• Mark Schipper

Auburn and Pat Dye is a Real College Football Story

By Mark Schipper

The way in which Auburn football is honoring its recently-passed former head coach, Pat Dye, is austere and beautiful, and the story is pure college football.

In this era of corporatized overhype, and the selling of local traditions back to the people who built them, there is little doubt the poor kid from Georgia would appreciate the down-home simplicity of the homage.

Auburn has made a decal for their helmets and a matching medallion spray painted onto the turf at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where Dye had commanded the sidelines, bringing home four SEC championships over the course of a decade. The initials PD adorn the center of the circle and the words “Sixty Minutes” are written, one above and one below, inside its navy-and-orange striped ring.

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 in Auburn's colors. He wore an old-style baseball cap with the high front and the classic block “A” sewn dead center. The look was a throwback to one of Auburn's greatest eras and to a different time in college football, the one Dye had presided over on the plains.

The old coach 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 there at the base of his favorite Live Oak, grown now fifteen-feet after being planted from a cutting of the doomed originals at Toomer’s Corner on Auburn's campus.

The original grove, an important landmark for eighty years, had been fatally poisoned in 2010 by a crazed follower of the Alabama Crimson Tide, Auburn's fiercest rival, shortly after the Tigers had beat them and gone on to win a national championship, the second in school history and first in fifty-three years. Dye wanted his spirit bound up and around the oak tree grown from the originals, with its roots sunk firmly into the earth near the university that was his community and his family, in this life and now beyond.

The feeling embodied by Pat Dye is what gives college football its special power. It is more than a sport, it is a culture tied up inextricably with the land, its people, and their folk traditions. As a game and community it is organic and personal in a way the cold-blooded business of professional sports can never hope to be. It is what makes college football a spiritual exercise as much as a spectator sport, and why it endures, despite its issues, 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 battles, as the autumn weather came and the shadows stretched long across the field, Dye guided the War Eagle contingent to four SEC championships and nine bowl games.

During that timeAuburn’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.

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 had managed to beat Nebraska in an Orange Bowl that frankly made for a better storyline and little else. It was the old college football popularity contest and Auburn lost to the prettier picture.

But, perhaps more importantly to the Auburn partisans 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 cast a dark shadow over most of the south-east, and completely darkened the plains around Auburn University. Bryant, the fading old king of college football, had teams that at that time had dispatched Auburn in eight consecutive seasons, turning the yearly trips to Birmingham for the Iron Bowl into a 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 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. How long would it take to beat Bama was the only question on everyone’s mind . . . . .

“Sixty minutes,” said Dye, and the fire began to glow again.

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 in your experiences, he made friends of enemies and took the edge off contests that he was in reality prepared to cut your 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 was under new orders. He had to beat the Bear in pitched battle, not add to his stores of football wisdom. There would be no friendship on that final Saturday of the regular season. Boldly, Dye put the Legend of Tuscaloosa and his program on red alert.

Apparently out of nowhere Dye warned the Bear that 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. That 33-year-old tradition would be coming to an end sooner than later.

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

“We’re going to,” responded Dye.

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

Bear grimaced and chuckled like the old king he was, informing Dye it would not happen while he, Bear, was coaching at Alabama. It was a promise Bear knew he could make good on because he didn't have that many years left. We’ve got a contract in Birmingham until 1988, seven years from now, 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 every other year. You can play it 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 their first Iron Bowl battle in 1981, standing midfield shoulder to shoulder at the Old Gray Lady in Birmingham, their teams working up a lather before kickoff, Dye said to Bear: "We're going to get after your ass today."

Bear looked over and asked if that was supposed 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 victory as a head coach, and 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 seemed to be alive and well. Dye had talked the talk but the truth was revealed on that final Saturday, and his team had been force fed their bitter medicine. But what appeared an ominous portend of things still to come, had in fact been the beginning of the end.

The very next year, in 1982, the stage again set at Birmingham, and the Tigers were ready to go. They had a sensational freshman running back called Vincent ‘Bo’ Jackson who Dye had recruited away from Alabama. It was a major off-field win for Auburn as Jackson became one of the greatest college running backs of all time and, in his senior season, the winner of the 1985 Heisman Trophy.

