Like many stories set in the state of Alabama, this one starts with the Bear.
Eleven years ago, when Bill Curry took the field for the first time as the coach of Georgia Tech, he began searching for his opponent, Bear Bryant of Alabama. He looked under the goalpost, because that's where the Bear, in his houndstooth cap, could usually be found, but Curry couldn't find Bryant, so he rejoined his team, which was warming up on the field. Then he heard a rumble and felt the same kind of dark vibration that the peaceful end of the food chain feels when a predator is afoot in the jungle, and he saw the Bear and his state troopers and his whole damned entourage advancing on him from across the field. "Boy, can't you even shake a fella's hand?" Bryant said, and then grabbed Curry by the waistband of his beltless slacks and lifted.
A year later, another coach took the field against Bryant for the first time and heard the same rumble, the same thunder, and felt the same shadow darkening the ground. This time, though, when the Bear tried to put his paw around the coach's neck, the young coach wouldn't let him, and God knows he loved the Bear.
"Coach Bryant, before you start hugging me, you ought to know that my boys are fixing to get after y'all's ass," said Pat Dye, coach of the Auburn Tigers.
"You ain't trying to scare me now, are you, Pat?" asked the Bear.
"No sir, because I know you don't get scared. I'm just telling you what we're fixing to do."
Well, Dye didn't win that day, as Curry hadn't the year before, but 10 years later Bryant is dead, Curry is at Kentucky—after coaching Alabama for three years and finding it impossible to beat the old Bear's ghost—and Dye is still in the state of Alabama, with a record that inspires some Alabamians to wonder if he isn't the real and true successor to Bryant, even though he's down there at Auburn.
Which goes to show that when you challenge a legend in Alabama, you have to be ready to scare him, to breathe down his neck and whisper threats and maybe adopt some of his low methods, or that legend is going to grab you by the throat and squeeze.
The old man won't let go. His hand is striped with veins and mottled with liver spots and his skin is as translucent as parchment, but his long fingers won't release the arm of his coach, Pat Dye. It's so hot in the armory of Alexander City, Ala., that women are fanning themselves with paper plates and steam condenses on the eyeglasses of the myopic. Dye's face is slick and his jacket is off and sweat stains cross his armpits like huge smiles, but as he sits in a chair and shakes their hands and kisses their babies, the 400 or so souls who have traveled from three counties to see Dye aren't apologizing for this cinder-block steam box. In fact, as they wait in line to offer him their fealty, they are telling one another that Dye likes to sweat, that he would rather be in Alex City than at some country club in Birmingham, because that's just the kind of man he is. The line grows longer, full of stout men in navy blue and burnt orange, of women with tiger paws on their faces, of little boys in Bo Jackson jerseys and little girls dressed like Auburn cheerleaders, and then the old man grabs hold of Dye and the line stops, because he wants to share something with the coach, something that, to Dye, is both an ally and an enemy. The old man wants to share history.
He has come to Alexander City on this oozy evening to give a gift of his past to Dye, a reproduction of a page from the Augusta Chronicle, dated Aug. 1, 1879. In the middle of the page there is a list of the charter subscribers, and after pointing out the name of his grandfather, the man stoops over and asks, in a small warble of a voice, if any of Dye's ancestors appear there. Now, it must be understood that although Dye grew up on a farm near Augusta, he has spoken about his upbringing in a way that implies that his forebears could barely be expected to read a newspaper, much less subscribe to one. But he runs his finger over the list, then looks up at the old man and some of the people waiting on line, and does something strange. He teaches. He gives a lesson, the way those folks he has so little tolerance for, the professors, do. The people who have made the pilgrimage to Alexander City have come to hear him explain why his team faded so badly last season, to see how he has recovered from major surgery, to bow their heads with the preacher and thank the Lord for giving them their coach back, to whoop and holler and eat barbecue and sweat with a man who likes to. But now Dye starts talking about the history of Augusta, and instead of falling apart in confusion, the line of boosters simply bends around him, listening to his lecture in absolute silence. The boosters nod their heads upon his every word, spellbound, as though Dye had become not a football coach but a caretaker of their common history.
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."
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."
Then what in the world was he doing at a university?
Why, playing football, of course, and learning Dye's way, learning to be a man. And when he left school, you can bet he was making more money than some boy who made straight A's in arithmetic.
No, all things considered, Dye has few regrets, except for last season. Last season's team was supposed to be one of his best; it turned out to be one of his worst. Not because it lost a lot of games—the Tigers were 8-3-1—but rather because of the way it lost, and the fact that the players weren't as good as they could have been, and Dye can't abide underachievers. Dye let some little things go, and soon enough the whole team got away from him. He should have suspended a few players, he says now, he should have been more consistent in meting out discipline. Shoot, even when the team was undefeated, he tried to warn everyone, the press, the alumni and the players themselves, that the Tigers were headed for a fall. Then they lost 48-7 to Florida, and the Auburn faithful marked the first time that a Pat Dye team had just up and quit. The next week, they lost at home to Southern Mississippi, and then the Tigers lost to Alabama for the first time since 1985.
It was after the game against Tennessee that Dye began to bleed. He went home and threw up blood. At first everyone thought he had an ulcer, but after the Alabama game he went to the hospital and the doctors traced his problem to the blood itself—too much steel, so to speak, too much iron, a condition called hemochromatosis. His spleen was damaged—"as big as a football," he says—and so was his liver. Last May, after the end of spring practice, surgeons at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta cut him from hip to hip and rerouted the way a vein carries blood to his liver.
