SMITH: Remember the football legend of Pat Dye

Published 3:54 pm Wednesday, June 3, 2020

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To revisit the football turmoil that swirled around Athens, Georgia and Auburn Alabama in late November 1980, you might think that Armageddon was at hand in that part of the football world.

Auburn, beset by football shortcomings, was ready to hire an established football coach and dangled the athletic directorship as an incentive even though the Tigers had a respected administrator, Lee Hayley, in place.

The man of the hour for the War Eagle constituency became Vince Dooley. In Laramie, Wyoming, 1480 miles from “the loveliest village on the plains,” Pat Dye had just fielded a 6-5 team as he began a rebuilding program at a place where there was but one redeeming positive for him — it was a hunter’s/fisherman’s paradise.

However, while Wyoming has had some peak times with a handful of “name” coaches passing though including Bowden Wyatt, Phil Dickens, Bob DeVaney and Fred Akers, it is not anchored in a hotbed of football talent. Killing a trophy elk and boating a foot-long cutthroat trout or kokanee salmon of the same size is a nice perk for coaching in the Cowboy State, but Dye was restless to find a better coaching job.

All bets were on Dooley’s taking over at his alma mater. With Pat’s Bulldog pedigree and his coaching experience — nine years as an assistant under Bear Bryan at Alabama, six years as a head coach at East Carolina and one year at Wyoming — would Dye not be the perfect choice to coach football where he played as an undergraduate? 

While he had represented Alabama with prodigious passion in the cross state rivalry, Pat knew that even with Bear Bryant’s success in the rivalry that Auburn “was a place where you could win big.” 

When he met Bryant for the first time in late November, 1981, he came with a fatherly pre-game greeting which included a Bear hug. Pat told his former boss, “You can hug on me all you want, but I want you to know we ain’t scared of you.” Bryant backed off and said. “Yeah, I know, and that is what worries me.”  In their second meeting a year later, Auburn came from behind with a late Bo Jackson touchdown to win 23-22.  That ended a Bama winning streak of nine games.

There were two concerns that Bryant had regarding his main rival hiring one of his vaunted assistants who taught fundamental football and was an indefatigable recruiter. He knew Pat would be a formidable adversary in the annual Iron Bowl, but what was most telling was that he knew he could not keep up with his protégé when it came to recruiting. 

Bryant retired from coaching following the Liberty Bowl game, and Pat went on to a successful career which ended up with him being elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005. At Auburn he won four SEC titles (1983-87-88-89).  In 2005, Auburn named the playing field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, “Pat Dye Field.”

At Georgia, he and Fran Tarkenton were freshmen in 1957, Dye an All-State guard from Richmond Academy and Tarkenton, an All-State quarterback at Athens High. They were the leaders who brought about an end to irrelevancy that had plagued the Bulldogs in the fifties.

Pat made All-America as he and Tarkenton led the Bulldogs to the SEC championship, the surprise team of the league.

“I never played with a greater football player than Pat Dye,” said Fran Tarkenton. “He was the ultimate teammate, and I loved the guy. He was instinctive — all great players are. He enjoyed the physical contact, he liked to mix it up. He made big plays, he was always around the football because of his exceptional instincts. He had the greatest passion for the game. Nobody loved football more than Pat. As a former teammate, I was proud of his success as a coach in the toughest football league in the country.”

It is interesting that Dye and Vince Dooley swapped loyalties — outstanding players who crossed the Chattahoochee River to become Hall of Fame coaches, Vince at Georgia, Pat at Auburn. 

Pat could be the difference in a game as was the case in the 1960 game with Georgia Tech in Athens.  In a close, hard fought encounter, Pat, lining up at defensive end, blocked an extra point attempt and a field goal attempt with Georgia winning 7-6 to cap a four year winning streak in the series.

Pat, who grew up on a farm in Blythe, 19 miles from Augusta, learned the work ethic from a hard working, hard driving father who meted out tough discipline and was an advocate of a sun-up-to-sun-down daily routine. However, he was pleased to have his three sons Wayne, Nat and Pat compete in sports.

All three lettered with the Bulldogs and Nat had a noteworthy pro career, playing for Edmonton in the Canadian Football League. After graduation and a military stint, Pat joined Nat in Canada. 

After he retired from the sideline at Auburn, I drove over to his farm, near Notasulga, Alabama, which is 18 miles from the Auburn campus and rode around his farm on Nov. 10, 1994 on a chilly afternoon.  When he was in a mood to talk, he was an engaging conversationalist.  As his four-wheeler hummed through briar and bramble, he talked farming, forestry, hunting, fishing and football.  He reminisced about his playing career, his coaching career; games he won and games he should have won.

He recalled vignettes about game situations and personalities that would have been great for a video crew.  His down home style endeared him to his Auburn constituency.  He could relate to players, most of all to their mamas who beamed when he eagerly ate hog jowl and black-eyed peas, making her day and making a statement for her son’s signature on a scholarship form.

In my mind’s eye I will always see him walking on the field pre-game in his Auburn tie and baseball cap. His pace was measured and deliberate which reflected he was in his element.  He was where he belonged.

When Auburn and Georgia met up in November, he would amble over to the Bulldog bench to join our pre-game show.  Out cues, meant nothing to him.

He was always going to finish what was on his mind, in his own way as colorful as his mentor, the Bear.

My Pat Dye file runneth over and my memory bank overflows with recollections about him from Georgia to Alabama to East Carolina to Auburn to fishing in Alaska as the guest of his friend, Jimmy Rayne. 

He was a classic fundamental football coach, who was a delightful raconteur and down home colorful character who could kill two quail on a covey rise and ranked boating a Pacific salmon an experience equal to the pre-game excitement of a Southeastern Conference game.