The Iron Bowl battle was extremely tight, going back and forth all afternoon as the early darkness of late November dropped down over the stadium. The Tigers had 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 running back, Jackson, had launched himself over a pile up and crashed down into the end zone. The scoreboard flickered to 23-22, Auburn, and the play turned to instant Iron Bowl legend: “Bo Over The Top.”

An iconic moment, frozen in time, as Jackson takes flight over the pile up. The War Eagle had landed, the losing streak was over, and Dye had made good on a promise. It had taken sixty minutes and Alabama was beat.

A cleansing rain fell on Birmingham that day, and the torch passed from Bear's iron grip and long reign back to the SEC at large. It was anyone's league again. Bear would retire a month later 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 stretch of irrelevance, 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 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 try 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 made his place in life through football, and knew how to talk to talented, underclass Southern athletes and get them to come play for him. He ran tough, 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 in Auburn before he was free of all the history. Coincidentally, it had been one of Auburn’s own, their former coach Shug Jordan, who had sent out 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 complete 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 the Bear and Dye had targeted 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 continuing to play in Birmingham for another decade confirmed beyond any doubt that they had considered Legion Field a home venue all along.

That December 2nd, 1989 game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn was a different beast, a football Saturday never before seen or even approached since. The yoke of oppression had been lifted, said one historian, barely half joking. The Auburn collective would reach a level of emotional intensity and catharsis beyond what any outside observer would have believed possible. It was like the Berlin Wall had come down in the eastern bloc of Alabama. The intensity and electricity circulating through the giant crowds on campus, which had assembled and marched in toward the stadium from miles away, cannot be overstated.

The crowds outside the ballpark and amongst the tailgates became astonishingly thick, so dense the Alabama team bus was delayed working through the masses toward the stadium. All of those faces, those tailgates, all that navy-blue and orange, all the songs and chants and beating drums, and all of it hostile to the visiting Tide. Alabama players were forced to sit and absorb the scene, and what they got was nothing like the warm, comfortable welcome they were accustomed to outside Legion Field.

But the Auburn players had been stunned, too. Like many college teams the Tigers walk through a cheering contingent of fans and tailgaters, including parents and relatives, on their way into the stadium. Normally it is leisurely, with players three, four, five abreast and plenty of room for all to shake hands and hug their family before entering the arena.

On that Saturday the team could not even clear enough space to marshal up outside the busses and begin their entrance. They were forced out of the bus single file, one-by-one, squeezing through a path held open for them by security with thundering shouts, aggressive arm-bars and threats, as exuberant, ebullient, radicalized fans slapped their backs and bellowed encouragement. The team slowly marched its way through the crowd and into the stadium.

The Crimson Tide, coached by Bill Curry, had arrived with their best team since Bryant had passed away in the winter of 1982. The Tide 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 time, 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 even more importantly, a fourth straight Iron Bowl win over Alabama. The crowd inside Jordan-Hare stadium was pulsating, making a deep steady roar that cascaded down over the field the entire afternoon and into the gloaming finish.

Alabama, apparently feeling desperate early in the game—affected by the intensity of the moment and wanting to dominate it—tried a fake field goal instead of near-certain points and a lead. The trickery failed when 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 once 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 they had 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 is what makes college rivalries seethe and boil over the course of a year before they can be renewed. After the game an emotional Dye broke down for a moment 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 that day.

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 the rows of Japanese Maples that Dye grew commercially, there was that special tree growing tall and strong out of the earth near the farmhouse. Its DNA came from the semi-sacred Toomer’s Corner, at the intersections College Street and Magnolia Avenue, where the university and town clicked together as one. The corner is named after Toomer’s Drug store, which was founded by the former state senator Shel Toomer, a fullback on Auburn’s first ever football team back in 1892.

In those very old days, when there was a single telegraph wire running into the shop, the operators used to throw ticker tape up into the trees after the cable brought news of an Auburn victory far from home. It was the indicator that their boys had won. A hundred years and more later the War Eagle community continues to gather there in ritualistic celebration, firing long, white-streaming cylinders of toilet paper into the branches of the mighty oaks. The leavings hang like thick, white Spanish Moss for several days, a symbol of victory for the tribe.

Those ancient trees, the original growths that had presided over generations as traditions passed down from grandfathers, to fathers, to sons, succumbed to the Spike 80DF poison, which the killer had 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 did not need deadly hostility added to an already volatile 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 brightAlabama 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.

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