Inside the numbers: UGA Bulldogs

Posted: Sep 02, 2003 12:00 AM

My love for watching football would seem to have little to do with a column dedicated to analyzing public opinion on weightier topics. But the start of the gridiron season reminds me that there's something afoot in the world of college athletics that should be of interest to anyone who's reached age 70, whether they like sports or not.

University of Georgia Athletics Director Vince Dooley, one of America's greatest college football legends and a still-active and successful AD, is being unceremoniously dumped from his position when his contract ends next year. Dooley will soon turn 71.

In his home state, our survey showed that most want Dooley to stay at the state's flagship university. And why not? Dooley guided the football Bulldogs to 20 bowl games and a national championship as head coach. As AD, he has enjoyed 18 collegiate national championships during his tenure. Just last weekend, the 2004 edition of Georgia's football team routed rival Clemson University 30-0 in the season opener.

So fans, colleagues, athletes and sportswriters across the South and the nation are scratching their heads in wonder. Why would university President Michael Adams feel the need to import some no-name to replace a man who is more than just a statewide legend, but also a unique sports role model during a time when quality people are so sorely needed?

Dooley stands out as a man uniquely cerebral in a business where, as far as I can tell, there are few thinkers. He works tirelessly for countless hours raising money and managing the powerhouse athletics program for this huge university. And in whatever spare time may remain, Dooley -- who earned a masters degree in history -- audits college courses in a variety of subject matters.

And he puts his classroom learning to use. After auditing a class on horticulture, Dooley worked years to become an expert gardener, planting and maintaining one of Georgia's most varied private gardens at his home. By any measure, Dooley is truly a man for all seasons -- except for the season that constitutes the autumn of his life. That's being spoiled by the administrative antics of his boss, Adams.

It's unfortunate that many Dooley admirers and defenders attacked Adams not for his misguided move to oust the man more popular on campus than himself, but for the president's mismanagement of certain university funds. How silly. On this front, Adams hasn't done anything different from what many of his colleagues at other schools do. Higher education is a big business, after all.

In fact, the allegations opened the door for Adams to argue that the recent attacks on him have been thinly veiled efforts to put more importance on athletics than on academics and have threatened to tarnish the university's ascendant reputation for scholastic achievement.

What a joke. Aren't we constantly being told these semi-pro athletic teams masquerading as intercollegiate squads are important to academic fund raising, and in attracting the brightest and most accomplished students to college campuses by raising the public profile of the schools? You can't have it both ways. Let's either have the guts to admit that big-time college football and basketball are really just farm teams for the pros and have almost nothing to do with higher education, or at least concede that athletics and academics at most big schools are joined at the hip.

The problem reaches deeper than a hardly known Georgia university president or the complaint that not supporting him against an athletics director will somehow amount to a figurative book-burning. At issue is a broader question about where our society is heading in its attitude toward seniors. We have an army of healthy, vital and productive older Americans. Many of them are capable of being productive well into their 70s and beyond, and Dooley is a perfect illustration. He has been a critical difference in helping UGA reach it ambitious overall fund-raising efforts this year.

Have we forgotten that septuagenarian Ronald Reagan gave us the most successful American presidency of the last generation? Or that former president Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Prize as a senior?

If the Adams train -- backed by the Georgia Board of Regents and the governor -- is allowed to keep chugging down the track, then Dooley, a two-time NCAA National Coach of the Year, will be cast aside like some irrelevant has-been.

Our nation seems hell-bent on casting aside established talent for the sake of new things that are supposed to automatically constitute "progress" merely by their newness. An actress gets older, don't give her a part. An ex-politician ages, let him sell Viagra, but don't seek his professional counsel. And if one of the most successful names in the history of college sports hits his early 70s, send him packing, even though countless supporters want him to stay.

All this makes for a commentary not only on one university president, some silly state board or even a poor governor new to his job. Rather, it's a comment about America. Look out, aging baby boomers -- this may well happen to you.