• Mark Schipper

Auburn and Pat Dye is a Real College Football Story

The way Auburn football is honoring their former coach is beautiful and austere, and it is pure college football.

In this era of corporate overhype and for-profit retailing of traditions back to both the fans and alumni who created them, there is little doubt the poor kid from Georgia, Pat Dye, would appreciate the down-home simplicity of the tribute.

There is a decal for the players’ helmets and a matching medallion spray painted on to the bright, short-cut natural grass field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Dye once commanded the sidelines. The initials PD adorn the center of the circle and the words “Sixty Minutes” are written, one above and one below, just inside its navy-and-orange striped border.

Gus Malzahn, the Tigers current head coach, opened the season dressed after Dye’s memorable style, in a button up dress shirt, and a tie striped Auburn navy and orange. An old-style baseball cap with the high front, and the classic block “A” sewn dead center, adorned his head. The look was both a throwback and a touch of timelessness.

The old coach had passed away early this summer on his farm in Notasulga, Alabama, in the twilight of a warm, June day, aged eighty years. He was buried at the base of his Live Oak, grown up now fifteen-feet, planted from a cutting of the doomed originals at Toomer’s Corner after they were fatally poisoned in 2010.

Dye wanted his spirit bound up and around the oak tree grown from the source, with its roots sunk firmly in the land near the university that was his community, and his family, in this life and beyond.

This is college football, tied up inextricably with the land, its people, and their traditions. It is organic and personal in a way professional sports can never hope to approach, and it is what makes college football as much a spiritual experience as a spectator sport, and why it endures, despite everything, in its 151st season of play.

The Rolled Oaks at Toomer's Corner

From 1981 to 1992, Dye guided the Tigers through the sound and fury of eleven campaigns in the Deep South’s flagship league. For ten of those seasons he served also as the school’s athletic director.

Across the tumult of those dramatic battles, as the autumn weather turned over and the shadows stretched long across the field, Dye led the War Eagle contingent to four SEC championships and nine bowl games.

Auburn’s reputation broke out of the south-east region and puffed itself up nationally. The Tigers were a football program that had to be contended with.

Following the 1983 season, in which the Tigers finished 11-1 and beat eighth-ranked Michigan in the final moments of the Sugar Bowl, they were passed over for the national championship in favor of 11-1 Miami, who managed to beat Nebraska in an Orange Bowl that frankly made for a better story. It was the old popularity contest and Auburn lost to the prettier rival.

But perhaps more importantly to the Auburn partisans in the long run, Dye knew how to beat the Crimson Tide, and he resurrected the Iron Bowl as a ferocious rivalry.

When Dye had arrived, the elephantine specter of Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide sent a dark shadow over most of the south-east, and completely darkened the plains around Auburn University. Bryant, the wizened old king of college football, had teams that took care of Auburn eight consecutive times at that point, turning the yearly trips to Birmingham for the Iron Bowl into smashing over the business end of an anvil for the Tigers.

Dye stepped into that wilderness of pain and provided instant hope. A former All-American offensive lineman at Georgia under Wally Butts, and an assistant under Bryant in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Dye de-mystified the Herculean labor at hand. How long would it take to beat Bama, was the only question on everyone’s mind . . . . .

“Sixty minutes,” said Dye, and the rivalry was apparently renewed.

The simple medallion sticker aback of the Tiger's helmets is matched by the medallion on the field.

As a former assistant, Dye knew how the Bear worked. Bryant would spend hours asking questions, getting you to reveal, in your quest to please him, everything you knew and believed about football, all of your best secrets. In his apparent graciousness and personal interest, he made friends of enemies and took the edge off contests that he was in fact cut throat 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 understood that his new mission was different. He had to beat the Bear, not add to his grand stores of football knowledge. There would be no friendship on that Saturday to end the season. Boldly, Dye put the Legend of Tuscaloosa and his program on red alert.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Dye warned Bear the days of staging their rivalry at Legion Field in Birmingham every season—a home game for the Crimson Tide no matter who used the visitor’s locker room—were numbered. The 33-year-old tradition was coming to an end sooner than later.

Bear, like an old demi-god long in possession of a prophecy that warned, one day, a man bearing this message would arrive at his doorstep, had responded: “You want to take that game to Auburn, don’t you?”

“We’re going to,” responded Dye.

