“Coach Bryant, before you start hugging me, you ought to know that my boys are fixing to get after y’all’s ass,” said Pat Dye, coach of the Auburn Tigers.
“You ain’t trying to scare me now, are you, Pat?” asked the Bear.
“No sir, because I know you don’t get scared. I’m just telling you what we’re fixing to do.”
Patrick Fain Dye is a football coach, a solid, compact 51-year-old man of medium height with gray hair and a mumbly voice and eyes that immediately seek to take the measure of other men. He owns a farm and has been involved in several successful business ventures, but if you call him a farmer or a businessman, he will say, “Hell, no, I’m a football coach.” He does not say this as a point of modesty, however. In Alabama you do not say that you are a football coach to be modest, because in Alabama football coaches, and in particular coaches as successful as Dye, operate in that corner of southern life where business, politics and religion — where both the outer and the inner lives of the citizenry — intersect. You want someone to pitch your product and maybe sit on your board at the same time? You call Pat Dye. You want to hear someone extol the verities, sing the spirit of the South and of America, with a common touch? You call Pat Dye. You want someone to bash the pointy-heads and spoilsports at the NCAA? You call Pat Dye. In fact, you could summon the name of Pat Dye for just about anything you want, because, as he says, he is a football coach and, like the best of that breed, he is shrewd and naive, humble and arrogant, kind and cruel, idealistic and pragmatic, buddy-buddy and forever distant and inscrutable. He is something like Bryant, who was something like God.
It’s amazing what you can see in a man’s eyes. Fear. Confidence. Determination. I doubt there are many players who aren’t afraid. Who don’t have some kind of fear. Fear of failure. We deal with fear every day. That’s where courage comes in. Nobody says courage is the absence of fear. Courage is mastering fear.
Myself, I’m terrified playing golf in front of a big crowd. I’m scared I’m gonna miss the damn thing. But I can master fear in football. I can walk out there in that stadium on Saturday afternoon, and I have no more fear than if I’m taking a stroll by myself. Because that’s my damn place.
Patrick Fain Dye is no longer a football coach. His once solid, compact body has started to lose its battle with time. Seventy years on God’s Green Earth have given his shoulders a slight slump. His eyes, though, his eyes still take stock. They see and they wait. The visitors, of course, don’t know this. They’ve just arrived and haven’t yet seen Coach Dye. Dogs, mutts all, serve as greeters as they exit the van. Feet crunch gravel. The house is all wood beams and southern spirit. A full wraparound porch hugs the wooden walls and the western face looks out over a pond. Paradise he calls it later, the three of them watching the setting sun, the mixed yellow and orange and salmon of the Auburn sunset reflected on the still surface of the water as retreating geese honk. The two visitors walk up the steps of the porch and one calls out. Dye yells back and they enter. Total silence. A bowl overflowing with wine corks sits on the kitchen counter. On a table rests a picture of a smiling aged Dye on the day Jordan-Hare Stadium’s grass surface became Pat Dye Field. On another table sit more pictures and a half-empty bottle of Evan Williams. Through a window they see the back of Dye’s silvered head. They walk through a screen door and there he is, calm and unmoving, holding a paperback copy of William Faulkner’s Three Famous Short Novels, one of the fingers on his right hand holding a spot near the halfway point. Without looking up he places the book on a table adjacent to his rocking chair.
“Y’all come on around here and get what you need. Hell, you’re late.”
They called me Pat. I was supposed to be a girl. And they were going to name me Patricia.
I was born to a woman who sold poppies for wounded veterans and to a daddy who let a 14-year-old black boy in rural Georgia drive a $10,000 tractor because he believed in the boy’s character. The sound of rain on a tin roof always reminds me of my childhood home.
I believe growing up in the environment I did, with my mother and father both highly competitive and both athletically inclined, and two older brothers who didn’t mean to lose at anything — growing up in a struggling situation for everything made me a person who hated to lose. And it was a long time before I won anything.
I started defending myself a long time before I caught up with my brothers in size. I wouldn’t let ’em pick on me. It didn’t make no difference what I had to use: baseball bat, or axe, or shotgun, or kitchen knife, or whatever it took; I wasn’t gonna let ’em pick on me.
I got into a couple fights. I believe one was at a Pizza Hut one night. Another time a guy ran me off the road. I got into a fight one night at a dance during the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta. Just ridiculous things. I look back on it now as stupidity.
Was I a good student? I was average. I mean I was a boy, a country boy, just full of life and energy. Studying wasn’t the most important thing to me. I did what I had to do. I had so damn much energy it was hard for me to sit still, if you know what I mean. But we never missed a day of school, never played hooky.
I played, and I wasn’t very good. Just kind of a pudgy little ole boy. But I went from maybe 115 pounds that year to 150 pounds in the ninth grade. I played, and I was pretty good for a ninth grader.
Most of the years I was playing football, practice would be over, and it would be dark, and I’d have no ride home. One of my friends would drop me off on Highway 1, 20 miles from Blythe. It would be seven or eight o’clock. I’d hitchhike home.
I believe things hurt worse when you are young than they do when you get a little older. And it hurt plenty. There was something I was born with, maybe it was a fire burning in me that the only way you could put it out was to win. Over the years it has not always been easy to control that fire. You’ve got to work at it every day. Do a lot of praying. Soul searching. You want to live the right kind of life, do the right kind of thing. Sometimes it’s hard.
