HOOVER, Ala. — Imagine an SEC coaching trio consisting of a legend, a current giant and a newcomer heading to the mountains of northeast Georgia for an offseason vacation.
Georgia’s Vince Dooley and Alabama’s Nick Saban both own homes near Lake Burton in Rabun County, and each traveled to the relaxing community with family this summer.
First-year Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley joined the ensemble, creating quite a cast for a weekend getaway.
And while most would be star struck, this is the life and these are the mega-connections Derek Dooley is used to.
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He coached with Saban at LSU and in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. And Vince Dooley, well, he practically raised his son at Sanford Stadium.
“I have a great relationship with Nick, professionally and personally, that you would have any time you’ve worked with somebody for seven years,” Derek Dooley said. “And he really gave me a lot of opportunity as a young coach to blossom, to wear a lot of hats. He had a very big impact on my development as a young coach. I’ll always be appreciative of that. He gave me a great opportunity.”
Derek Dooley coached tight ends, running backs and special teams at LSU, and when the Dolphins lured Saban away from Baton Rouge, Derek Dooley remained loyal and joined his mentor at the professional level.
Now, roughly four years after Saban bolted for Alabama and Derek Dooley cut his teeth as a head coach at Louisiana Tech, the two are connected in the SEC once again.
“(New England Patriots head coach) Bill Belichick and I went through a very similar situation, and I was on the other side of that, him being the guy that had been a head coach for a long time, me being kind of the new guy on the block playing in the same division. We always competed well against each other, but we never lost respect for who we were,” Saban said. “Who he was as a person, his family, our relationship, I learned a lot from that experience with Bill. I will have the same kind of experience, even though we have to compete against Derek at Tennessee, it’s a rivalry game for us and for them as well, that we’ll never lose respect for him and his family, what he’s done.”
Alabama and Tennessee meet Oct. 23, and Derek Dooley admitted facing off with Saban for the first time will be a different feeling. But it’s still a pivotal SEC football contest. Another anticipated date is Derek Dooley’s first trip to Athens as a head coach. While Derek Dooley appeared anxious to answer questions about his Volunteers and his expectations for this upcoming fall, the inevitable inquiries poured forth.
What did he learn growing up in the house of a coaching legend?
What advice did his dad give him?
Derek Dooley let everyone know he’s his own man, but Vince Dooley has been more than supportive of his coaching career and his current situation.
“He’s all-consumed Tennessee, but that’s how he does things,” Derek Dooley said. “He gets so into it. He’s learning the geography of the state, the political history of the state, the great Civil War battles of the state, what’s the motto of the state, the history of winning, all the coaches, the records. That’s what he’s doing.”
Nobody knows more about his father’s achievements (six conference titles and a national championship) than Derek Dooley. But digging deeper than trophies, Derek Dooley got to see how Vince Dooley treated his players on a daily basis and the long-lasting relationships he established.
In his first summer on the job at Tennessee, Derek Dooley was tested in early July. At least seven of his players were involved in a massive bar fight that left not only an off-duty police officer battered but the Tennessee football program bruised, as well.
One player was dismissed and others suspended as Derek Dooley said he would bring a change in the culture of his football team.
Vince’s influence weighed heavily in handling the fiasco.
“His perspective has been very valuable, it really has,” Derek Dooley said. “Certainly where I use him the most is when you have to make tough decisions, which you do all the time. We saw it this summer. He was very valuable in his input. Like I said here, he was running an organization for 40 years as a leader, and very successful. He’s a tremendous resource for me. That doesn’t mean I go do what he says all the time, but it’s certainly some valuable feedback that I get.”
Of course Saban and his father aren’t the only coaching authorities Derek Dooley has learned from. He was quick to include former Georgia head coach Jim Donnan, from whom Derek worked for as a graduate assistant, and Mike Cavan, who gave him his first full-time assistant job in 1997.
But Saban and Vince Dooley are who Derek Dooley will be most associated with, one for professional reasons and the other for personal relations. Whether it’s a summer day on Lake Burton or a fall afternoon at Neyland Stadium, Derek Dooley’s mentors will — and will always — be there for him.
“I expect us to continue that relationship, despite the competitive element that’s going to be there every fall,” Derek Dooley said. “It’s no different than playing your friends in back-yard basketball. Nobody wants to win more than either one of you, but at the end of the day you have a lot of respect for each other, professionally and personally.”