The coaches—one a former boss, the other suddenly an equal and a high-stakes rival—had a short tete-a-tete. Bear said the game was not going anywhere so long as he was coaching. And Dye had fired back, well, a man can’t coach forever.

Bear chuckled like a seated monarch held fast in his donjon keep might, and told Dye it would not happen while he, Bear, was coaching at Alabama. It was a promise Bear knew he could make good on. We’ve got a contract in Birmingham until 1988, seven years on, and we’ll have to see what happens, Bear told Dye.

It will be 1989, then, returned Dye, and we’ll be taking this game to Auburn. The conversation was put on hold, to see what might happen.

Before their first Iron Bowl battle in 1981, standing midfield at the Old Gray Lady in Birmingham, their teams being put through their paces and working up a lather before kickoff, Dye reminded Bear that Auburn was going to “get after your ass” that day.

Bear asked if that was supposed to scare him, to which Dye had replied, no, but we ain’t scared of you, either. The gauntlets were being symbolically placed, one after another.

Bear won that first Iron Bowl, also his 315th victory, and passed Amos Alonzo Stagg as the winningest coach in college football history. It was also his ninth straight triumph over Auburn, sending the War Eagle cadre home once more bitter, angry, and discouraged. The old order of things seemed still to be in place. Dye had talked the talk, but the truth was revealed that final Saturday afternoon of the season, and his team had been force fed their medicine.

But what appeared an ominous portend of things to come, had in fact been the beginning of the end.

The very next year, 1982, the stage again set at Birmingham, and the Tigers are ready to go. They have a freshman running back called Vincent ‘Bo’ Jackson, who Dye had recruited away from Alabama. The game is tight, back and forth all afternoon in the gray early darkness of a late November. Auburn is in the process of overcoming an eight-point, fourth-quarter Alabama lead.

The Tigers set out on a final drive as the clock winds down, trailing 22-16, and with seconds left their freshman running back, Jackson, launches himself over a pile up at the goal line and crashes down into the end zone. The score is 23-22, Auburn, and the play is instantly an Iron Bowl legend: “Bo Over The Top,” an iconic moment frozen in time as Jackson takes flight over the pile up.

The War Eagle has landed, the losing streak was over, and Dye has made good on a promise. It had taken sixty minutes.

A cleansing rain fell on Birmingham that day. The torch was symbolically passed from Bear’s hands back to the SEC at large. The end of a reign had arrived. Bear would retire following the Crimson Tide’s bowl game. An astonishing sixty days after the Iron Bowl, he was dead.

As Ray Perkins succeeded Bryant at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide embarked on a decade-long irrelevance, it was said the living memory of Alabama football resided in Auburn. If you wanted to talk Bear Bryant and the old SEC, Dye was the man to meet with, 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, dirt poor from the rural south. A nothing man from nowhere. Like Bryant, Dye knew how to talk to poor Southern athletes and get them to come play for him. He ran brutal practices, like Bryant had, and in many ways coached in the image of his mentor.

For Dye, there was one big promise left, and it was one of Auburn’s own, former coach Shug Jordan, who had 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 whole again.

Dye’s politicking, with the backing of his university against a suddenly weakened Alabama, had worked. The game was changed to a home-and-home series beginning in 1989, and the first true home game—after 41 seasons—was going to Auburn.

Not surprisingly, Alabama would play their home end of the series at the larger-capacity Legion Field all the way up until the year 2000, confirming beyond any doubt that they had considered Birmingham a home venue all along.

But that December 2nd, 1989 in Auburn was something different, never seen before or even approached since. The yoke of oppression had been lifted, one historian said only half in jest. The Auburn hoards had reached a level of emotion beyond what any outside observer would believe possible for a college football Saturday. It was almost as if the Berlin Wall had come down in eastern Alabama. The emotion and electricity in the giant crowds on campus, which assembled and marched toward the stadium from miles away, cannot be overstated.

The crowds outside the ballpark and in the tailgates became astonishingly thick, so dense the Alabama team bus was delayed working through the masses toward the stadium. All those faces, those tailgates, all that navy-blue and orange, the songs and the chants, and all of it hostile. The Crimson Tide football players were forced to look over the scene and what they saw was nothing like the comfortable welcome they were accustomed to at Birmingham and Legion Field.