Coaching football is all Dye knows. He views the game absolutely without irony. In fact, Dye doesn’t look at football as a game at all, or as entertainment, or as a slot in the fall TV schedule, or even, for God’s sake, as some sort of metaphorical distillation of life. It is life itself, son, and what happens on that field is real, important, consequential. Football is stability, football is deliverance. The kind of boy Dye likes is the kind of boy who knows that. Poor boys, farm boys, inner-city boys, black boys. Underdogs. He grew up, he says, working next to blacks in the fields, and now, when he recruits some kid from rural south Alabama, he makes sure to visit the boy’s home, to meet his parents and make him feel like someone. He makes sure to look that boy right straight in the eye and tell him that he, Pat Dye, is going to demand more from him than his daddy ever could, that he, Pat Dye, is going to give him the wherewithal to pick himself up and make it in this world.
Football wasn’t designed to be easy. If it was easy, everybody would want to play it. Football teaches sacrifice. And sacrifice teaches excellence. You can take a poor student who is hungry and make a good student out of him. If a walk-on wants to be a football player, and he’s willing to pay the price and make all the sacrifices and stay out there for four or five years, in all probability, I can make a football player out of him. The less talented guy can outwork the talented guy. I thought that was the American way. I still think it is.
He sits in a wicker chair on Pat Dye’s porch and tries not to stare at the architect of modern Auburn football. His friend is interviewing Dye about Bo Jackson for a story celebrating the 25th anniversary of Bo’s Heisman season, a story which turned into something more. He drifts in and out of the conversation. Mostly he thinks about where he is. I’m sitting in Pat Dye’s wicker chair on Pat Dye’s wraparound porch trying to appear serene as if I’m pondering Pat Dye’s pond. Pat Dye’s dog is sitting in my lap. A different dog owned by Pat Dye is pissing on Pat Dye’s wicker table directly beside my left leg. Pat Dye does not seem to realize Pat Dye’s dog is pissing on Pat Dye’s wicker table next to Pat Dye’s guest’s left leg.
Some words he hears Pat Dye speak:
“That goes to show you how stupid some people can be. That they put a dope head, damn cocaine guy, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And what happened up in Knoxville, Bo got hurt. And you can bet your ass he would have played hurt. We just played sorry and the guy playing quarterback just had a great night. That can happen. I guess the guy’s in prison.”
“Hell, it didn’t effect the way he played. It was helping him for all I know. If he was breaking rules, I never heard about it. And it ain’t against the rules to screw a gal, as long as they givin’ it up. I’m sure there were a lot of takers over there. I’m not talking about takin’ it physically, but if they were offering it up, he’d probably take it.”
“It starts with the University, it doesn’t start with us. And make damn sure you make that plain and clear. We’re just part of the process and part of the family. And the role that we played might have been important, but nothing was more important than the University. And, you know, I think that Bo was, he was a type of individual who wasn’t going to follow the crowd. He was going to cut his own trail. That’s the way he was, and I think under ordinary circumstances we probably wouldn’t have been able to recruit him. But this individual had enough guts and confidence in himself and saw something and felt something that he liked about Auburn. That’s where he chose to come to school. And he’s made a helluva Auburn man.”
“The ones of us that saw him, like you did as a kid, and us grown folk, were blessed to have seen the greatest athlete that ever lived that we know anything else about. Now I’ve watched Willie Mays play baseball, and I’ve watched Michael Jordan play basketball, and I’ve watched Jackie Robinson, who was voted number one all time two sports athlete, and I’ve got some reservations about that, but I mean, that’s what [Bo] was. He was the Secretariat of football players, of athletes.”
The conversation about Bo, Cam, and the state of Auburn football reaches a lull. He decides to end his silence, if only so he could later say he had a conversation with the man.
“I like your column. Do you enjoy writing it?” he asks.
Dye smiles and leans forward in his chair. “I do. Have you read this week’s? I just finished it a couple hours ago.”
“No. I haven’t had a chance to read yet.”
“Well, it’s about David and Goliath. Do you know the story?”
“Do you think David was scared when he faced Goliath — that big bully?”
“No…” (Pat Dye’s face says wrong) “…was he?”
“Shit yeah he was scared.”
He listens as Dye explains college football using the story of David and Goliath as a metaphor. He remembers smiling a lot.
When they stand to leave, his friend stooping to gather his recorder, camera, pen, and notebook, he and Dye lock eyes. That’s when Pat Dye winks at him, a quick shutter of the left eye.
“Hang around me boy and you’ll learn some things.”
Sections under the header September 1991 and the opening quotation taken from “A New Head of State” by Tom Junod, originally published in Sports Illustrated in the October 7, 1991, issue.
All untitled sections taken from Dye’s autobiography, In the Arena. The quotation in the section recounting Dye’s childhood beginning “I was born to a woman . . .” was taken from the East Alabama Living article, “A New Season With Pat Dye.”
The author has received no compensation for this article. The reprinting and reworking of previous material was simply an effort of whim and passion. He has the utmost respect for Tom Junod’s work and would like to again stress he did not write any of the words under the September 1991 header. The author was 3 when Junod wrote his words.
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