COLUMBIA, MO. • After stops in Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Tennessee, Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley is farther north than his coaching career has taken him. Following a five-year tour in the NFL, he’s back in the Southeastern Conference, but not exactly in the South, though Columbia feels like his first home.
"Missouri’s always historically been like ‘What are we?’" Dooley said in his Mizzou office in late July. "It goes back to the Missouri Compromise. It’s always teetered on the North, the South, the Midwest. But I’ve enjoyed it here. This town reminds me of where I grew up in Athens. You’ve got the campus and you’ve got a vibrant downtown."
In his debut season at Missouri, Dooley will face a couple interesting games from a personal standpoint: On Sept. 22, Georgia visits Columbia. Vince Dooley led UGA to six SEC championships and the 1980 national championship during his two-plus decades in Athens. The family ties continue there: Derek’s son J.T. is a walk-on receiver for the Bulldogs.
When that game comes around, who does Vince root for? His son’s team or his grandson’s team?
“The same question was asked by Derek’s mother to J.T.,” Vince said in a phone interview. “He said, ‘Well, I hope Missouri scores 50 points and we score 51.’”
Later in the season, Dooley and the Tigers visit Tennessee, where Derek was head coach from 2010-12 fired after seven straight conference losses.
In a recent wide-ranging interview Dooley talked about growing up the son of a legend, his unconventional coaching career and the decision to re-enter the SEC at Mizzou. Here’s more from that conversation:
Q: What was life like growing up in Athens as the son of Vince Dooley, who I imagine was larger than life in that town?
A: It’s a lot of fun when things are going well. When I was a child a lot of things went well in the ’80s. You couldn’t ask for a better situation. You’re sitting there at 12 years old and you’re looking up to these college guys and experiencing that kind of football. At the same time you also get a little taste of the not so good and the criticism. It’s nothing like it is today, but you get a little feel for it. I was blessed because I’m one of the few coaches’ sons who never moved, which is rare. He was the head coach at Georgia my whole childhood. But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I was very blessed and grateful.
But everyone always said, “Why didn’t you go to Georgia?” I was the only sibling that didn’t go to Georgia. I was just ready to forge my own identity. Not that I was trying to get away from being Vince Dooley’s son, but a part of me was. You want to get measured on your own merits.
Academics were important to me, so I visited Yale and Princeton, those kind of schools. I settled in on Virginia. I wanted to play big-time football and still get a top-notch education.
Q: After Virginia, how did you decide to pursue law school?
A: I was probably the worst at life planning of any student. I was one of those guys who never really thought about what’s next. I had a heck of a time in college. One day, I woke up and football was done. I knew there was no shot at the NFL. Now what do I do? I went to law school for lack of a better idea. I never put thought into what I wanted to do with my life. I did what a lot of kids to do today. I delayed that decision. Some people do it by going to Colorado or traveling Europe. I just delayed it by going to law school. and I enjoyed it. Everybody says, “How did you become a lawyer?” I went to law school for no reason other than I didn’t know what to do next. I knew it couldn’t hurt me. Then I really enjoyed it. It was stimulating intellectually. It was something different from football. It was a good break. Football had been part of my life my whole life.
When you’re in law school, you intern in the summer and the next thing you know they offer you a job. You take the job and then it’s running you. I practiced a year and a half in Atlanta and enjoyed it. I had a great time. But I was missing something. It wasn’t that I didn’t like practicing law. I was missing something. For the first time in my life I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I’d go back to Athens and go to a game and think, God, I miss football. I missed everything about it, being part of a team, the competition.
Q: At the time your wife was in medical school?
A: My wife (Allison) was in medical school. She was going to do her residency in Atlanta. We were going to live happily ever after as a lawyer and doctor. Then I flipped that upside down.
I learned a lot of lessons over the years as we all do in marriage. But I can tell you this, she’s been an unbelievable supportive wife and sacrificed her profession. She went on to do her residency and practiced in Louisiana. She was all in. I look back and really she sacrificed her career to be a wife and mother.
Q: Georgia seemed like a natural place to get your coaching career started, right?
A: When I decided to get into coaching the first person I called was my dad. If anyone could help open a door he’d be it. And I called my college coach George Welsh. Jim Donnan was hired at Georgia. Coach Donnan, I’m always grateful for him. I worked with Joe Kines, the defensive coordinator. I was in the secondary. Kirby Smart was a DB. I started my journey.
