No more ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’

Published 10:19 am Monday, August 15, 2016

They called Bill Dooley, “the ol’ Trenchfighter”. He borrowed a coaching staple from someone who had to have been one of his sideline heroes – the late Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes.

“Three yards and a cloud of dust”.

That was Dooley’s style; slug it out with you at the line, in the trenches, real slobber-knocker football.

There was no razzle, even less dazzle, and no boisterousness. He ran a simple I-formation: just a wingback, a tight end and one wideout. On defense he stayed with a basic 4-4 scheme – big up front, fast at linebacker, with two corners and just a safety – long after everyone else did something else.

But, the man knew how to win games because he understood – and would tell you – that football is a simple game. Block the man you’re supposed to block. Tackle the man with the ball. Do those two things well enough and you’ll win your share of football games.

Bill Dooley died on Tuesday. He was 82. He died peacefully at his home in Wrightsville Beach.

Dooley’s home was a quiet beach house off the Intracoastal Waterway. When I lived and worked in Wilmington I visited him there on several occasions because we both served on the committee that helped select the first Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame back in 2006. That was during a time when my life was split between Bertie County and New Hanover. My mother was ill with cancer at that time and I drove back and forth weekly. The closer we got to that first induction date, the more I was preoccupied. I’ll never forget the day he said to me, “Son, go home and take care of your Momma.” You see, that was his style: Bill Dooley believed in family over all else.

As for football, he coached 25 years with three ACC programs: North Carolina, Wake Forest, and before they came into the league: Virginia Tech.

At Chapel Hill he coached when I was a student. He loved to recruit Tidewater; stealing away a cat-quick but then-undersized Williamsburg linebacker named Lawrence Taylor. L.T. and guys like him was the cornerstone of Dooley’s success. He soon collected three ACC championships: ’71, ’72, and ’77. The prosperity hadn’t even begun to wane – his last Tar Heel team was 8-3-1 – before he bolted the Hill for Blacksburg.

Two rebuilding years with the Hokies led to seven straight winning seasons. His final team was 9-2-1 and won the Peach Bowl.

He had a checkered record with the Demon Deacons, 29-36-2 overall; but in his last college victory, his Wake team won the ‘92 Independence Bowl over Pac-10 power, Oregon. He left the game while picking up his third ACC Coach-of-the-Year honor.

Dooley was a big man with a twinkle in his eye who loved to laugh and joke. He wasn’t the greatest with the Queen’s English, but he spoke it well enough to get his point across.

Dan Collins of the Winston-Salem Journal tells a famous story about a pregame speech Dooley gave before sending Carolina out to play Duke. On and on he went, ticking off all the reasons the Tar Heels just had to beat the Blue Devils, including how the night before the game some Duke students slipped into Chapel Hill and kidnapped Rameses, the school’s ram mascot.

“And on top of everything else,” Dooley railed, his voice rising to a crescendo, “they even stole our (expletive deleted) goat!”

Bill Dooley was a character, and a lot of fun because of the way he took not just football, but life. My sympathies and prayers are with his wife, Marie, and sons, Jim, Billy, Sean, and Ashton.

Me? I’m just glad I was lucky enough to know him.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.