitter 6 seconds after someone had learned about it.

His team was determined to send him out a winner, and they did so going 9-2-1 in 1986 beating Clemson and Syracuse on the road, and earning a trip to the Peach Bowl to play North Carolina State.  And in dramatic fashion with time running out his kicker Chris Kinzer from nearby Pulaski County High School hit the game winning field goal for a 25-24 Tech Bowl win, the first in school history.  Kinzer – never lacking for confidence – celebrated by running down the N.C. State sideline flipping the bird to the Wolfpack players.  Believe it or not and those of us with hair turning gray will remember that game wasn’t on ESPN.  Instead it was broadcast by former syndicator Mizlou Broadcasting to a small group of stations mostly in the Southeast.

After leaving Virginia Tech, Dooley was immediately hired as the head coach at Wake Forest.  He finished his coaching career at Wake with a 26-32-2 record, but went 8-4 in his final year in 1992 winning the Independence  Bowl over Oregon.  Fittingly enough, Dooley finished his career as a winner, because that’s about all he ever was.  In his post-football years, he dabbled a little as a analyst for Raycom’s ACC Network, and enjoyed his final years on Carolina’s coast.

There is a perception among a lot of people that Virginia Tech football began with Frank Beamer in 1993 with the run of 23 straight bowl games and as I’ve said before Beamer deserves all the credit for taking the Tech program to the next level.  But, no house gets built without a firm foundation and Bill Dooley deserves his share of credit for helping build that foundation that today sees Va. Tech on television every week and a stadium that has expanded from the rickety bleachers in the South End Zone to a palace with club seating for big donors.  Long before Michael Vick, Dooley recruit Bruce Smith was the number 1 pick in the NFL draft to Buffalo in 1985.  Perhaps the end of his tenure at Virginia Tech wasn’t the cleanest and he did leave Beamer saddled with scholarship restrictions, but he’s an important part of the school’s history and on that “well, there’s no doubt about it.”  RIP.



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