How coach Pat Dye restored more than just winning at Auburn

Remembering the legacy of Auburn icon Pat Dye (6:10)

Take a look back at the life and career of former Auburn football coach and AD Pat Dye. Dye, a College Football Hall of Famer, died Monday at the age of 80. (6:10)

Auburn football had attained some stature before Pat Dye arrived to coach the Tigers in 1981. John Heisman coached there. Shug Jordan won a national championship in 1957.

But days after the Tigers finished No. 1, Bear Bryant heard Mama calling from Alabama. By the time Jordan's successor, Doug Barfield, was fired in 1980, Bryant had won six national championships -- and Auburn still hadn't won even an SEC title since the year before he got to Tuscaloosa.

All that changed with the arrival of Dye at Auburn on Jan. 2, 1981. He restored more than winning at Auburn. Dye restored pride of place among the Auburn people.

This can be treacly ground: All college football fans love their program. The difference is that Auburn fans love Auburn, period. There is a different feeling in the Loveliest Village on the Plains, tucked away in east-central Alabama, just below where the Appalachians peter out.

There is a historical insularity, one that didn't change until the state four-laned the highway from Birmingham, a two-hour drive northwest. There is an inferiority complex about Alabama, partly due to the typical rivalry between humanities schools and agricultural schools that exists in many states, and partly due to the football histories of the two schools.

Dye, who died Monday of kidney failure at age 80, will be remembered for the four SEC championships he won in his 12 seasons at Auburn. But among the men and women who can recite the Auburn Creed by heart, he forever will be celebrated because he made all of them stand a little straighter.

Dye always belonged to another era. He became a head coach at 34 (East Carolina) and was a head coach at Auburn by 41, but no one ever regarded him as the progenitor of a new style the way we look at a Lane Kiffin or a Lincoln Riley today. Dye reeked of old-school when he was young.

That might be because of who brought him up. Dye came up the son of a hardscrabble, hard-drinking Georgia farmer, a man who "might not have even known what color we were, because he treated us all the same -- like s---," Dye told filmmaker Fritz Mitchell on his award-winning documentary "Saturdays in the South."

Dye played guard and linebacker on the surprise SEC-champion Georgia Bulldogs in 1959 for Wally Butts. Dye went from there to the U.S. Army, and from there, at age 25, directly onto Bryant's staff at Alabama in 1965.

You would have to have some steel in your spine to be that young and pass Bryant's muster. Dye went on to became the most successful head coach of any of Bryant's assistants, winning 153 games, 99 of them at Auburn from 1981 to 1992. That he went to Auburn at all took some gumption, if only because Dye had to call Bryant, his aging mentor, and tell him.

"I didn't get to be the football coach at Auburn being a wimp," Dye wrote in "After the Arena," his second memoir, published in 2014.

Dye quit his job as head coach at Wyoming in December 1980 in order to pursue the vacancy at Auburn. Who does that? Dye called Bryant and years later recounted the conversation to author Wayne Hester for his book "Where Tradition Began."

"I'm talking to the Auburn folks about that job over there," Dye said.

"You aren't going to take that job," Bryant said.

"I am if they offer it," Dye said.

"You're going to get this one," Bryant replied.

No one knew he had 25 months to live, but the 67-year-old Bryant knew the end of his career loomed close enough to dangle the Alabama job in front of Dye.

"If I come to Alabama, I'd be running a maintenance program," Dye said. "I'd be trying to maintain what you've already done. I can go to Auburn and build a program."

Dye remained unemployed for 10 days. Auburn hired him, and it changed the course of Tigers football for the next 38 years -- and counting.

Not long after Dye took over at Auburn, he had the same kind of conversation with Bryant about playing the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium. As Dye recounted in Saturdays in the South, Bryant told him that would never happen while Bryant was coaching.

"You ain't gon' coach forever," Dye replied.

That made Bryant laugh and he reminded Dye that the schools had a contract to play in Birmingham through 1988.

"We gon' play '89 in Auburn," Dye said.

Which is exactly what happened. On Saturday, Dec. 2, 1989, No. 11 Auburn knocked off No. 2 Alabama 30-20, and it wasn't even the biggest victory of the day. After the game, Dye compared Alabama stepping onto Auburn turf to the toppling of the Berlin Wall. That might have sounded outlandish in 49 states. But I can tell you that in 33 years of covering college football, I have never witnessed the emotional peaks I saw in and around Jordan-Hare Stadium that day.

"Sure I'd like to be 11-0," Dye told his 9-2 SEC co-champions after the game, "but I wouldn't swap this year for any year that I've been at Auburn."

That quote comes directly from my good friend Will Stegall, an Auburn grad who lives in San Francisco. The first thing I did when I sat down to write about Dye was text Will and ask him his best Dye memory. Will texted back 11 paragraphs. He quotes that postgame speech to his children.

"It don't matter who's runnin' the ball, who's catchin', who's tacklin' or who's rushin' the passer," Dye said, via Will, "as long as they've got a blue jersey on."

Blue is what mattered. Dye didn't bring the customs of the segregated South in which he grew up into his locker room, starting three black quarterbacks at a school that had been integrated for a decade. He coached old-school football and lived by old-school values. But some, like his views about women, didn't age as well as others.

When the College Football Playoff announced that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Birmingham native, the daughter of a coach and a lifelong fan, would be on its inaugural selection committee, Dye squawked.

"All she knows about football is what somebody told her," Dye said. "Or what she read in a book or what she saw on television. To understand football, you've got to play with your hand in the dirt."

Dye did not win a national championship. He came close in 1983; Auburn fans still cry foul that No. 5 Miami defeated No. 1 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and leaped over the No. 3 Tigers. He considered Auburn's 2010 BCS National Championship victory against Oregon in Glendale, Arizona, as the 100th victory of his Auburn career.

"Big as this stadium," he said after the game. "Big as all that desert out there."

Auburn forced Dye to resign after NCAA violations came to light in 1992. But Dye remained loyal to the university, and the university and its followers returned that loyalty for the rest of his life. Stegall told me Monday night that Dye made him feel like he was part of something bigger than a Saturday game. There's something old-school about that too.