There are certainly more famous coaches than Bill Dooley in ACC football history, but none who touched three separate schools and thus the lives of countless young football players in two different states.
Dooley coached a total of 26 seasons for North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, helping all three Atlantic Coast programs rise to prominence. Dooley won three ACC titles at North Carolina (in 1971, 1972 and 1977). He also won the ACC Coach of the Year Award in 1971, 1987 and 1992.
Before Dooley arrived in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels had been to only four bowl games in their 63-year history, which included a stretch of 17 seasons before Dooley arrived when North Carolina made just one bowl appearance.
Under Dooley, bowl games nearly became an annual event in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels made six bowl appearances in 11 seasons with Dooley at the helm. Unfortunately, North Carolina never played very well on big occasions, only winning one of those bowl games, but the one postseason victory the Tar Heels did earn completed one of the best seasons in North Carolina football history.
North Carolina scored 16 points in the fourth quarter of the 1972 Sun Bowl to come back and defeat Texas Tech, 32-28. The victory capped an 11-1 season in which the Tar Heels went undefeated in conference play. Their only loss was a 28-14 defeat to No. 5 Ohio State.
The 11 victories set a new season high at the school, a mark has been tied but never surpassed at North Carolina. The Tar Heels also went 11-1 in 1980 and 1997. This past season, North Carolina started the season 11-1 but lost in the ACC Championship Game and the Russell Athletic Bowl to finish 11-3.
Dooley won 69 games with the Tar Heels, which remained a program record until his successor, Dick Crum, passed the mark in 1987. Dooley is tied with Mack Brown for the second-most victories in North Carolina football history.
Despite all his successes in Chapel Hill, Dooley posted a better win percentage in his nine years at Virginia Tech, going 63-38-1 (.618). Dooley’s record in Blacksburg is magnified by the Hokies’ utter lack of success in previous decades.
Virginia Tech had won eight games in a season just four times in the 45 years prior to Dooley’s arrival. The Hokies won eight games in his third season and reached eight victories four different times in nine seasons under Dooley.
His best season in Blacksburg was his last in 1986, when the Hokies went 9-2-1 and won the Peach Bowl. After the NCAA forced Temple to forfeit its season, the Virginia Tech record that year improved to 10-1-1. Ten victories was a new program record that wouldn’t be matched until 1995.
When Dooley coached at Virginia Tech, the school was still an independent, but the program’s considerable improvements paved the way for the Hokies to join the Big East in 1991. Although it’s a shame Dooley left the program at its (then-) peak in the mid-1980s, Virginia Tech football was in good hands: A guy named Frank Beamer took over in 1987.
However, if not for Dooley, Beamer’s job in recruiting would have been considerably harder. Once Virginia Tech entered the Big East, Beamer reeled off eight-, nine-, 10-, and even 11-win seasons on an annual basis. Eventually, that led to joining the ACC in 2004.
Dooley’s last spot on the coaching trail was Wake Forest. After his tour with Virginia Tech ended, he rejoined the ACC in 1987. He posted a losing record at the school, but once more, he revitalized a program that had tasted little prosperity prior to his arrival. Again, he saved his best for last, leading the Demon Deacons to an 8-4 record, their best mark in 13 years, and an Independence Bowl victory in 1992. At the time, that was Wake Forest’s first bowl victory since 1945.
Wake Forest has fallen on hard times in football over the last five years, but Dooley’s success might have played a part in giving Jim Grobe the idea that he, too, could win in Winston-Salem. Grobe flourished at Wake in the early and mid-2000s. From 2006 through 2008, the Demon Deacons won 28 games and two bowls. They also won an ACC championship, something only four other programs in the conference have achieved since the move to a split-division league structure in 2005.
Dooley went 162-126-5 in his 26 seasons as a head coach, but his legacy goes beyond his record and his ability to revitalize a program. He recruited and helped mold some of the best pass rushers the game has ever seen: Lawrence Taylor (North Carolina) and Bruce Smith (Virginia Tech). By bringing in and coaching that kind of talent, Dooley not only brought success to three programs; he improved the overall reputation of ACC football.