- Mark Schipper
Auburn and Pat Dye is a Real College Football Story
By Mark Schipper
Auburn's tribute to their old coach Pat Dye is austere and quietly powerful. There is little doubt that Dye, the poor kid from Georgia who passed last summer aged 80, would appreciate the down-home simplicity of the homage. In this era of corporatized overhype and the selling of local traditions back to the people who built them, the story of Dye's path from this life to whatever comes next is pure college football.
Auburn has made a decal for their helmets and a matching medallion spray painted onto the turf at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Dye commanded the sidelines for eleven seasons. The initials PD adorn the center and the words “Sixty Minutes” are stenciled, one above and one below, within its navy-and-orange-striped ring.
Gus Malzahn, the current head coach, opened the season dressed after Dye’s memorable style, in a button up dress shirt and tie. He wore a baseball cap with the old-style high front and the classic block “A” sewn dead center. The look was a throwback to one of Auburn's greatest runs, and a different era in college football, the one Dye had presided over on the plains of eastern Alabama.
The old ball coach had slipped away quietly on his farm in Notasulga, Alabama, in the glowing twilight of a warm, June day. He was put to rest at the base of his favorite Oak, a fifteen-foot specimen at the edge of the lawn that grew from a cutting of the originals at Toomer’s Corner. That famous grove, a central university landmark more than eighty years, was fatally poisoned in 2010 by a deranged fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn's existential and actual rival for the state's affection and resources. The lunatic struck shortly after Auburn had slayed Alabama in the Iron Bowl game and then went on to capture a national championship, the second in school history and first in fifty-three seasons.
Dye wanted his spirit bound up and alive within the mighty oak grown from its hallowed forebearers, its roots sunk deep into the earth outside the university that in many ways had been who he was. The feelings of deep connection and identity embodied by the actions of Pat Dye are what infuse college football with its special power. It is more than a sport, it is a culture tied up inextricably with the land, its people, and their traditions. As a game and community it is organic and personal in a way the cold-blooded business of professional sports never will be. It is what makes college football a spiritual pursuit as much as a spectator sport, and why it endures, despite its many issues, in its 151st season of play.
From 1981 to 1992 Dye guided the Tigers into the sound and fury of eleven campaigns in the Deep South’s flagship league. Through the tumult of those battles, as the autumn weather came and the shadows stretched long across the earth, Dye guided the War Eagle contingent to four SEC championships and nine bowl games. Along the way they made several serious but ultimately just-short runs for the national championship as well. During those years Auburn’s reputation broke out of the south-east and puffed itself up nationally. The Tigers were a football program that had to be contended with. They made their university proud.
Following the 1983 season, in which the Tigers finished 11-1 and beat eighth-ranked Michigan in the final moments of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, they were passed over for the national title in favor of 11-1 Miami. The Hurricanes, who were at the beginning of one of the greatest decades in the sport's history, held on to beat Nebraska in a thrilling Orange Bowl that frankly made for a better story. It was the old college football popularity contest and Auburn lost to the prettier portrait.
But, perhaps more important to Auburn and its fans in the long run, Dye knew how to beat the Crimson Tide, and he resurrected the state's Iron Bowl as a ferocious rivalry.
When Dye arrived the elephantine specter of Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide loomed heavily over most of the south-east, and completely darkened the plains around Auburn University. Bryant, the fading old king of college football, and his teams had dispatched Auburn in eight consecutive seasons, turning the annual trip to Birmingham for the Iron Bowl into a pounding on the business-end of an anvil.
Dye stepped into that wilderness of pain and provided instant hope. A former All-American offensive lineman under Wally Butts at Georgia, and an assistant under Bryant himself in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Dye de-mystified the Herculean labor at hand.
The question everyone had was how long would it take to beat Bama . . . . . “Sixty minutes,” said Dye, and the fire began to glow again.
As a former assistant Dye knew how the Bear worked. Bryant would spend hours asking questions of fellow coaches, getting them to reveal, in their quest to please him, everything they knew and believed about football, all of their best secrets. And in his apparent graciousness and interest in the experience and knowledge of others, he made friends of enemies and took a sharp edge off contests that he was, in reality, willing to cut throats to win.
“He’d wear you out,” said Dye. “And by the time you were done talking, you hadn’t learned a damn thing and he knew everything you knew.”
But Dye was under new orders. He had to beat the Bear in pitched battle, not add to his stores of football wisdom or help him win football games. There would be no friendship on that final Saturday of the regular season.
Boldly, Dye put the Legend of Tuscaloosa on red alert. Apparently out of nowhere Dye had warned Bryant the era of playing at Legion Field every season—a home game for the Crimson Tide no matter who used the visitor’s locker room—was coming to an end.
“You want to take that game to Auburn, don’t you?” said the Bear, who like a fading demi-god seemed in possession of a prophecy that told him one day this would happen.
