Bill Dooley passed away yesterday.
When I heard the news, it didn’t engender any sort of reaction in me. Coach Dooley led a long, interesting life, most of it good, I suppose. In an excellent article written by Aaron McFarling of The Roanoke Times, former player Rich Fox spoke very highly of him, of the tears that were shed by the team when it was announced in the middle of the 1986 season that it would be Dooley’s last.
McFarling’s article also contains quotes from ACC commissioner John Swofford (who began his career as the AD at UNC in 1980, a few years after Dooley left UNC to coach Tech), Dick Oliver (a fullback for Dooley at UNC in the 70s), Dave Smith (longtime Virginia Tech Sports Information Director who retired a couple years ago), and Billy Hite (who played and coached for Dooley at UNC, then followed him to Virginia Tech).
They all gave good perspectives of Dooley as a coach and a person and a mentor and a colleague.
The Clueless Student (Me), and My View of Coach Dooley
I had none of those perspectives. I was a Virginia Tech student from 1983-87, which means that the final year of Bill Dooley’s Virginia Tech coaching career was the fall of my senior year, the year that Dooley led Tech to their first-ever bowl victory, a thrilling 25-24 win over NC State that was the football highlight of my student days, hands down.
As a student, I was incredibly clueless regarding Virginia Tech athletics when it came to … well, pretty much everything but the games that I watched with my own two eyes. There was no Internet in those days, of course, and I didn’t get a newspaper, nor The Hokie Huddler. I also didn’t read the Collegiate Times. I didn’t watch TV news, either.
So the games I watched were my window to Virginia Tech athletics. My loyalty and passion were reserved for the players I witnessed — Bruce Smith, Dell Curry, et al — and the orange and maroon they wore, adorned with the VT logo, “Virginia Tech”, and “Hokies.”
When it came to Bill Dooley, I almost never saw the head coach on television, almost never read his quotes in the paper, almost never heard him speak, and never, ever saw him in person or met him in person.
When I did get to see him, it was usually on the weekly “Virginia Tech Football” television program, in which highlights of that week’s game were run, while Dooley intoned in a dry monotone voice phrases like, “This is a sweep-style play, and Cyrus picks up good yardage off the left side,” and “This is an option-style play, and Maurice picks up good yardage off the right side,” and “This is a pass play, and we pick up good yardage to Donald Wayne Snell.”
I mean … dry. Really boring. To me, Bill Dooley was a pretty dull guy who put some pretty dull offenses on the field. I could never picture him firing a team up with a pre-game locker room speech, so it was interesting to hear Rich Fox paint a completely different picture in Aaron McFarling’s article:
What Rich Fox remembers most is the tears.
Tears in his eyes — and those of his Virginia Tech teammates — as the players ran on the football field on Saturdays, their emotions stirred by Bill Dooley’s perfect locker room words. Some coaches can come up with a good inspirational speech once a year; Dooley seemed to be able to do it every week.
That’s hard for 18-22 year old me to imagine.
But Dooley’s defenses were a different story. They were littered with future NFL players and complete studs: Bruce Smith, Mike Johnson, Jesse Penn, Ashley Lee, Jamel Agemy, Carter Wiley … I could list fifty more guys and still be leaving out players deserving of mention. They were a joy to watch, much like Bud Foster’s best.
I still remember Bruce Smith sacking Duke’s Ben Bennett four times in a single game, and that was just another day at the office for Bruce. Bennett told the press after the game, “Smith and I talked about my family, world affairs, just about everything. We had plenty of time to get to know each other. He spent the afternoon with me.”
Scheduling for Success
Virginia Tech was criticized for playing patsy schedules back then, littered with the likes of VMI, Richmond, William & Mary, ETSU, Tulane and Vanderbilt. Tech played Virginia every year, of course, and the schedule usually included one or two other big games, mostly against WVU or Clemson.
