Harry roars, because he loves that sort of thing. Never mind that Dye sits on the board of a bank, owns one sixth of a Birmingham trucking company and employs four men on a 1,000-acre farm outside of Auburn. And never mind that ol' Harry himself owns an agricultural chemical company in north Alabama, that Harry's sidekick at the barbecue grill owns a dumpster distributorship in Knoxville, Tenn., that the guy who sits on the tailgate of a nearby pickup truck and calls himself a redneck is a psychologist and that the fellow over there who swears that Dye made him feel equal to the snobs from Tuscaloosa for the first time in his life owns an automobile dealership. These folks share something with Dye. Somewhere in their lineage there was what Dye remembers from his own past, "dirt, grease, sweat and tears," and now, although these men—like the Auburn football program and like Dye himself—have come up in the world, on fall Saturdays they get it all back from Dye, the itch, the indignation, the hunger of the underdog.
He grew up on a farm near the town of Blythe, about 20 miles southwest of Augusta. He was, from the start, more a man than a child, and he seemed to have been born unafraid. He had two older brothers, Wayne and Nat, and if they wanted to be free of his company, they occasionally had to lock him in a closet or tie him to a tree, because, according to Nat, "he didn't know how to back down." The family was harshly physical, and when Pat says, as he often does, "I feel like I've been fighting upstream all my life," he usually follows the remark with a story about growing up the youngest of three brothers.
His father, Frank, owned a general store and a cotton gin, and his 3,000-acre farm. Twenty-five families—many of them sharecroppers, white and black-drew their daily bread from it. The Dye children were expected to wake up before daybreak and do the work of grown men. Frank was a ferocious worker and, too often, a ferocious drunk. According to Nat, he became "too mean to be around. You had to get out of the house. You couldn't stay."
Nell Dye had grown up in Athens, in the shadow of the University of Georgia, and she wanted her boys to be Bulldogs. She believed that football could be their deliverance from the farm, and so it was. They loved the game. What's more, they loved the coaches. The coaches were never drunk; they demanded what Daddy demanded, hard work and discipline, but they were constant, they were stable. When Nat was a senior in high school, he left home and lived with the coach of his high school team.
The Dye boys were stars. All were quick and tough and strong, and eventually each one attended Georgia—first Wayne, then Nat, then Pat, the best of them all. Pat played linebacker and guard. He wasn't big—about 5'10", 195 pounds—but he played in the days of segregated, two-way football, when a small lineman could get by on speed, endurance and guile. Under coach Wally Butts, another mean man, Pat was twice an All-America guard. He played in Canada and in the Army, and then joined the Alabama coaching staff and became what he says is the only thing he ever really considered becoming, a football coach, a hard-ass with a flattop.
Coaching football is all Dye knows. He views the game absolutely without irony. In fact, Dye doesn't look at football as a game at all, or as entertainment, or as a slot in the fall TV schedule, or even, for God's sake, as some sort of metaphorical distillation of life. It is life itself, son, and what happens on that field is real, important, consequential. Football is stability, football is deliverance. The kind of boy Dye likes is the kind of boy who knows that. Poor boys, farm boys, inner-city boys, black boys. Underdogs. He grew up, he says, working next to blacks in the fields, and now, when he recruits some kid from rural south Alabama, he makes sure to visit the boy's home, to meet his parents and make him feel like someone. He makes sure to look that boy right straight in the eye and tell him that he, Pat Dye, is going to demand more from him than his daddy ever could, that he, Pat Dye, is going to give him the wherewithal to pick himself up and make it in this world.
He's the daddy, his players are the children, and he knows what's best for them. Who's going to tell him different? Some professor who doesn't even like football? Well, Dye was an Academic All-America at Georgia, and although he's proud of his degree in education, he'll tell you something—he hasn't used it, "not one damn bit." He would rather spend his time with folks who made their fortunes after dropping out of college after one semester than with someone who has a head full of book learning and no common sense. Who's going to tell Dye different? Some fellow from the NCAA, who grew up in Connecticut or some place like that, who knows nothing about the South or what it's like to be the underdog?
Hell, Dye kind of likes the guys from the NCAA, because, he says, "they have no idea of what's going on." How else could they have outlawed athletic dormitories when everyone knows that some boy who grew up without a daddy submits to discipline only by living right under the coach's nose? How else could they have written a rule limiting practice time to 20 hours a week—"the most un-American rule I've ever heard," says Dye—when everyone knows it's the player who has to outwork the others who "ends up being the guy who pays taxes for the other guy who stands in the welfare line and collects 'em"? And how could they do what they did to Proposition 48, punishing kids for not getting a good enough score on their SAT? Don't they know what happens to those players when they're left at home? Who cares about their scores! Let Dye take the risk. Let Dye give these kids a taste of college, because isn't a taste better than nothing?
He completely believes his rhetoric, and if, as one Auburn professor says, "he has no more of an idea of the broader life of this university than the guy from north Alabama who comes down here on Saturdays in his pickup truck," he has certainly managed to cast his program as Auburn's contribution to affirmative action. Indeed, Dye has an answer for everything, and he has never been seriously challenged at Auburn—at least not until last week, when former Auburn safety Eric Ramsey revealed that he had been taping potentially damning phone and face-to-face conversations with Dye, other football coaches and boosters (box, page 98). Dye's freedom to operate as he sees fit stems from his close links to the Auburn board of trustees, which is said to tightly control the school's administration. Dye has a close financial relationship with the most powerful board member, a Montgomery banker named Bobby Lowder. In 1987, when a faculty academic committee found starting quarterback Jeff Burger guilty of plagiarism, the vice-president of academic affairs overruled the committee's recommendation that Burger be suspended from school. And in '86, after Dye learned that star tailback Brent Fullwood hadn't attended class in months, the administration did not object when Full-wood played in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
Does Dye have any regrets over the way he handled the Fullwood case? Hell, no. "His future was football," says Dye, "and I tried to be a responsible person and not take his future away from him. If I kick him off the team, it's going to cost him a million dollars. Knowing Brent, I never felt he would graduate from Auburn."