Derek Dooley won’t lack tour guides Saturday, when he brings his Louisiana Tech Bulldogs to Auburn.
The coach’s family tree is flush with former Tigers. His father, Vince, played then coached for Ralph “Shug” Jordan before launching his Hall of Fame head coaching career at Georgia. His mother also went to Auburn, as did both of his wife’s parents.
“I’m having a hard time finding some allies this week,” he joked.
Dooley, a rising star in the coaching industry, hopes to have some support from the folks at Jordan-Hare Stadium for Saturday’s season opener.
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The 41-year-old coach has transformed the Louisiana Tech program in his two years in Ruston, La. Since inheriting a team that went 3-10 the year before his arrival, Dooley has gone 13-12, leading the team to an 8-5 mark last season and its first bowl victory since 1977.
“What coach Dooley has done with that program in two short years is really amazing,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
“It’s uncharted waters for our program,” Dooley said. “Our goal is always to develop some consistency in how we compete. One of the ways to do that is come off an exciting season and back it up with another one. I think we’re building confidence, which is important. But it’s also important to remember why we got here.”
Reason No. 1: Dooley.
The only Football Bowl Subdivision coach to also serve as his school’s athletics director, Dooley seems to have been born into a coaching role.
His dad won six SEC titles at Georgia, cementing a place in the College Football Hall of Fame, but Dooley has had plenty of other influences. He played at Clarke Central High for Billy Henderson, a legend in the Georgia high school ranks. He was a walk-on receiver at Virginia, where he helped the team win the 1989 ACC title under Hall of Fame coach George Welsh.
And when he got into coaching after practicing law for two years, he latched on with Nick Saban, with whom he won a national title in 2003 at LSU and followed to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
“I’ve learned a lot from everybody,” Dooley said. “Certainly my father was an influence for the first 18 years of my life and played an important role. Of course, I learned a lot from Nick Saban. I wouldn’t be here without him. I keep tinkering each year and try to make it better.”
Like his father, who nearly left Georgia for Auburn after winning the 1980 national championship, Dooley had his own flirtation with the Tigers. He was one of a handful of candidates to be part of the preliminary interviews for Auburn’s head coaching position last December, meeting with athletics director Jay Jacobs.
Despite the discussions with Auburn, Dooley downplays its significance.
“Well, I’m not sure I’d really call it an interview process,” Dooley said. “It was really some early discussions that Jay had with many coaches around the country. I’ve known Jay, and I have a lot of respect for what he does. I think he has made a great decision on the new head coach.”
In the meantime, Dooley is happy and thriving at Louisiana Tech. As athletics director, he’s overseen a building boom in Ruston across all sports despite the economic downturn. The football stadium has been overhauled in the past two years, with new locker rooms, tailgating areas and a $1.6 million scoreboard that is the biggest in the Western Athletic Conference.
The Bulldogs haven’t been slouches on the field, either. They return 17 starters from a team that beat Mississippi State at home last year, snapping an SEC losing streak that lasted nearly 10 years. They have a different streak on their minds Saturday.
“I think we had some demons last year against the SEC,” Dooley said. “We’ve overcome some demons, and now we’ve got to overcome some demons of playing them on the road.”