Q: That had to have been a thankless job. What did you do on a daily basis?
A: It didn’t bother me. I came from being a lawyer. Make the coffee, dump the trash. It was great being back in a football environment. At the same time you also realize how little you knew about football. You think you know about football when you’re playing and then you’re sitting in those meetings and it’s like, Good Lord, I don’t even know what they’re talking about. That was a great experience. Then Mike Cavan got the job at SMU. I had known him my whole life and he gave me my first shot full-time. You have to have some breaks in this profession. We were three years there. The next big break was when Nick got the job at LSU.
Q: How well did you know Saban when you got the job at LSU?
A: I knew nothing about him. He had to hire an entire staff. He really wanted to hire some people with some southern roots. What was new for him at that time was he never hired young coaches. He was with the Browns and then Michigan State and he favored more experienced Xs and Os guys. I really was the first true young coach he hired and took a chance on.
Seven years with him changed my career in a lot of ways. One, he really shaped me as a young coach on what coaching was all about, the Xs and Os, running an organization. The accountability level was high. That’s why I stayed with him. People say, “How did you stay with him so long? He’s hard to work for. He’s demanding.” But I knew we were going to win. I knew I was going to get better. Why the hell wouldn’t I stay? Just because he goes on some rants on you every now and then?
If you’d ask what are the two most important things as a young coach, it’s developing your trade and winning. When you win it creates opportunity. And when you develop your trade and get an opportunity you’re going to do a better job. Nick gave me those two things and I wasn’t going to leave him until he ran me out or I got an opportunity that was a no-brainer.
Q: All that time with Saban, are you thinking ahead to becoming a head coach and planning to duplicate his process?
A: When you’re young and ambitions, the way I was, I always wanted to be a head coach. Everything we did you were thinking that way. I had so much conviction in how he was doing things. We had different personalities, but philosophically that’s why we got along so well. I believed in everything he was preaching. It was very similar to what I grew up in the environment with my dad. I was prepared for Nick because I spent 18 years in a house with my father. He was pretty demanding, too. Demanding was nothing. Philosophically on what it took to win games they were similar. Now they were totally different in other areas. Bu that’s why it worked.
Q: Then you get the head-coaching job at Louisiana Tech. Did you become athletics director right away or were you there for a while?
A: My first year the AD retired. I can’t tell you how bad the program was. They were 3-10. There was no money. It was literally like a time warp to the 1970s. To the point where I had a panic attack. I took the job site unseen. When I got there I told my wife, “I just ruined my career.” If you look at everything prior at that school, nobody got out. It was a dead-end job. Your career sunk. I woke up the next day and said, “I have to roll up my sleeves and figure out how to make it work.” It was pretty demanding.
I kept going to the AD and he kept saying, “It’s not me. It’s the president.” Well, who’s going to talk to the president? He said, “You go talk to him.” I was like, OK. The AD wanted me to go deal with Dr. (Dan) Reneau on all these issues and educate him. we developed a really good working relationship and developed it with other administrators. When the AD retired, Dr. Reneau just said, “What do you think about being AD?” I never thought about it, but if it eliminated a layer from working with (the president) I told him the only way I could do it was to hire someone who had been an AD who could take some stuff off my plate and I could prioritize. So, I hired Bruce Van De Velde. He had been at Iowa State and had been here at Missouri. He was awesome.
The whole time I put my time into revamping our fundraising arm and doing what we needed to get into Conference USA and build an end zone facility. The program was never going anywhere until those things happened. We were in the WAC and our facility was a disaster. It’s not like some of these other money schools were you just do it. It took a lot of work. That’s where I put my energy. Bruce was great with the day to day.
We had a really good year my second year. Disappointing my third year. We had a run of injuries and other things. But in my mind I wasn’t going anywhere. I loved it there. I had a great situation. We were in a good recruiting area. We were signing good players. I knew if we just stayed the course we’d do what they’re doing now, competing for the league every year, wining nine games, going to bowls. We started doing that.
Then Tennessee called and it’s hard to say no. What do you do? It was in a tough time in Tennessee’s history.
Q: When you look back at how those three years at Tennessee unfolded, what did you learn? Did you leave there with bitterness?
