It's been hard enough to imagine the next football season these past few months. Now we have to imagine it without Pat Dye. As if there weren't enough sadness in every direction.
Dye's death Monday at age 80 wasn't unexpected, but it's not every day a legend passes, and that's exactly what the former Auburn head coach and athletics director was. What else would you call the man who handed Bear Bryant his final defeat … who gave Auburn the two most sea-changing victories in its history ... who dragged Alabama's ass kicking and screaming onto Auburn's grass?
You can call him one of the most important sports figures in the history of the state of Alabama. You can call him the man who made Auburn ... Auburn.
First time we met, I called him Pat. I didn't know any better. He didn't seem to mind.
From 1985 through 1988, I earned advanced degrees in journalism and Southern football at Auburn and never set foot in a classroom. Did spend a lot of hours watching gut-check practices, though, when coaches weren't afraid to let reporters do that sort of reporting. I was the Auburn beat writer for The Birmingham News. Pat Dye was the Auburn coach. Good times.
Dye was a 45-year-old SEC football coach and athletics director with two Iron Bowls, one conference championship and one New York Times computer national title on his mantle - and Bo Jackson back for his senior year at tailback. I was a 24-year-old rookie journalist who needed a map to find my way down Highway 280.
As Dye liked to say to me during a give-and-take after practice, sometimes not in anger: "You got all the damn answers, don't you?" I'd shoot back, "No, but I got all the damn questions."
He'd laugh every time.
We were as different as Georgia clay and Pennsylvania coal thanks to our roots, but more than any other person, he showed me how much football mattered in this state. Every Wednesday afternoon during the season, he invited me into his office to talk about whatever was on his mind at the time. It might be a position battle or a personal rumor. Didn't matter. He was real and he was raw and he was honest until it hurt.
He showed his pain when Ray Perkins said the Iron Bowl couldn't mean as much to Dye because, as a Georgia grad, he hadn't played in it. Which was furiously false. Dye broke out in hives in 1984 after Bo went the wrong way, Alabama DB Rory Turner waxed Auburn running back Brent Fullwood at the goal line and the Tigers blew a Sugar Bowl shot to a Tide team with a losing record.
Not long after, the Auburn board of trustees gave Dye one of his greatest victories, voting to expand Jordan-Hare Stadium and make it the nicest in the state at the time. It was a tremendous vote of confidence in the man, a key milestone on the way to Dec. 2, 1989, the first Iron Bowl in Auburn. That day, Auburn players hyperventilated during Tiger Walk, a blue mist filled the air from the force of the shakers and Auburn won 30-20 for its fourth straight victory over Alabama and third straight SEC title. Dye compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Auburn family understood.
Has any coach defined a rivalry and been defined by it more than Dye and the Iron Bowl? It wasn't much of a rivalry when he arrived, to be honest. Alabama had beaten Auburn eight straight with no end to the servitude in sight. Dye swaggered into the picture, and when they asked how long it would take him to take down the Tide, he said, "Sixty minutes."
It took him 120, but who's counting now?
Bo over the top in 1982 to end the streak at nine was a lower-case emancipation proclamation for Auburn people. With orange-and-blue jubilation exploding all around him, Dye had to walk to midfield to shake the hand of Bryant, his football father, who was one game from the end of his career, two months from the end of his life.
"There was no jubilation on that walk," said Jack Crowe, Auburn's offensive coordinator at the time, who walked alongside. "It was like he didn't want to get there."
Two months later, Crowe was there with Dye in the car as it pulled up to the Peachtree-Dekalb Airport after a recruiting visit to fly back to Auburn. The pilot leaned in and broke the news that Bryant had died. Dye didn't say a word in the car, even after the pilot asked where he should aim the plane. There was more heavy silence as he climbed aboard.
"Just looked straight ahead," Crowe said. "Glassed over. No response. Just blank."
Crowe and the pilot both figured Dye would want to head straight to Tuscaloosa to console the Bryant family. The pilot filed a quick change in flight plan to that effect. "That's how we all thought," Crowe said, about the relationship between Dye and Bryant.
After takeoff, Dye finally leaned toward the cockpit in the small plane and told the pilot, "I need to go see Miss Sue (his wife)." Crowe still remembers the feeling of the plane banking hard left to head toward Auburn. That day for Dye, Crowe said, "was like being told your dad was dead. His sobbing inside was real obvious."
It was that combination of hard shell and deep feeling that endeared Dye to so many, friend and foe and bystander alike. He was a Georgia grad and an Alabama assistant, the most Bryant-like of all the Bear's disciples after nine years on his staff, but he was an Auburn man chew and through. You could question the cloudy end to his tenure as coach or his long post-retirement run as shadow AD, but not his motivation. He always wanted what was best for Auburn and believed he knew what it was. He was right more often than wrong.
As an old-school coach who believed in playing defense and running the ball, he set a pretty fair standard in his dozen years as the boss. You know how many SEC football championships Auburn won before Dye arrived? One. In 1957. He won four in seven years, the last three in a row. Auburn has won three since. Put that in your sandbox and smoke it.
Since Dye started kicking up sand on the Plains, only two SEC coaches have topped his four conference championships: Nick Saban with eight and Steve Spurrier with six. Of course Dye is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
But numbers don't fully measure the man. Lives changed for the better do. Like the walk-on named Kevin Greene who went from the end of the bench to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Or the dirt-poor young man who shall remain nameless who got to Auburn with his wardrobe in a paper bag and left as a first-round NFL draft choice. Those were Pat Dye's kind of guys. So was Bo, the best football player born and raised in this state. Dye helped raise him, too.
It's who he was and what he did. He raised men. He lifted a football program, a football rivalry, a university and a state. He allowed Auburn to look Alabama in the eye, refusing to let the Tigers blink or the Tide rest. His name's not just on the field in Jordan-Hare Stadium, as it should be. It goes deeper.
As he goes to his rest "to wrestle with them angels," as he once said in a postgame speech for the ages, we look ahead to the first football season in this state in 40 years without him. Except he'll be there in spirit from the first steps of the first Tiger Walk to the last snap of the next Iron Bowl. It's in Tuscaloosa. You can thank Dye for that, too. Since the day he arrived on the Plains, the series record stands at Auburn 20, Alabama 19. He'll probably mention that to Bryant and get after his ass again the minute he sees him.
Of course, he'll call Bryant Coach.
Bryant will call him Pat.
Dye won't mind a bit.