North Carolina

Former UNC coach Bill Dooley remembered for hard stare, few words and lasting lessons

Bill Dooley talks about building the ACC into a football conference

In 2002 interview video from The ACC, former Wake Forest, UNC and Virginia Tech football coach Bill Dooley talks about how he helped turn a conference known for basketball into one known for football and basketball.
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In 2002 interview video from The ACC, former Wake Forest, UNC and Virginia Tech football coach Bill Dooley talks about how he helped turn a conference known for basketball into one known for football and basketball.

On the day Bill Dooley died, John Bunting remembered his eyes – “those ice blue eyes,” Bunting said on Tuesday, “that kind of stared right through you.”

In his mind, Bunting saw those eyes again staring back at him during long-ago North Carolina practices, in games. He saw them just as he had that day when Dooley, the longest-tenured football coach in UNC history, visited Bunting’s high school and then asked: Are you going to play for me?

“And I kind of froze,” said Bunting, a former linebacker, “And said, ‘Yeah.’ 

Dooley had a way like that with players. A fierce stare and a few words were all it took.

He coached at UNC from 1967 through 1977, when he led the Tar Heels to three ACC championships, and then became the head coach at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. In 26 seasons, Dooley won 162 games and led his teams to 10 bowl games during a time when bowls were rarer and meant more.

He was 82 and died from natural causes Tuesday morning in Wilmington, his family said in a statement. Not long after the announcement, the remembrances began.

John Swofford, the ACC Commissioner who played for Dooley at UNC, described him as “pure and simple, a football coach in the truest sense.” There was Don McCauley, an All-American at UNC under Dooley, who said that Dooley “brought an SEC mentality to the ACC.”

“If the mark of a coach is to make a difference at his school and in the lives of his players,” said former UNC coach Mack Brown, who led the Tar Heels from 1988 through 1997, “then Bill Dooley touched us all. He put North Carolina football back on the map.”

Dooley was 33 when he arrived at UNC in 1967. He’d come from the University of Georgia, where he’d worked under his brother, Vince, who was then in the early years of a 25-year tenure that made him one of the most beloved figures in school history.

In the 17 seasons before Bill Dooley arrived at UNC, the Tar Heels played in one bowl game. They played in six during his 11 years as head coach, and they won ACC championships in 1971, 1972 and 1977.

“All of us that played for him were impacted in a tremendous way,” Bunting said, “in terms of our discipline, in terms of our toughness and the way we went about things – being organized and being on time. That was extremely important.”

Bunting was a senior on Dooley’s first ACC championship team. By then Dooley had become known, among his players, for his cold stare and the silence that punctuated his words.

There weren’t a lot of them. Dooley wasn’t a man of soliloquies or ramblings.

“You listened to the few words he had to say,” Bunting said.

Dooley did have his sayings, though, and his one-liners. Some of them rushed back to Bunting on Tuesday.

Among the most memorable included a variation of “don’t complain, transfer.” Dooley would say it, in a more colorful way befitting a gruff football coach, to players who bickered about his demands, or who resisted workouts that challenged their mental and physical limits.

Dooley had to make changes, after all, when he arrived in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels had finished with one winning record in the previous eight years.

Dooley went to work. He began recruiting more effectively and placed a special emphasis, as coaches do now, of keeping the most talented high school prospects in North Carolina. He targeted specific areas outside of the state.

“The Chesapeake (Virginia) area – we used to joke Coach Dooley thought that was part of North Carolina,” Bunting said.

Bunting, from outside of Washington, D.C., was among those out-of-town players whom Dooley convinced to come to UNC. So was McCauley, the ACC Player of the Year in 1969 and 1970. He came to UNC from Garden City, N.Y.

Recruiting was only a part of it, though. One part of Dooley’s legacy, particularly during his years at UNC, was staff development. Bunting described Dooley’s assistant coaches as having “a doctorate degree in coaching football.”

Dooley and his staff installed an offense built on a physical, punishing running game. McCauley, whose 1,720 rushing yards during his senior season set an NCAA single-season record at the time, ran over, and around, opponents throughout his years at UNC.

So did Mike Voight, another two-time ACC Player of the Year. And Amos Lawrence. They were three of UNC’s five 1,000-yard rushers under Dooley, who also recruited Lawrence Taylor, the linebacker who went on to become arguably the best defensive player in the history of the sport.

McCauley said in a statement that he chose to play at UNC because Dooley and his staff “had dedicated themselves to putting UNC on the football map.”

“I credit Coach Dooley with teaching us that the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender; that winning is an attitude; and the invaluable lesson of discipline, both on and off the field,” McCauley said.

Decades later, Dooley’s former players can still tell stories about how Dooley taught those lessons. They called Dooley, a native of Mobile, Ala., the “Trench Fighter.” Part of the reason was because he was an All-SEC lineman at Mississippi State, where he made his name on the game’s front line.

Another part of the nickname was Dooley’s affinity for putting his players, at least in some of his earlier years, through the football version of trench warfare. Some of those stories, Bunting said – stories of one-on-one competition in practices and off-season workouts – “are legendary.”

“And I don’t know if I could have survived,” said Bunting, the Tar Heels’ head coach from 2001 through 2006. “But those guys went through hell to stay part of the team.”

Dooley told his players that there were two ways they could become better men.

“One is the Marine Corps,” Bunting said, reciting the words. “The second one is spring practice.”

There was, Bunting said, “a sense of fear” in playing for Dooley. And then a sense of pride that grew as time passed.

In his later years Dooley, who is survived by his wife, Marie, four sons and two grandchildren, made his home in Wilmington. Bunting, who keeps a home up the road in Hampstead, wasn’t too far away.

When Bunting was inducted into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame in early May, Dooley hosted a reception at his house. About 30 of his former players at UNC were there.

They relived their time together, those years when Dooley told them to transfer instead of complain, when the man known as the Trench Fighter rebuilt the Tar Heels, in part, through the power of a cold stare and few words.

“It was a lot of fun with him,” Bunting said of the time he and his former teammates spent with Dooley a few months ago. “It was great to be with him and hug him, and show him how much we cared and loved him.”

In 2002 interview video from The ACC, former Wake Forest, UNC and Virginia Tech football coach Bill Dooley talks about how he helped turn a conference known for basketball into one known for football and basketball.