SI Vault
Tom Junod
October 07, 1991
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October 07, 1991

A New Head Of State


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Then the old man hands Dye the rolled-up copy of the paper, and Dye ascends to the stage under banners left over from a Desert Storm homecoming—WE LOVE YOU and WE'RE PROUD OF YOU—and the crowd starts its ancient roar.

Patrick Fain Dye is a football coach, a solid, compact 51-year-old man of medium height with gray hair and a mumbly voice and eyes that immediately seek to take the measure of other men. He owns a farm and has been involved in several successful business ventures, but if you call him a farmer or a businessman, he will say, "Hell, no, I'm a football coach." He does not say this as a point of modesty, however. In Alabama you do not say that you are a football coach to be modest, because in Alabama football coaches, and in particular coaches as successful as Dye, operate in that corner of southern life where business, politics and religion—where both the outer and the inner lives of the citizenry—intersect. You want someone to pitch your product and maybe sit on your board at the same time? You call Pat Dye. You want to hear someone extol the verities, sing the spirit of the South and of America, with a common touch? You call Pat Dye. You want someone to bash the pointy-heads and spoilsports at the NCAA? You call Pat Dye. In fact, you could summon the name of Pat Dye for just about anything you want, because, as he says, he is a football coach and, like the best of that breed, he is shrewd and naive, humble and arrogant, kind and cruel, idealistic and pragmatic, buddy-buddy and forever distant and inscrutable. He is something like Bryant, who was something like God.

Dye came to Auburn in January 1981, when the Bear was in declining health and the balance of power in southern football was ready to shift. He shifted it. Since '51, Auburn football had been the province of Ralph (Shug) Jordan and then, after Jordan retired following the '75 season, of his memory. Around Auburn, Jordan is almost invariably known as "a southern gentleman," as a coach who abjured the pursuit of the dollar and went home every day to eat lunch with his wife. He was the best coach in Alabama until '58, when Bryant went from Texas A&M to Tuscaloosa. Eighteen times the two men faced each other; 13 times Bryant won, thereby relegating Auburn football to second-class status in Alabama, to the status of honorable underdog.

"The difference between Coach Bryant and Coach Jordan was that Coach Bryant was a whole lot meaner," says Dye. "He came by it naturally."

When Dye came to Auburn, the football program had been deteriorating for nearly a decade. Dye reconstructed the Tigers mercilessly, by fire. On one occasion that first year they scrimmaged until, as one former quarterback remembers, assistant coaches had to keep players standing by holding their shirts. A score of players quit; Dye went with the survivors. He had learned under Bryant, having served nine years as an assistant coach at Alabama; he studied Bryant, and Dye's mother, Nell, says that he "wanted to be just like Bear." He would be as mean as he had to be. He had made winners of East Carolina and Wyoming, and now he would transform the Tigers into the toughest, hardest team in the SEC.

He had his first winning season at Auburn in 1982, and that year he beat the Bear. Dye won his first SEC championship in '83, his second in '87, his third in '88, his fourth in '89. In his time at Auburn he has also established a fiefdom. He seized the job of athletic director four months after he arrived at Auburn and, in that capacity, has added 13,000 seats to Jordan-Hare Stadium, installed luxury sky boxes and built a $7.2 million edifice for his football program. He has built a machine and built it in his own image.

What is more remarkable about Dye, though, is that while he has done all this, he has also played to the faithful, he has left their down-home image undisturbed.

They have been coming to Auburn for years, in their vans and their pickups and their Winnebagos with the 15-foot-high Auburn flags. They come on Thursday or Friday night, and they park in the same places, and they pass their spots on to their descendants. They are mostly white and usually recumbent, unless they have to stand up to cook. When they talk about their team, they seem completely oblivious to the scale of Dye's operation, to the whirring of his machine, to the fact that their beloved Auburn Tigers are about as homespun as the New York Giants. Instead, they tell you that Auburn is family, Auburn is home, Auburn is a feeling that "can't be described, only experienced."

Sure, at first they were suspicious of Dye. Where Shug used to go and drink morning coffee with some of the ol' boys downtown, Dye let it be known right off that he wanted no part of that. But he won them over. And do you know what some of the faithful think? That Auburn won him over, made him a gentleman, like Shug. He came here full of the Bear, but now he has the best of the Bear and of Shug. Auburn people are not like Alabama people—doctors and lawyers and Birmingham big shots. Auburn people are country, and Dye fits in because he's country too. He used to love to chew, until the doctors told him to quit. Hell, Harry, a big of' fella cooking burgers by a War Eagle van, still remembers the time Dye came to his town to hook a big recruit, wearing a tie and acting real serious, and then turned around and whispered, "Hey man, give me a dip of that snuff."

"Just like that," Harry says. " 'Hey, give me a dip of that snuff.' Because he didn't want to let the recruit see him taking no snuff. But you know he wanted it."

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