The Auburn Spirit is not in its buildings or even its budgets, but in its people. Auburn people have a love for this school that goes beyond anything I have seen at any university, and it is the secret of the greatness of Auburn.
I was going to tell you about Coach Jordan of Auburn and how he and my daddy were close friends. Maybe he and my daddy would go fishing. If you want to know the truth, what he and my daddy really did, they rode up and down the roads and drank a little liquor together. Coach Jordan was a wonderful story teller, one of the best there ever was.
Don Fuell was carrying the ball — he was a great athlete. He was hurtling somebody on the sideline, and I got up into him, knocked him into the Auburn bench, broke three of his ribs. I didn’t know that at the time. Coach Joe Connally, who was on Coach Jordan’s staff for years, was standing on the sideline. Coach Connally swears I jumped up and said, “If you’re worth $10,000, I’m worth $50,000.” I don’t know if I said it. I probably did.
Did I imagine Francis [Tarkenton] would go to the pros and pass for over 40,000 yards and make the NFL Hall of Fame? No. But I knew he had that mental toughness about him. It’s hard for me to express what Francis could do . . . but he could RISE above his ability, above his team’s ability.
He asked no football questions. Not one. Coach Bryant was an intimidating man. But to be honest, he didn’t frighten me. I mean, I was excited. But I wasn’t scared. Could he tell that? I don’t know. Probably, knowing him and how he could read people. He knew what I was. He knew I was a highly-motivated player, and that I was willing to give up playing to coach. And I was willing to come to Alabama for $500 a month.
Howard Schnellenberger, coaching the offensive line. Howard lived right across the street from me, and we rode to work together every day.
Joe Keller started the game at quarterback. Stabler had been suspended. But Coach Bryant “unsuspended” him when we got behind, 14-0, in the first two minutes.
Coach Bryant was just plain, old, country smart. He had a way of sitting down and talking to you, and when he got through, he’d know everything you knew, and he hadn’t told you a damn thing he knew.
What Coach Bryant could do, and one of the three secrets to his success above everything else . . . he could take two or three of those great athletes, Stabler and Perkins and Homan in 1966, who all had IT. And he could surround them with a bunch of ITs that didn’t have great talent, but had heart and soul and guts. And he could set a fire in them you couldn’t put out.
I asked Coach Bryant if he wanted a ride home. He said, “Yes, if you won’t tell anybody I got in that damn Auburn plane.” Of course, he was just needling me. From time to time, Coach Bryant would go on the wagon. But he wasn’t on it that day. He drank a fifth of vodka from Memphis to Tuscaloosa. He could sober up with an act of will when he had to.
Let me be sure and say this again: I didn’t start the great tradition of football at Auburn. It was here a long time before I came. Hell, I played against it. I remember those blue jerseys across the line of scrimmage, guys who could play, guys who knew how to win.
He had his first winning season at Auburn in 1982, and that year he beat the Bear. Dye won his first SEC championship in ’83, his second in ’87, his third in ’88, his fourth in ’89. In his time at Auburn he has also established a fiefdom. He seized the job of athletic director four months after he arrived at Auburn and, in that capacity, has added 13,000 seats to Jordan-Hare Stadium, installed luxury sky boxes and built a $7.2 million edifice for his football program. He has built a machine and built it in his own image.
After the official Bo interview ends, after Pat Dye spends several minutes explaining why former Alabama head coach Ray Perkins is a dumbass (“The man was just a dumbass”) for once saying Dye couldn’t understand the magnitude of the Iron Bowl “because he hadn’t played in it,” they all three walk back into the house. The two visitors mill about, trying to prolong the visit, the younger one taking mental snapshots and notes and creating a weird authorial buffer between present moment and future remembrance, both no doubt hoping Pat Dye would place his arms on their shoulders and say something like, “Hell, you boys come back around here in a couple weeks. Nancy will cook us some good food and we’ll try to remember why I was cruising Lake Martin without my britches.”
He doesn’t invite them back. But before they leave the older guest asks if Dye still has an autographed copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Dye, who was captivated by the book when he read it late in life, met the reclusive author in recent years and the two began a friendship of sorts. Dye readily admits he don’t know “nothing about no damned literature.”
He said he told Lee: ‘‘You ain’t got sense enough to write a book like that. Nobody’s got sense enough to write a book like that. You got to write that book with your heart and your soul and your guts and everything in your body, plus your brain, to have the vision and the wisdom and the foresight to put that thing together like she did.”
“No,” he tells the two, “I don’t know where I put the thing.” He rummages through drawers as he talks. “But I do got 10 love letters from her.”
“Yeah, love letters.” He pauses. “Nancy says I turned her.”
Neither is exactly sure what he meant by that statement.