“We’re going to,” said Dye, and it was a promise.
The coaches—one a former boss, the other suddenly an equal and high-stakes rival—had a short back and forth. Bear swore the game would not move anywhere so long as he was coaching at Alabama. Dye fired back that a man can’t coach forever. Bear grimaced and chuckled with a generosity he could afford at that point. It was an oath he knew he could keep because he didn't have many years left. The contract in Birmingham ran through 1988, seven years down the road.
It will be 1989, then, and this game is going to Auburn every other year, said Dye. You can play in Birmingham when it's your turn, if that's the way you like it. The conversation was put on hold to see what might happen between now and then.
Before that first Iron Bowl battle in 1981, standing midfield in the Old Gray Lady as their teams warmed up before kickoff, Dye said to Bear: "We're going to get after your ass today."
Bear looked over and, in a slow voice that sounded like gravel run through a bass speaker, asked if that was meant to scare him. Dye said no—but we ain’t scared of you, either. The gauntlets were being thrown down, one after another.
Bear's team won that first Iron Bowl in eighty-one, his 315th career victory, passing Amos Alonzo Stagg as the winningest coach in college football history. It was Alabama's ninth straight triumph over Auburn, leaving the War Eagle cadre frustrated and discouraged for another year. The old order looked alive and well. Dye had said the right things about a new sun rising in the east but the truth had been revealed. His team was forced to swallow a bitter pill. But what appeared an ominous portend of things to come was actually the beginning of the end.
The very next year, in 1982, the stage again set at Birmingham, the Tigers were ready to kill. They had a sensational freshman running back called Vincent ‘Bo’ Jackson who Dye recruited away from the Crimson Tide. It was a huge off-field win for Auburn as Jackson grew into one of the greatest college running backs of all time and, in his 1985 senior season, became the Tiger's second-ever Heisman Trophy winner.
The eighty-two Iron Bowl battle was extremely tight, the lead going back and forth as the early darkness of late November dropped down over the stadium. The Tigers set out on a final drive as the clock wound down, trailing Alabama, 22-16. Having fought to the edge of the goal line with just seconds remaining their freshman back, Jackson, launched himself over a pile up and crashed down into the end zone. The scoreboard flickered 23-22, Auburn, and the play turned to instant Iron Bowl legend:
“Bo Over The Top.”
It is an iconic moment in the sport's long history, frozen in time, as Jackson takes flight over the pile of bodies blocking the goal line. The War Eagle had landed, the losing streak ended, and Dye made good on a promise: Alabama had toppled in sixty minutes time.
A cleansing rain fell on Birmingham that day, and the torch passed from Bear's iron grip back to the center of the league. It was anyone's conference to win again. Bear would retire a month later following the Crimson Tide’s bowl game. An astonishing sixty days after the 1982 Iron Bowl, he was dead.
As Ray Perkins succeeded Bryant at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide embarked on a decade-long stretch of irrelevance, the living memory of Crimson Tide football lived in Auburn. If you wanted to talk Bear Bryant and the old SEC, Dye was the man to sit down with. He was the keeper of the secrets and the wisdom. The Crimson Tide would go through two coaches in less than ten years before hiring an old Bryant hand to re-establish the program.
Dye had been like Bryant in several ways. Literally dirt poor and from the rural South. A nothing man from nowhere. Like Bryant, Dye had won his place through football and, like Bryant, could talk talented athletes from society's tougher spaces into playing for him. He ran hard, physical practices, like Bryant had, and in many ways coached in the image of his mentor.
For Dye there was one promise left to keep before he was free of all the history. Coincidentally, it had been one of Auburn’s own, their former coach Shug Jordan, who'd made the injunction.
“College football,” Shug said, “is meant to be played on campus, and on grass.”
It was time to make the Iron Bowl—played off campus and on astro-turf in the heart of Crimson Tide country—whole again.
Dye’s politicking—and the backing of his university against a suddenly weakened citadel in Tuscaloosa—had worked. The Iron Bowl was taken from Birmingham and switched to a home-and-home between the schools. The first true home game in forty-one seasons was scheduled for 1989, in Auburn, that fateful year Bear and Dye spotted on the horizon seven years earlier.
To the surprise of no one Alabama would continue to play their home-end of the series at the larger-capacity Legion Field all the way up until the year 2000, when they began expanding and upgrading their on-campus home. The Tide staying in Birmingham another decade confirmed beyond doubt they had considered Legion Field a home venue all along.
That December 2nd, 1989 meeting at Jordan-Hare Stadium was a different beast, a football Saturday on the plains never before seen or even approached since. The yoke of oppression had been lifted, said one historian, barely half joking. The Auburn crowd reached a pitch of emotional intensity and catharsis beyond what any outside observer would have believed possible. It was like the Berlin Wall came down for the eastern bloc of Alabama. The intensity and electricity circulating through those giant crowds, which had assembled miles away and marched toward the stadium along all the local roads, was pulsating.
