Dec. 18, 2013
Pat Dye speaks at the 1983 SEC championship team's reunion earlier this season (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - On Jan. 3, 1981, Pat Dye was introduced as Auburn's head football coach. And after that day, Auburn football would not be the same.
Dye had not been Auburn's first choice. When Doug Barfield resigned under pressure after five seasons, Georgia head coach and former Auburn quarterback and assistant coach Vince Dooley was the target. Auburn officials thought they had him, but he backed out at the last minute. Auburn turned to Dye, who had finished one season at Wyoming after building a winner at East Carolina.
With that decision, Auburn football embarked on a new era, one that continues to this day. Since Dye was hired, the Tigers have won seven of their eight Southeastern Conference championships and BCS national championship.
Gus Malzahn's first Auburn team has already claimed the SEC championship, accomplishing a historic turnaround from last season's 3-9 record. On Jan. 6, at the Rose Bowl, the Tigers will play Florida State for another BCS national championship.
Perhaps most telling is that in the 33 seasons since Dye arrived, other than being 1-2 against Texas A&M, Auburn has a winning record over every SEC opponent but Florida.
When Dye arrived, Auburn had gone 5-6 overall and winless in the SEC in Barfield's final season. It had fallen behind in facilities and financial resources. And an eight-season drought against Alabama hung over the program like black cloud. Dye intended to change all that.
Joe Whitt left his job at Montgomery Robert E. Lee High School to join Dye's staff because he believed in Dye. He's never left. Today's he's an assistant athletic director and fund raiser.
"Basically, when I came, it was more what Coach Dye's vision was," Whitt says. "It was feeding off his vision, which was to get Auburn on a level playing field with our opponents in the Southeastern Conference, putting Auburn in a place where it was respected across the country.
"The thing he talked about was hard work and building a program. What Coach said back then - probably more important than anything I've heard - was that he was `I'm not going to sacrifice the future for today. We're going to do it right and build this thing so we'll have a future.'"
Dye went on to win four SEC championships. When he left in 1992, a foundation had been laid that allowed each of the four coaches who followed him to have at least one 11-win season.
Even with Nick Saban entrenched across the state at Alabama, Whitt says there has been no better time to coach at Auburn. He said it even before Malzahn embarked on his first season.
"There is no better time than right now," Whitt says. "I guess you look back and say that's a little bit of prophecy that I said that before the season. What I meant is there are a lot of positive things in place here from facilities to the ability to recruit any athlete to the administration to all across the board.
"What better time to be at Auburn than now?"
When Dye arrived, the entire athletic department was housed in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Assistant coaches doubled up in small offices. Jordan-Hare Stadium, with a capacity of 72,169, was badly in need of being updated.
"I can remember when I first got here having meetings in the JV locker room," Whitt says. "Now every coach has his own meeting room. Wayne Hall was my office mate. You had to kind of slide in there to get to your desk. But we made do. We've come a long way."
Dye pushed for enlarging and modernizing the stadium. He pushed for a new football complex. Perhaps most importantly, he said Alabama should play at Jordan-Hare Stadium every other season. And he got it all done. In 2005, the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium was named Pat Dye Field.
Rodney Garner, Auburn's associate head coach and defensive line coach, had a closeup look at Dye's building process. He arrived at Auburn in 1984 and finished his playing career as an All-SEC offensive lineman in 1988.
"I think what Coach Dye was able to do in his time here was build Auburn football on a solid foundation,' Garner says. "It's built on a foundation that is meant to last. Even though it goes through some tough times, the foundation always stays strong. There may be some cracks in the structure, but the foundation is solid. You can always get Auburn back on track if you do it the right way."
Dye's steely eyed determination and demanding ways, Garner says, are still playing dividends more than three decades later.
"I'm forever grateful to Coach Dye and what he meant to this program," Garner says. "Hopefully, what my brothers and I did along the way showed these guys about being prideful about Auburn, putting Auburn first. I think whenever you do with that, it's amazing what Auburn can accomplish."
Dye, looking back to those early days, remembers a little girl. She was about 12 years old.
"She looked at me with those big ol' eyes and said `Coach, I've never seen Auburn beat Alabama,'" Dye says. "I said `You hang on, honey. You'll see it."
Dye's first Auburn team in 1981 pushed Alabama to the limit. In 1982, a nine-game Alabama win streak in the series ended when Bo Jackson went over the top and Auburn won 23-22. A year later, the Tigers celebrated the SEC championship and beat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-1.
"What I see is just the foundation and the expectation," Whitt says. "The expectation is to be at this level, to be where we are right now. That is what was set and that is what is expected. Usually, you get what you expect.
"Did these coaches know it was going to happen his year? Probably not, but they had a plan and the expectation to get there and knew they would get there because they are a dynamic group of men that work hard and work together well."
In 1984 and 1985, Auburn didn't meet expectations. Ranked No. 1 in the preseason in 1984 and early in the season in 1985, the Tigers went 9-4 and 8-4 the next two seasons. Garner says the reality of the program Dye built was clear after Auburn lost 36-16 to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1986.
"Coach Dye put all the seniors out of the locker room and put all the coaches out," Garner says. "He said `I want to apologize to you, because we don't have any men on this team.' We were like `What are you talking about? We are all men.' He said, `but don't worry, we've got a plan for you. When we get back to Auburn, you are going to go in the mines. You are going to go in as boys, but you are going to come out as men.' We thought he had lost his mind."
Dye was as good as his word, putting his players through a grueling offseason. They went 10-2 in 1986, finishing No. 6 in the final polls. They won SEC championships in 1987, 1988 and 1989.
"Needless to say, when we got back there were a lot of guys in that locker room that didn't last," Garner says. "What he put us through that offseason helped pave the way for the next season and for those next three SEC championships."
Dye didn't win a widely recognized championship, though he, his coaches and players say to this day they were national champions in 1983. But Terry Bowden had an 11-0 season. Tommy Tuberville was 13-0 in 2004 and Gene Chizik won it all in 2010.
For Garner, in his first season back at Auburn after 15 seasons at Georgia, it has been a season so remarkable that his emotions show through when he talks about it.
"It's sort of like a dream or a fantasy," Garner says. "I never thought we were far off. I didn't think 3-9 was indicative of what Auburn was or what we could be. I knew in my heart we were going to be much improved over what they did last year.
"We were going to take it one day at a time, one practice at a time. The only thing we were going to be concerned about was what it took to get Auburn better. We felt like if we got better every week, at the end there would be a reward that we all would enjoy. It came true."
Joe Whitt joined Pat Dye's first Auburn staff in 1981 and never left.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: