Bill Dooley made a lasting impression on most people he met.
One of the strongest impressions he made on me was during the first game of the 1974 season.
North Carolina under Dooley was known as a running team, the team that produced more 1,000-yard backs than any other program in the NCAA in those days. But, early on in the ‘74 season-opener against Ohio, Tar Heel quarterback Chris Kupec stepped back and launched a 73-yard strike to Jimmy Jerome for a touchdown, opening the offensive floodgates in a 42-7 UNC win.
Kupec went on to lead the NCAA is passing efficiency, completing 69 percent for then a UNC season record of 1,479 yards. That seems like relatively few, compared with modern football, but in the early ‘70s, Kupec was a veritable passing machine.
That forever changed my opinion of Dooley.
As sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel, I’d become used to the four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach of Dooley’s offense. He was commonly called “The Old Trench Fighter,” and he seemed to like that title. His teams employed straight-ahead, smash-mouth football.
What I found out as I matured was that he liked winning, period. As he told me later that season when I asked him about what seemed like so much passing for his style of offense, he made it clear he would seize upon whatever an opponent would give his team.
Dooley’s teams ran a lot because the players he tended to recruit were fitted to that offense. When he had a player like Kupec, who had a golden arm, Dooley put that to use.
He also was a realist. Dooley often joked about his dream job being “head coach at Hawaii.” But he had no delusions that any coach’s security went any deeper than the previous year’s record. The same fans who complained about UNC’s run-oriented, “boring” offense were surprised when Dooley left to coach at Virginia Tech, and later Wake Forest.
A bear of a man, albeit a teddy bear much of the time, with piercing blue eyes and strong hands that could smother yours when greeting you, Dooley could intimidate a lot of reporters. But much of his persona was a ruse, intended to disguise the fact he had a deeply sentimental and sensitive side.
Football was a meaner game back then. Many coaches, a significant number of whom were veterans of World War II, often used intimidation as a tactic in practices. Dooley’s assistants could berate and bully, often questioning a player’s manhood or legitimacy of birth.
Much of that changed during Dooley’s time at Carolina.
One of the most pivotal events in college football occurred on Sept. 21, 1971, when UNC offensive lineman Billy Arnold died, 15 days after he collapsed with a temperature of 108 near the end of football practice.
Dooley spent much of those 15 days at N.C. Memorial Hospital, sleeping very little and praying quite a bit, as Arnold slowly succumbed. At one point, a friend of Arnold accosted Dooley in the hospital hallway outside Arnold’s room, directly blaming Dooley for the UNC player’s death.
Dooley later attended Arnold’s funeral in New York. He never laid to rest his own concerns with players’ well-being.
Everything changed after that. UNC was a leader in the movement for more “pro-active” care of athletes. UNC Sports Medicine was created the same year as Arnold’s death. Academic tutoring also expanded at Dooley’s insistence.
That became the model for NCAA football everywhere.
Much has been and will be said last week and this about Dooley, who died Tuesday morning in Wilmington of natural causes at age 82.
He brought Atlantic Coast Conference football into the modern era during his 11 years at Carolina, with his consecutive ACC championships in 1971-72 forcing other schools to step up their programs. Following Jim Hickey as head coach, about whom fans sometimes sneered “he wanted to play a Big Ten schedule with Ivy League players,” Dooley brought a Southeastern Conference approach to football in Chapel Hill.
“Bill Dooley had a profound impact on so many of us who played for him,” said ACC Commissioner John Swofford, an all-star quarterback for Dooley. “He was, pure and simple, a football coach in the truest sense. He leaves a lasting legacy on the players he coached, the schools he represented, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the sport of college football.”