The teeming throngs outside the ballpark and around the tailgates became dense beyond belief, so tightly packed the Alabama busses were delayed trying to maneuver through them. All of those charged faces, all the navy-blue and orange, all the songs and chants and beating drums, and all of it hostile. Alabama players were forced to sit and absorb the scene, staring out through the windows at rollicking sea, and it was nothing like the warm, comfortable welcome they had at Legion Field.
But the Auburn players were stunned, too. Like many college teams they leave the bus through an assembly of fans and tailgaters, including parents and relatives, on their way into the stadium. Normally it is a relaxed walk, with players three and four abreast, and plenty of room for all to shake hands and hug their family before entering the arena.
On that Saturday the team couldn't get space to marshal together outside the busses and begin their entrance. They were forced out the door single file, one-by-one, squeezing through a path held open by security as exuberant, maniacal fans slapped their backs and bellowed. The team slowly worked its way through the crowd and down into the stadium.
The Crimson Tide, coached by former Georgia Tech player Bill Curry, had arrived with their best team since Bryant passed in the winter of eighty-two. Alabama was undefeated, 10-0, and ranked second nationally, with an opportunity for both an SEC title and a national championship at stake. It felt, for a minute, like the old days, and had the game been in Birmingham it may have been so.
Auburn was an impressive 8-2, ranked eleventh nationally, and had a shot at both a share of their third consecutive SEC championship and, maybe more importantly, a fourth straight Iron Bowl win. The crowd inside Jordan-Hare was like a rolling storm, pushing out a constant, steady roar that cascaded down over the field the entire afternoon and into the gloaming finish.
Alabama, apparently sensing trouble—affected by the intensity of the game and feeling they had to punch a hole in it—attempted a fake field goal instead of near-certain points and an early lead. The Tigers stuffed the attempt before it started and the crowd thundered an earth-shaking approval. From that moment everything seemed to break Auburn’s way. The Tigers did not trail during the game and won it decisively, 30-20. They had clinched a share of the conference crown, snatching away the Crimson Tide’s outright title, and spoiled Alabama’s shot at another national championship.
It was a perfect moment in the history of one college football program, and a painful blight on the other, which causes rivalries to seethe and boil over the course of a year before they are renewed. After the game an emotional Dye broke down in the locker room. The deep-feelings, built up over decades and released in a single cathartic afternoon, had got to him. There was too much to try to say, so he told his players he had watched them grow into men.
Everyone knew the rivalry had been changed forever. Auburn had won back an identity; they no longer took orders from Alabama, they shifted for themselves, come what may.
For decades after stepping away from the chaos and cacophony of the college football calendar, Dye was up at four a.m. to work the land on his plot west of the university, never far from his old program and everything—the colors, the land, the history—that connected them.
Apart from rows of Japanese Maples Dye grew commercially, there was that special tree growing tall and strong out of the earth near the farmhouse. Its DNA from the semi-sacred grove at the intersections of College Street and Magnolia Avenue, where the university and town blended together as one. The corner is named after Toomer’s Drug store, founded by state senator Shel Toomer, a fullback on Auburn’s first football team back in 1892.
In those very old days, when there was a single telegraph wire running into the shop, operators used to throw ticker tape up into the trees after the cable brought home news of an Auburn victory. A hundred years and more later the War Eagle community continues gathering there in ritualistic celebration, firing long, white-streaming cylinders of toilet paper into the branches of the mighty oaks. The leavings hang like Spanish Moss for several days, a symbol of victory for the tribe.
Those ancient trees, the original growths that presided over traditions passed down from grandfathers, to fathers, to sons, succumbed to the Spike 80DF poison, which the killer used at five-hundred times the level needed to destroy a single tree. It was a minor tragedy and an ugly moment in a rivalry that didn't need any more volatility in the mixture.
In a testament to the potential malice generated by the competition, the unstable killer’s justification was simple: “I wanted Auburn fans to hate me as much as I hate them.”
But Dyes’ survivor had grown to fifteen feet in the six years he’d cared for it under the hot Alabama sun. He told friends he wanted his spirit to live in and hover around that tree for as long as it was still there. And so it was done.
In a simple service attended by an intimate group—the Covid-19 pandemic had destroyed the possibility of a large gathering —Dye was wrapped in a shroud and buried in the good soil at the base of his tree. The big oak on the farm in Notasulga, brought in from Toomer’s Corner, the place where Auburn’s sacred trees grow, is filled with the spirit of their old ball coach with the land, the history, and everything it means, surrounding him as far as the eye can see.
This is a college football story to its core.