Coach's New Calling

Vince Dooley switches from gridiron to garden and produces another winner.
Steve Bender

Most folks consider gardening to be safe, yet it nearly cost Vince Dooley his life. The celebrated former-football-coach-turned-rabid-gardener had scanned the deepest recesses of his cranium to come up with the perfect 39th anniversary gift for his wife, Barbara. Suddenly, inspiration struck. He'd give her a Japanese maple.

"I got a good bargain on it," recalls the longtime coach and athletic director at The University of Georgia. "It was huge. I had to rent a crane to set it in the hole." After informing his bride that something truly special awaited her in the yard, he led her to the spot with her eyes closed and then asked her to open them. "She was speechless," he says.

Stunned might be a better word. "I ran over to that tree and started tearing through the branches, searching for diamonds and gold hidden in them," she remembers. "That anniversary present was almost his last."

Bitten by the Bug
Barbara forgave him, though, because she realized Vince couldn't help it―he's a gardening addict. His sickness began while he was coaching the Bulldogs, when he started taking classes from Michael Dirr and Allan Armitage, two eminent horticulture professors at UGA. "I took courses on trees, shrubs, perennials, and propagation," he says. "I couldn't get enough. I got bit by the garden bug. That started the garden with help from local landscape consultant Ron Deal."

Today, Coach's garden consists of streams, waterfalls, labyrinthine paths, and myriad plants that cover more than an acre. Finding Vince within this leafy maze proved such a challenge that Barbara now requires he carry a cell phone.

His garden is like half of Noah's ark. "I want one of everything," he concedes. "I know that's impossible, but I've given it a good try." Diversity brings its rewards, however. "I have a garden for all seasons," he declares. "I don't care when you come and see it, I want something going on."

There always is. For example, spring features the fragrant blooms of wisteria and native azaleas. Hydrangeas, 'Knock Out' roses, and crepe myrtles steal the show in summer. Japanese maples highlight autumn. In winter, when most other gardens look brown and barren, Vince enjoys the blooms of Lenten rose, wintersweet, paper bush, Japanese flowering apricot, camellias, and winter daphne. He acquired so many plants that he ran out of space. Thankfully, the late Mrs. William Mathis allowed him to lease some of her property next door to expand his garden.

A Doozy Named Dooley
In March 1996, a late freeze killed almost all of the flowerbuds of French hydrangeas in the Athens-Atlanta area. Nobody had any blooms that year―except for Vince. One of his hydrangeas bloomed profusely as if nothing untoward had happened. Nurseries eagerly propagated the find. Now you can buy extra-hardy 'Dooley' hydrangeas at many garden centers.

Now you might think a plant named 'Dooley' would be Coach's favorite. Instead he reserves that honor for his treasured Japanese maples. "I love their infinite variety, shape, form, and color. They're the aristocrats of trees," he states. More than 50 kinds grace the property, including the infamous anniversary tree.

Though Barbara found no gold in that tree, she admits she enjoys his garden. "I knew it was all over when he started learning all the Latin names," she says. "I can talk to you on 150 different topics for 10 minutes each. Vince can talk to you for hours on three topics―sports, gardening, and the Civil War."

Right now, he's concentrating on his plants. "Gardening is good for the mind, good for the heart, and good for the soul," he says serenely. Uh-oh―sounds like he planted another maple.

Weep Not For Vince
One of the most fascinating sections of Vince Dooley's garden is "Weeper's Corner," where rare, cascading trees and shrubs straddle a creek. Here you'll find weeping redbud, weeping honey locust, weeping katsura, and weeping larch, as well as Vince's crown jewel, a weeping bald cypress called 'Cascade Falls.' Coach got the idea for Weeper's Corner "because that's where I'd go to cry after we got beaten." These plants obviously tolerate drought, because he didn't have to cry that often.

"Coach's New Calling" is from the June 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.