At my first press conference, I called it “the University of Auburn.” From the first day, I felt I was home. From the first day, I worked to be here the rest of my coaching career.
Well, I took on the job as Auburn AD after my first spring training in 1981. And that was some spring training. It was just an old-fashioned, hard-coaching, hard-playing, blood and guts, wolf-sign-everywhere kind of spring practice. “Wolf sign,” that’s damn blood and hair and tore up ground all around.
I think I asked Bo one other time if he was coming to Auburn, and then I never asked him again. He just showed up on signing day.
Bo looked at our people and knew he could come over and play. We were sitting there playing Mike Edwards and Lionel James at halfback. Mike was a 6-5 split end with a lot of heart, and Lionel was a midget. A talented midget. I didn’t have to convince Bo he could play.
Before a big game, how did Bo respond? Most often he went to sleep in the dressing room. Maybe that was a sign he was nervous, I don’t know, but I know he’d get sleepy.
We finished the season, 11-1. Miami upset Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, and was voted No. 1, with Nebraska No. 2. Both had lost a game, the same as us. The New York Times uses a computer to figure the No. 1 team. They take into account how tough the schedule was you played. They picked us No. 1. If we ever win a National Championship in the polls, I’m gonna be tempted to claim two, including that one from The Times. I think we could have played anybody by the end of the season.
After the 1985 season, I promoted Wayne Hall to defensive coordinator. And we formed an unofficial “committee” to run the offense. It all worked pretty well. We won three straight championships and beat Alabama four straight times.
The famous reverse. No question Lawyer Tillman raised the level of his game every time we played Alabama. Circumstances around the rivalry . . . some things got said to Lawyer during recruiting season . . . the kind of thing no school intends to happen, but sometimes it happens anyway. Kids don’t forget. No need to open old wounds. But Lawyer didn’t feel welcome in Tuscaloosa.
What kind of guy was Jeff Burger? He had red hair. He was a country boy. He liked to hunt. He liked to go out and drink beer. He was a kind of Huck Finn. He grew up a street fighter type. He was a throwback to the old times, to the kind of kids I played with and against.
There was a feeling about that game on our sidelines. After we had walked down the street through tens of thousands of fans to the stadium — we call it the Tiger Walk — there was a feeling among our players so strong, I knew Alabama didn’t have a chance, they just didn’t know it.
We’ll play Alabama many times in Auburn. Sooner or later, they’ll beat us in Auburn. Life will go on, as it always has. The sun will come up. And we’ll get ready to play ’em again the next year. But in the year 1989, Auburn won the biggest game Auburn ever played.
Now, I had to figure out a way to live with the game. I could dwell on it, agonize over it, go into mourning when we lost. But I decided, from then on, I would keep it in perspective. Play the game. Play it to the best of our ability. Hope that we won. And if we did, it would be great for us. And if we lost, we would get ready to line up and play ‘em again next year. I wasn’t gonna have the hives any more over a football game.
I say again, I haven’t been too smart in staying away from controversy. I make decisions with my guts instead of my brains sometimes. It may be a strong suit, but it can also get you in trouble. I don’t expect I’ll change.
When I leave Auburn, they are going to carry me out feet first. And there are going to be dead sons-a-bitches laying everywhere.
Tonight, though, he is happy. Tonight there is the brute concussion of snapping helmets and there are strips of bloody gauze littering the grass. Dye likes his team this year, although the Tigers are young and unproven and got beaten 30-21 by Tennessee last Saturday after winning their first three games. He likes their unselfishness and commitment to fundamentals. He walks in silence, watching, listening. Oh sure, one time he yells, “You move your ass down the field or you move your ass to the bench!” and another time he tells a player, “If I was working my ass off, I’d make sure everybody else was working his ass off the way I was.” But mostly he is quiet, and even when practice is done and he leaves the field, he seems to be containing something within himself, something that bends his lips in an odd, crooked smile — until he meets with a bunch of reporters, and with the first thing he says, he lets it all out, the source of all that pride and joy.
“Well,” he says in a quiet voice, “they got bloody tonight.”
Football, the hard-nosed, physical part of it, has always been easy for me. I also realize that it’s not easy for everybody. I don’t know that I ever thought of it this way before, but everybody doesn’t love the game equally. And I was one who loved the game as much as you could love it.
