Like most college students, Derek Dooley made it home for the holidays whenever possible. Unlike most students, however, when he arrived at the family's Athens, Ga., residence one December in the late 1980s, he found all-time Georgia running back great and 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker sitting by the Christmas tree.
"He had come to visit my father," said Dooley of his famous dad, Vince, the UGA coach who wisely rode Walker's grand talents to the 1980 national championship.
"As Herschel was leaving, I said, 'Hey, wait a minute. I've got something to show you.'"
Herschel paused long enough for Dooley to race to his bedroom and retrieve a certain red tear-away No. 34 jersey.
Returning to Walker, Dooley handed him the jersey and said, "Herschel, this is from the Vanderbilt game your freshman year, when you gained 283 yards and set a school rushing record."
Walker looked the jersey over, stuck his right arm out for a handshake and said, "Thanks, Derek. Thanks so much for giving me this, it means a lot."
Said Dooley from his head football coach's office at the University of Tennessee on Friday, "I didn't have the heart to tell him that I wanted it back. I just stood there and let him walk out the door with it."
More than 20 years have passed since that moment. In the two-plus decades since, Dooley has completed his own solid playing career at the University of Virginia, graduated from law school at Georgia, married Allison and become the father of three children, told the law profession goodbye and risen up the college football ranks swiftly enough to enter his second season as UT's head coach at the tender age of 43.
Yet the Vols' season-opener against Montana now but 13 days away, Dooley can also still appear no more cynical and jaded than the teenager who walked the Georgia sidelines at the dawn of the 1980s, "Just wanting to stand close to Herschel."
Recalled the coach, "Oh, I'd get sweatbands, elbow pads, anything I could after games. Then I'd go out and wear them the next week in a backyard game.
"That's the great thing about being a 12, 13, 14-year-old kid, which is what I was when Herschel was there. You're old enough to understand the game, to know what plays are being run and why. But you're still young enough to look at the players as heroes."
Perhaps that's why he's put so much emphasis on his Vol for Life initiative, a four-year mandatory program for UT players that focuses on character education, personal finance, life skills, career development, spiritual growth, community service, mental conditioning, personal branding and learning to deal with social media.
Dooley wants his players to be heroes on and off the field. He wants no one to look at his program the way the whole country is looking at the University of Miami program today, wondering why the Hurricanes don't change their team name to the "Charlie Sheens."
"I don't know where it comes from," he said. "But when you take a head coaching job, you do some real soul-searching about what you want people to say about you and your players. It's always been important to me that my players go out and be great citizens when they leave here."
One reason may be his college coach -- George Welsh -- of whom Dooley said, "Coach Welsh didn't put up with knuckleheads very well."
One other may be the way he views both his players and his time away from them.
"We [as coaches] spend so much time and energy raising 105 kids that it's easy to lose sight of my three most important kids -- John Taylor, Peyton and Julianna -- when I get home."
So unlike his father, who gravitated to gardening to relieve the stress of coaching, Dooley opts for family time.
"When I'm not working," he said, "I'm with my wife and kids."
So why would a lawyer with a doctor for a wife and a quiet, comfortable, stable life suddenly decide to become a college football coach?
"Oh, we had it all," he said of he and Allison. "Doctors don't move much. We were going to live happily ever after in Atlanta. But about a year into practicing law I started wondering if this was what I really wanted to do with my life. I'd never really thought about that in college. I kind of went to law school because I couldn't think of anything else to do."
The worst part wasn't telling his wife, however. It was telling his mother.
"She knew what it was like to be a college coach's wife," he said. "She didn't want me to do that to my wife."
But Allison said, "If that's what's going to make you happy, I'm all for it."
Said Dooley, still wonderfully close to the teenager who once kept Herschel's No. 34 jersey warm, "I've just always loved college football."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...