Special Assignment: From the gridiron to the garden: Living legend shares his love for horticulture

By: Carter Coyle Email
By: Carter Coyle Email
Vince Dooley says just like helping young football players grow,  it's rewarding to watch his plants blossom. (WRDW-TV / Nov. 7, 2011)

Vince Dooley says just like helping young football players grow, it's rewarding to watch his plants blossom. (WRDW-TV / Nov. 7, 2011)

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Monday, Nov. 7, 2011

ATHENS, Ga. -- Vince Dooley: a legend in college football, a hero at Sanford Stadium. His 25-year career as head football coach at UGA boasts six SEC Championships and one National Championship while coaching Heisman winner Herschel Walker.

Since his retirement, Dooley has found another passion right in his own backyard. News 12's Carter Coyle joined Coach Dooley for a private walking tour of his nationally-renown garden.

Dooley's new book "Vince Dooley's Garden" is a literary walk-through of his flower sanctuary. Artist Steve Penley captures the blooming atmosphere in paintings of the garden, but nothing compares to walking through the real thing with Vince Dooley himself.

"From field goals to marigolds!" laughs Coach Dooley.

Usually known for his strength and passion on the football field, retirement has brought out a softer side in the legendary Bulldog leader.

"I've always enjoyed being outside, but I don't play golf. So gardening is my golf."

And he's not talking about just a few plants around his mailbox. Dooley has transformed his 5-acre estate in Athens into a miniature botanical garden.

"Always something going on all the time in a garden," Dooley reflects as he begins walking through his sanctuary.

Dooley says 15 years ago he knew absolutely nothing about gardening but always had a curiosity.

"The great thing about living around a university -- if you've got a curiosity about anything, you can satisfy it because there is an expert on anything."

So he started sitting in on horticulture classes at UGA, meeting his mentors Dr. Michael Dirr and Dr. Allan Armitage. The two men wrote the foreword and afterword, respectively, of Dooley's new book.

As he sat in on more and more classes, Dooley eagerly transformed from coach to student.

"One course led to another, one plant led to another. And I got bit by the horticulture bug. I've said many times there's no cure for the infection of the horticulture bug."

His passion may not be curable, but it's certainly contagious. Dooley strolls through the gardens he grooms daily, noticeably proud of the stunning haven he's created from the ground up.

Dooley pauses on one of his two Japanese bridges in his front yard and points at the water below.

"This is weeper's creek, I call it. We have weeping plants out here, but I always said when I was coaching and we got beat, I would come out here and weep with the weepers!"

Dooley knows every tree, every flower, every bud in his sprawling collection.

"What a beautiful pink ..." he notices, delicately holding the flower of a Camellia sasanqua (Jean May Camellia) in his side yard.

As he moves over another bridge, moving toward his front yard, Dooley points at a plant, pauses and thinks. He finally remembers, "Bottle brush buckeye" and moves on contentedly.

Dooley doesn't just recite their names; he has a genuine relationship with his plants.

"OK fella, you can go back in," he says to a flower near his backyard waterfall, carefully placing a dahlia flower back into his spot.

Most of Dooley's plants start out on his patio in the container garden.

"We used to entertain a 100 people out here, now I entertain a 100 pots. I like to keep them out here a couple of years so I get to know them before I put them out to pasture."

The patio is lined with plants and trees in small pots, most of which have a small metal tag tied to a stem, listing both the scientific name and everday name for the plant.

Dooley says just like helping young football players grow, it's rewarding to watch his plants blossom.

He cups a hot pink flower in his hand.

"These are great 'cause they just keep bloomin and bloomin and bloomin."

The Dooley Garden is even known by experts as "a garden for all seasons" because there's always something happening there year-round. Dooley says there is never a dead or boring season for him.

"There's a book called '1001 Gardens You Should See Before You Die.' I've seen about 350 of them around the world so I've still got a lot more to go."

Coach says his wife, Barbara, has learned to tolerate his outdoor affairs.

"She loves cut flowers. I know whenever I get in the dog house, I know I can go out and cut some flowers and bring them in and get out of the dog house in a hurry!"

His gardening book is dedicated to Barbara for their 50th wedding anniversary.

The pride and joy of his garden, though, is the more than 120 different varieties of Japanese Maple trees scattered throughout the grounds.

"I love Japanese Maples. There's an endless variety and color and form and shape of Japanese Maples."

He reaches out to a reddish orange variety planted near his outdoor pool, "We're starting to get some color in the Japanese Maples now."

The Athletic Complex at UGA is now named after Coach Dooley and boasts a small garden with all of his favorite plants. The Vince and Barbara Dooley hydrangea and the Dooley camellia are named after the couple. As you can imagine, the camellia has a big, bright Georgia red leaf.

From between the hedges to pruning the hedges, Dooley promises if he can be a gardener, anybody can.

"My first philosophy was to get one of every plant, which I soon found out was not possible. But nevertheless," he says smiling, "I'm still trying."


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