Picture Pat Dye watching Auburn football. Picture him sitting alone in his favorite rocking chair, a quilt draped over his legs, a stiff, sweating drink in his right hand, the television a half-heard whisper. Listen with him to the crickets and the bullfrogs and the roving dogs. Follow him through the screen door at the end of the third quarter into the Alabama night and feel the heavy pregnant silence of a country fall in Auburn, as if the air itself is alive and on the cusp of speech. Feel the density, the cloying quality of Deep South humidity, almost as if the gravitational pull is greater in Lee County, almost as if the very atmosphere’s waiting with anxious anticipation to flatten the unprepared. Watch Pat Dye sigh and take a sip as he stares into the darkness. Realize how old he looks. Realize the toll. Realize why he leaves Auburn home games at halftime to return here to a flat screen TV and watch the second half in seclusion and silence. Realize to look at Pat Dye is to look at 30 years of Auburn football.
Picture Pat Dye watching new navy 10s and 20s, 55s and 85s tackle, run, and catch. Watch the fourth quarter unfold. Know that it’s a totally new occurrence. Know that football is relational. See the remembrance in his eyes. Realize a sound or a tackle or a specific angle can trigger long lost memories. Realize for four hours on fall Saturdays Pat Dye is the holiest man in Alabama.
Listen as one of his guests asks if he got excited after Auburn beat Clemson in overtime a couple Saturdays past.
“He missed it, I said. Not another soul here. He missed it. Just like that,” he whispers through his wry, self-parodying smile. “That was me celebrating.”
He missed it.
Picture Pat Dye turning off the television, an unmoving silhouette in pale moon darkness.
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.
Second and third photos from “Auburn: 100 Years of Football Glory.” Fourth photo via.
Ben Bartley recently graduated from Auburn University with a degree in journalism. He’s a bad journalist. But he tries very hard. He is currently seeking writing opportunities. For a modest sum (like real, real modest, like a chocolate milkshake), he will handle your e-mail correspondence with your mom, write personalized love letters to either sex, scribble a sonnet about the two hours you spent bathing your cat, and/or much more. Contact him at [email protected].
* Muhammad Al on the Haley Center concourse
* Playboy in Auburn, 1989
* The War Eagle Jeep in Vietnam
* 78 never-before-seen photos of the Kopper Kettle explosion of 1978
* Rare candids of Pat Sullivan at the 1971 Heisman banquet
* G.I. Joe’s Auburn’s connection
* The Great Bo Jackson A-Day Race of 1984
* Crowd shots from the 1973 Auburn-Florida game
* Best reaction to being named Miss Homecoming ever
* “Buck Fama” graffiti seen in Auburn after “Punt Bama Punt”
* Pat Dye buying sunglasses
If you’d like to help TWER keep the lights on and the obsession with Auburn lore unhealthy (it’s going to be a long month), click here.
It feels surreal to talk to a legend, huh? Coach Dye has that quality that you don’t see very much any more that some older southern men have/had – the ability to make you believe anything he says and make you fall a little bit in love with him despite yourself. I think you captured that nicely, Ben.
this is an incredible article and well written. Please keep the stories coming!
I ran cross country at Auburn in the late 80’s and had several encounters with Coach Dye. Back then, athletes participating in fall sports would be on campus weeks before the quarter started to train and compete. During this time, non-revenue athletes were allowed to take meals at Sewell Hall until classes started. Let me tell you, it was the highlight of the day to get to eat at Sewell and mingle with football players. Not to mention Coach Dye, who would make the rounds and talk to just about everybody in the dining hall on any given day. He would always try to guess what sport we played, knowing perfectly well we were skinny cross country guys. I enjoyed the articles on our own living legend Coach Dye and love what you guys are doing with this incredibly entertaining website. Kudos to all involved!
Thank you for the comments. Spot on, runrgal. Credit Jeremy with the picture choice. The early-80s press conference Dye pic is now my screensaver. Says so much, like only a picture can.
Will Collier says
Here’s a Dye story: It’s 1993, maybe 90 minutes after Auburn beat uat 22-14 to finish the season undefeated. There’s a small crowd in the old Plainsman Park parking lot, surrounding a single animated figure, an ebullient Pat Dye, holding forth among the tailgaters. One of them, who obviously knew Dye, remarked that he’d been scared to death at the half (Auburn had gone into the locker room trailing).
Dye fixed him with a baleful glare. “That’s cause you ain’t a coach.” He paused for a bare moment and went on: “Any coach would’a looked at that first half, saw we had the ball for damn near 20 minutes, and knew we was gonna win.” For some unknowable reason, Dye’s gaze shifted, and he looked me straight in the eye.
Pat Dye did not then (and does not to this day) know me from a mud-encrusted pair of plaid pants, but he fixed me with that coach stare and demanded, “What did we beat them by, six, seven?”
I managed to stammer, “Uh, I think it was eight, coach.”
“Well that ain’t no indication of how bad we whipped their ass!” The rest was lost in the whoops of the surrounding crowd, and the mile-wide grin of Patrick Fain Dye, living in the moment and entirely in his element, one last time.