Dye was still bedridden, on his back, when one of his players, one of those seniors, turned against him. Ramsey always wondered what it took to please his coach. He had worked hard for the man, five years of blood, sweat and tears. So what if he showed up late for meetings? So did a lot of other guys. So what if he got married and Dye thought his wife came between Ramsey and the team? Ramsey wanted some recognition, but he never got it. When he watched Dye's highlight show, he never heard the coach mention his name. When he stopped by the office where they figured the statistics, he came away certain that they were crediting his tackles to someone else. At the end of his senior year he asked Dye if the coach thought he had a shot at the pros. Dye said no, that Ramsey should find a way to make a living outside of football. "What's it going to hurt him to say something positive on my behalf, whether he thinks I did good or not?" says Ramsey.
Ramsey's hurt turned into a desire for retribution when he failed an English course and did not graduate. He fell back on a weapon he had kept in reserve. Ramsey, who is black, had submitted a two-page paper about racism in the Auburn football program to a sociology professor; now he allowed the professor to release the paper to a reporter. The press picked up on it and ran stories detailing Ramsey's charges about a segregated team and a coaching staff more intent on discouraging black players from dating white women than encouraging them in their studies. Ramsey had struck a blow at the unyielding father figure lying on his back.
The Kansas City Chiefs drafted Ramsey in the 10th round, but he failed to make the final cut. He was done with football, and he had nothing, while the coaches still lived in their big houses. He saw white players coming back to Auburn, wearing suits and ties, working as stockbrokers and selling real estate, while a lot of black players he knew wound up working on the assembly line at Diversified Products. Last week, a month after being cut by the Chiefs, Ramsey went public with the aforementioned tapes.
From the first of Ramsey's charges, Dye did not strike back—at least not on the record—not because he couldn't but, rather, because he was sure that "they don't have a damn thing on me" and that once reporters checked Ramsey's motives, the story would fade away. Pat Dye a racist? After all that he had said, all that he had done for his black players? How could he be a racist? He personally recruited the first black players at the University of Alabama when, he says, "you can bet a lot of other coaches didn't want that responsibility."
He would never understand—no, he would be hurt—if he were to learn that there are players on this year's team who believe that although Ramsey may have gone about things the wrong way, there was, in his cry of disappointment and frustration, a vein of truth. It's not that Dye is a racist, but that he is a southern white man at a southern white school, and black players at Auburn learn very quickly what they can and cannot do. It's that Dye cannot escape who he is and where he came from. Indeed, one senior on the Tigers—a team leader who has followed Dye's regimen to the letter—believes that his coach likes a certain kind of black man, one who is "humble and obedient," who only speaks when spoken to. Can Dye disagree? No, he cannot. He can only say that he asks the same things of his white boys and that where he grew up, humility and obedience were considered virtues. He cannot even disagree when some of his black players quietly complain that he wants them to fit the mold of Clarence Thomas, the by-the-bootstraps Supreme Court nominee; in fact, one day early this season, Dye went over to the dorm to see if his boys were watching the Thomas confirmation hearings, and the next morning, when someone asked why he doesn't let his players wear earrings, he answered, "Well, you don't see Clarence Thomas wearing no damned earring, do you?"
He walks in silence, under the lights, on grass that seems to glow. As he walks among his players, these big kids steaming and snorting in the night, they speak to him only when they are spoken to. The rest of the time they regard him with a wary quiet. Pat Dye is a football coach, as he has said all along, and on the practice field he looks like one, his eyes gleaming with a look of cold, frank appraisal. In his office, in a restaurant, he can look like a southern gentleman, but at practice he is a predator, with his arms flexed at his sides and his neck at a belligerent tilt, and he looks pretty damned happy looking pretty damned mean.
He is a football coach, and already his gaze has turned kindly on some of this year's players, cruelly on others, and he has decided who will be the winners and who will be the losers, who will play for him and who will not. He is a football coach, and indeed, whatever the other merits of Ramsey's complaints and charges, they have illuminated the limits of Dye's rhetoric and the fact that Dye is not running the Auburn football program to advance poor boys but rather to win games, the fact that some of his players will leave his program with nothing and never understand why, the fact that when kids won't do things his way, he will sometimes, in his own words, "put 'em on the sidelines and forget about 'em." Dye sees everything that happens on the field and remembers everything he sees, and although this year he has come down from his high steel tower to walk among his boys, he will remain to some of them a man of power and judgment and insuperable distance.
Tonight, though, he is happy. Tonight there is the brute concussion of snapping helmets and there are strips of bloody gauze littering the grass. Dye likes his team this year, although the Tigers are young and unproven and got beaten 30-21 by Tennessee last Saturday after winning their first three games. He likes their unselfishness and commitment to fundamentals. He walks in silence, watching, listening. Oh sure, one time he yells, "You move your ass down the field or you move your ass to the bench!" and another time he tells a player, "If I was working my ass off, I'd make sure everybody else was working his ass off the way I was." But mostly he is quiet, and even when practice is done and he leaves the field, he seems to be containing something within himself, something that bends his lips in an odd, crooked smile—until he meets with a bunch of reporters, and with the first thing he says, he lets it all out, the source of all that pride and joy.
"Well," he says in a quiet voice, "they got bloody tonight."