The Auburn players were stunned, too. Like many college teams, the Tigers walk in to their home venue through a contingent of early-arriving fans and tailgaters, including parents and relatives, and into the stadium. Normally it is leisurely, with players four, five, six abreast, with plenty of room for all.

On that Saturday, the team could not even spot a clearing from which to marshal up and begin their entrance. They got out of the bus single file, squeezing through a path held open for them by thundering shouts and aggressive arm-bars, as exuberant, ebullient, radicalized fans slapped their backs and bellowed encouragement.

The Crimson Tide, now coached by Bill Curry, had come in with their best team since Bryant had gone away. The Tide were undefeated at 10-0, ranked second nationally, with an opportunity for both an SEC title and a national championship. It felt, for a time, just like the old days. And, had the game been in Birmingham, maybe it all would have been so.

Auburn was a strong 8-2, ranked eleventh, with a shot at both a share of their third consecutive SEC championship, and maybe more importantly, a fourth straight win in the Iron Bowl over the Crimson Tide. The crowd inside Jordan-Hare stadium was pulsating, a deep steady roar reverberating down over the field the entire afternoon and into the late fall gloaming.

Alabama, apparently becoming desperate early—feeling the intensity of the moment and wanting to dominate it—attempted a fake field goal rather than taking the near-certain points. The trickery failed as the Tigers stuffed the attempt, and the crowd thundered an earth-shaking approval. From that moment on, everything seemed to break Auburn’s way. The Tigers did not trail all day and won the game, 30-20. They had clinched a share of the conference, snatching away the Crimson Tide’s outright title, and they had spoiled Alabama’s shot at a national championship.

It was a perfect moment in the history of one college football program, and a terrible, permanent blight on another, which is what makes true college rivalries seethe and boil over the course of 364 days before they can be renewed.

After the game, an emotional Dye broke down for a moment in the locker room. The deep-feelings, built 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 that day. Everyone knew the rivalry had been changed forever.

And now, twenty-one years later, in what has felt like just a moment in time, Dye has joined his old mentor Bryant in the afterlife.

For decades after stepping away from the colorful 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 the rows of Japanese Maples Dye grew at commercial quality, there was that special tree climbing up tall and healthy on the lawn near the farmhouse. The coach had requested a cutting from the doomed Live Oaks at Auburn’s semi-sacred Toomer’s Corner, at the intersections College Street and Magnolia Avenue, where the university and the town bearing its name mesh together as one.

The corner is named after Toomer’s Drug store, founded by former state senator Shel Toomer, a fullback back on Auburn’s first ever football team back in 1892. All of the best college football traditions are old.

In those very old days, when there was a single telegraph wire running into the shop, the operators used to throw stock-market ticker tape up into the trees after receiving news of an Auburn victory over the cable. It was a symbol to the rest of the town that the home team had won.

The War Eagle family still gathers there in ritualistic celebration following big victories to roll Toomer’s Corner, firing long, white-streaming cylinders of toilet paper into the branches of the mighty oaks. The leavings hang down for several days afterward like thick, white Spanish Moss, a symbol of victory for the tribe.

Those ancient trees, the original growths that presided over generations, as traditions were passed down from grandfathers, to fathers, to sons, had been poisoned in 2010 by a deranged Crimson Tide fanatic after an Alabama loss in the Iron Bowl.

Eventually the old Oaks would succumb to the Spike 80DF poison, which the killer had used at five-hundred times the level needed to destroy the venerable old trees. It was a minor tragedy and an ugly moment in a rivalry that did not need personalized vitriol added to an already volatile mixture.

In a testament to the malice generated by the rivalry, the killer’s comments on why he had done what he did were simple: “I wanted Auburn fans to hate me as much as I hate them.”

But Dyes’ survivor tree had grown to fifteen feet in the six years he’d cared for it, with the salubrious Alabama sun shining down over the land. He told friends he wanted his spirit to hover around that tree for as long as it was there on earth, and earth still spinning around its sun. In that story was embodied part of the story of a university, and that of a nation as well.

And so it was done. In a simple service attended by a select few—the Covid-19 pandemic had destroyed the possibility of a large gathering —Dye was wrapped in a simple shroud and buried in the healthy soil at the base of his tree. The Live Oak brought from Toomer’s Corner, the place where Auburn’s sacred trees grow, inhabited now in spirit by their old ball coach on his farm with the land, the history, and everything it means, surrounding them as far as the eye can see.

This is a college football story to its core.

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