A: More than anything it was the first time in my career. I was 44 at the time (I was fired) and up to that point everything worked. Like we all do, you get a little ‘I got this.’ You think you can succeed at anything. It was very humbling. I learned a lot. There’s a lot of little things I would have done differently. There’s a lot of big things I certainly would have done differently. Would it have changed the outcome? Who knows, because there’s so many variables out of your control.
More than anything, it was really healthy for me to be humbled. It was. We all need it in our life. In some ways what Tennessee gave me was the biggest gift you can give anybody, a real dose of humility. I think it’s changed how I approach things and how I deal with people and how I handle when things aren’t always perfect. You have a great perspective on things and control what you can control and not get worked up, focus on what matters most. I’m a micromanager by personality. That’s what Nick has always done great. He puts (his focus) on recruiting and ball. All the other stuff takes care of itself.
Q: You had to micromanage at Louisiana Tech to get things running there. Did that same approach not work at Tennessee?
A: It’s a little why I didn’t do it any different at Tennessee because it was working. The difference was at Louisiana Tech everybody listened to me and did what I said. At Tennessee very few people listened to me and most of them did something different than what I said. That’s how it is at a lot of big places when you don’t come in empowered as “the guy.” you have to learn how to manage those environments. That’s what frustrated me. You can’t even compare the two. You had a lot of division going on between (Phil) Fulmer, (Lane) Kiffin and fans. There was a lot of division on campus. It was a different environment, and I didn’t see it that way but should have.
Q: When you took the job here you said you missed being in the crosshairs the last few years in the NFL? Maybe scrutiny isn’t the right word but in Dallas did you miss the pressure that you felt being a head coach in the SEC?
A: Crosshairs? (Laughs) Now I’m siting here and sick to my stomach every day. There was plenty of pressure in the NFL. But there’s a difference between being the head coach, being the coordinator and being a position coach. The burden you have on yourself. There was a little bit where I got in a routine. I don’t want to say complacent. I wasn’t complacent and wasn’t really comfortable but I got in a routine. Some coaches love that. They coach one position for 20 years and they’re experts. That’s not my personality. I’ve always done a little better when I have to figure it out and I’m under pressure. It stimulates me better, you know? It’s a curse because when you’re comfortable you’re not really comfortable. It had run its course for five years in Dallas. I love Jason (Garrett). I love the Joneses. I loved the Cowboys. But professionally I was ready for something else.
Q: As a defensive coach, Barry hires you to essentially be the CEO of the offense. How appealing was that part of this job?
A: Certainly. Everything about it was appealing, just the nature of the position. It wasn’t about Barry being a head coach but what he stood for and the job he’s done. I don’t care about working for an offensive or defensive coach. It’s really more about am I aligned with him philosophically? Am I aligned wit how he treats the program and the players? That was really the main gist of it.
Q: At the time were you aware of how Missouri’s 2017 season went?
A: Not much. Just like any fan. But I didn’t really know anyone at Missouri. I wasn’t looking at the blogs or anything. I saw, well, they’re 1-5. Then it was, oh, they’re playing pretty good.
Q: You take on this job and it’s a new role for you, coordinator and calling plays. How do you know you’re ready for something you’ve never done?
A: OK, take the law thing aside. I was defensive backs (coach) at Georgia. I’d never done that. Wide receivers at SMU. At LSU, I coached tight ends and then running backs and coordinated special teams. I was recruiting coordinator. At Miami, I coached tight ends in the NFL. That was a first. Head coach at a small school.
Q: And the AD.
A: AD, too. Then head coach at big school. Receivers coach in the NFL. This is my 12th “I’ve never done this before” job in 23 years. I’m used to it. Now, what do I do? There’s good and bad to it. The reality is you’re always better with more experience. You can’t deny that. I try to think really short-term because you have to in this profession. I’m in this new job but you have to keep your focus on what it looks like on the field. It’s a big deal. I’m not going to minimize that it’s no big deal to do something I’ve never done. It is. Is it hard? You’re damn right it is. It should be. But I feel like the 23 years of experience, there’s a lot to draw on to make decisions. I’m not sitting here saying, “What do I do?” I’ve got a great staff. They’ve been awesome. And this isn’t my offense. It’s our offense, Missouri’s offense. We’re going to do a lot of things they did last year. We’re going to do some things I did in Dallas, some things I did at Tennessee, some things other guys have done at other places. The trick is what do we look like? What’s our identity? That’s where we need to go.
You talk about blessed. I’ve done so much. It’s been fun. But we haven’t played anybody yet.