Several years later, I sat with Dye on the morning before the press conference announcing he would be Auburn's next football coach. It was January of 1981. Dye seemed genuinely puzzled by those who said Auburn couldn't win championships. Auburn could win, he said, and would win. Why not? The secret to winning, he said, was hard work. Rest assured, he said, hard work would be part of Auburn's football program.
When players, many in their 40s now, get together to talk about those years, their stories are about days when they thought surely they couldn't run another play, throw another block, make another tackle. But they did. There was no rule limiting practice time in those days. If Dye, watching like a Roman emperor from his tower, didn't like what was going on he would order that they go back to Period 1 and start over. Through it all, Dye convinced his players that they had worked harder and they were tougher than anybody they played. "We didn't always win," said defensive tackle Donnie Humphrey, "but we always expected to win."
Dye's story is well-known. He won an SEC championship in his third season and won three more in succession in 1986-89. After a long and bitter drought, Auburn could hold its own and better with Alabama. Auburn opponents knew some things for certain. They knew Auburn would be a fiercely physical team. They knew Auburn players would hit as hard or harder than any other team they played. And they knew they would be fundamentally sound.
Those who played for Dye, especially in the early years, are immensely proud. You couldn't play for him if you were afraid to sweat and bleed. "The games were the easy part," said Doug Smith, a defensive tackle who now works in the athletic department. "After what we did during the week, Saturday was fun."
Dye believed and still does in the value of competition, of measuring yourself in the arena. It is there, he'll still tell you today, that one's manhood is put to the greatest test. It's unfortunate that it ended the way it did, with Dye resigning at the end of the 1992 season under the cloud of an NCAA investigation. But he walked out like he walked in, his head high.
Dye's office these days is a little room just off the court at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. You'll find him more often at his farm in Notasulga. But, in his way, he is still making major contributions to winning games for Auburn. I wrote a story in The Huntsville Times on Thursday about baseball coach Steve Renfroe going to see Dye before leaving for last week's series at Mississippi State. Hal Baird, by any logical measure the best baseball coach in Auburn history, views Dye as a role model. So do others. Twenty-two years ago, when he arrived and said he was proud to be the head coach at the "University of Auburn," Dye probably couldn't see the day when he would be Auburn's elder statesman. I can tell you for sure he believes he could still be successful as a head football coach today. But elder statesman he is.
Next time you visit the Auburn campus, look around. Look at the magnificent structure that is Jordan-Hare Stadium, at Plainsman Park, at the football office complex, the palatial women's athletics complex. Newer and better facilities are seemingly built every year. It wasn't that way when Dye arrived. Auburn's athletic program was struggling. The budget was not the equal of the big-winning schools in the SEC. Red ink was everywhere. Sellouts at Jordan-Hare Stadium were rare. Enthusiasm was in short supply.
The Tigers didn't win big immediately. They went 5-6 Dye's first season, but the way they did it inspired hope. They weren't always the best team on the field, but they were usually the toughest team on the field. They played with heart and intensity that was obvious to all who watched.
When that season was over, there was little doubt where the Auburn football program was headed. It wasn't a matter of if Dye would do it, it was a matter of when he would do it. Suddenly, tickets were in demand. Auburn was a popular TV choice, a name mentioned with the nation's best. Dye was the right man at the right time. Because he came, everything changed. And to this day, athletes from gymnasts to swimmers to football players are reaping the benefits.