Virginia Tech always lost those big non-UVa games, usually because they couldn’t score on offense. During my time at Tech, those games went:
- 1983: WVU 13, VT 0
- 1984: WVU 14, VT 7; Clemson 17, VT 10
- 1985: Clemson 20, VT 17; WVU 24, VT 9; Florida 35, VT 18
- 1986: VT 20, Clemson 14; VT 13, WVU 7
Yep, 1986 was the year they finally broke through, including their first-ever bowl win, and that’s what made that year so special … on the field, at least.
Dooley built VT into a respectable, consistent program. Not to the level that Frank Beamer later would, but Dooley did all right. Virginia Tech had been to three bowl games prior to 1981, and Dooley took them to three bowl games in just six years, finally winning one. That doesn’t even count 1983, my freshman year, when VT got snubbed with a 9-2 record thanks to UNC, Dooley’s former team.
Dooley produced some signature wins over Virginia, including some victories that are still seared in my mind from my student days:
- 1983: VT 48, UVa 0 (“The ’83 Squeaker” per bumper stickers, and origin of message board poster 48zip’s username)
- 1985: VT 28, UVa 10 (after being down 10-0 at half time, in Charlottesville)
- 1986: VT 42, UVa 10 (and VT players openly told the press afterwards that UVa “quit”)
Time has brought me a different perspective of Dooley’s career, especially how it ended, most of which I learned about while researching the 2005 series The Year of Our Discontent.
Dooley’s Plan Unfinished?
Something that people almost never talk about is that Bill Dooley had a plan for Tech football that he didn’t get to bring to fruition.
Dooley coached at Virginia Tech from 1978-1986 (nine seasons), and had a record of 63-38-1:
- 1978-79: 9-13 (.409)
- 1980-82: 22-12 (.647)
- 1983-86: 32-13-1 (.695)
He was gradually building momentum in the program. Setting aside 1978 and 1979, from 1980-86, against Division 1A teams with winning records, Dooley’s teams had the following records:
- 1980-82: 1-10
- 1983-86: 9-8
His teams won nine games twice in his last four seasons. They were moving forward and getting better.
As the Hokies started winning more, the schedules started getting tougher, and in 1987 onward, Dooley had put together some tough schedules. From the 1986 football preview in The Hokie Huddler, Dooley had already set the following future schedule for 1987 (with each team’s 1987 record included in parentheses):
- Clemson (10-2)
- @Virginia (8-4)
- Syracuse (11-0-1)
- Navy (2-9)
- @South Carolina (8-4)
- ECU (5-6)
- @Tulane (6-6)
- @WVU (6-6)
- @Miami (12-0)
- Cincinnati (4-7)
(That’s only ten games; Tech later added Kentucky, which went 5-6 in 1987.)
That’s a brutal schedule compared to prior seasons, with no VMI, Richmond, or William & Mary in sight.
In the 1987 football preview issue of The Hokie Huddler, Frank Beamer’s first season, the following future schedules were listed for 1988 and 1989 — schedules mostly, perhaps completely, set by Dooley before his departure:
- 1988: @Clemson, ECU, @Southern Miss, @Syracuse, WVU, South Carolina, @Cincinnati, Virginia, @Louisville, @FSU, Tulsa.
- 1989: @South Carolina, Clemson, Temple, @Wake Forest, @WVU, FSU, @ECU, Tulane, Vanderbilt, @Virginia, NC State.
Those 1987-1989 schedules, set by Dooley, were a level or two above his early-mid 80s schedules dotted with Division 1-AA teams, to say the least.
It was as if Dooley had a ten-year plan for taking over the program (1978-79), building winning teams through relatively easy scheduling (1980-86), and then trying his Hokies out against some of the best teams in the region and the country (1987-89) to get them to the next level of being ranked and going to bowls regularly.
But because of the way things unfolded, Dooley didn’t get to stick around and see the fruits of his labor. He also never got to coach Virginia Tech as a member of a conference, only as an independent.
For many modern-day Virginia Tech fans, it’s hard to picture VT football before Frank Beamer. But from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, Dooley averaged seven wins a year, went to three bowls, got Tech’s first bowl win, and may have been on his way to something better. We’ll never know.