Former Auburn University head football coach, Pat Dye, seems reluctant to discuss the sport which consumed most of his life. When asked if he misses football, he shakes his head and turns the subject to his 740-acre farm near Notasulga. Retired since 1992, Dye’s days are now spent cultivating the 42 varieties of Japanese Maples he sells retail and wholesale in addition to his hunting business. Driving his truck through acres of oaks, birches, pines and willows, talk of the nursery consumes the conversation.
“I’m fascinated by Japanese Maples because of the different varieties. Each one has its own unique personality. The older they get, the more character they develop,” explains Dye. Leaving the truck, the 71 year old walks with purpose toward a landscaped gorge complete with water features, weeping willows and benches made from felled pine. He stops often to pick the weeds, gesturing an arm across the expanse while crediting Ricky Pope of Alexander City for the water features. “This was a field messed up from erosion into nothing more than ditches. I took what the Lord already put here and showed its true beauty,” says Dye. Maybe he isn’t reluctant to discuss football after all. Former players would argue the comment mirrors Dye’s coaching philosophy. “That’s exactly what Coach Dye did for me,” says former Auburn inside linebacker, Quentin Riggins. “There I was 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighed about 190 pounds. But coach saw more than some stats on paper. He saw stuff he knew would make for good people.”
Riggins’ first experience with Dye occurred on a football Saturday when he was a junior at Lee High School in Montgomery. He visited with his dad as a guest of the team, and Dye’s daughter, Missy, was the hostess. “Missy explained during breakfast that we would watch the game, eat sandwiches at halftime and then meet her dad and the other coaches after the game.” The only problem was Riggins’ dad. “My dad thanked her, but said we would be leaving at halftime because I had a job at McDonalds I had to get to.” Missy excused herself to inform her father of the situation, resulting in the Riggins’ invitation to join Dye in his office. “My dad told Coach Dye, ‘We appreciate the opportunity to visit with you after the game, but we are leaving at halftime. Quentin has to go to work tonight. He has a commitment he has to keep.’ ” Dye later told Riggins he decided on a scholarship for the 15 year old right then because of how he was raised. “Coach Dye insisted we were clean-shaven and wore a collared shirt when speaking to the press. He said we represented our parents, the University and the team. But mostly we represented our parents,” says Riggins.
Born Nov. 6, 1939, Patrick Fain Dye grew up on a farm by the Ogeechee River in South Georgia near Blyth where he moved when he was three months old. “I was supposed to be a girl. I was named after my baby doctor,” says Dye. He was the younger of two brothers, older than his sister, born to Frank Wayne and Nell Dye. “I was born to a woman who sold poppies for wounded veterans and to a daddy who let a 14-year-old black boy in rural Georgia drive a $10,000 tractor because he believed in the boy’s character. The sound of rain on a tin roof always reminds me of my childhood home.” Dye claims his best education came from peddling watermelons at 13 years old to rural African-American women. “They’d bargain with you on everyone of ‘em with their money tied up in a rag. I’d bring home $75-$100 in a cigar box and give it to Daddy.”
Sports consumed Dye’s childhood from quail hunts to fishing to sandlot football. “Football and fishing kept me away from girls,” Dye writes in his 1992 book, In the Arena. Dye didn’t play organized football until he was in the eighth grade. He followed his brothers to the University of Georgia, but earned his own mark by being elected captain for every football team on which he played. Dye played against Auburn legendary coach, Ralph “Shug” Jordan, a friend of the Dye family. He also entered the University of Georgia with three goals in mind: 1) do everything possible to help Georgia have a winning football program, 2) make All-American and 3) graduate. The third took the longest to achieve, but Dye checked all off the list. He was named an All-American, All-SEC and Academic All-American team member twice and was also the SEC Lineman of the Year in 1960.
Dye’s football journey led him to Canada where hard living convinced him to settle down. He married his high school sweetheart, the former Sue Ward, in 1960, and the couple eventually had four children: Brett, Wanda, Missy and Pat Jr. After the first season in Canada, the couple returned south for Dye to complete his degree at the University of Georgia. After graduation, he received an officer’s commission from the Army ROTC and reported to Fort Benning, Ga., following a second season in Canadian football. Football found Dye even in the Army where his team won all games including the military championship. At the Washington Touchdown Club’s annual banquet, Dye entered a conversation to change the course of his career. He met the University of Alabama’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Dye writes in his book, “I wrote Coach Bryant a letter and told him I had a job playing football…but if I had the opportunity to work for him, I would give up playing.” Bryant eventually invited him to Tuscaloosa. Dye knew Bryant was an early riser so he woke at 2 a.m. to arrive in Tuscaloosa at 6 a.m. Before meeting the coach, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches cut the tags off Dye’s new suit. Dye writes he was half asleep when he put it on. “Coach Bryant, when he hired me, said, ‘I’m gonna let you WATCH the linebackers.’ He didn’t say COACH.” Dye stayed eight years in Tuscaloosa before accepting head coaching positions at East Carolina University and the University of Wyoming. But a former Auburn University football player and a University of Georgia head football coach wrapped up in one person gave Dye the green light to step onto the field that would later bare his name. In 1980, Georgia head football coach and former Auburn player, Vince Dooley, was in talks with Auburn for the position of head football coach. A member of Georgia’s Board of Regents called Dye to gauge his interest in coaching for Georgia. The rest is history – Dooley stayed at Georgia, and Dye came to Auburn. A new tradition arrived on the Plains.
“Coach Dye did a tremendous job of rebuilding a program that was struggling,” says Wayne Hall, former defensive coach at Auburn. Over the next 12 seasons, Dye amassed a record of 99-39-4, placing him third behind Mike Donahue and Shug Jordan for the most wins in the University’s history. He became only the fourth coach in SEC history to win three consecutive SEC championships. Dye was a three-time recipient of the SEC Coach of the Year and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In the minds of alumni, perhaps Dye’s greatest achievement was the stadium expansion to accommodate the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare stadium in 1989 in which the Tigers beat the Tide.
Dye coached such legendary players as Heisman Trophy winner Vincent “Bo” Jackson and Tracy Rocker, winner of the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. Players remember the pain of two-a-days under a grueling summer sun and the plays run over and over until a player drops to his knees in exhaustion. Players also agree the scrappy farm boy from Georgia used every minute to mold them into men.
“Coach Dye’s word was always gospel. He preached to us. If we acted in a negative way off the field, it was a reflection of how he coached. He said that he would send us home if we acted out, and he did. He was very much a father figure to all of us,” says Jackson, who enjoyed a successful career in both professional football and baseball in addition to dabbling in Hollywood films. David Jordan was a sophomore left tackle during Dye’s first year at Auburn. “He would push us to the point you thought you couldn’t go any further, and then he would push a little more. We would practice before breakfast because he was showing us the body will endure more than the mind would let you,” says Jordan, a member of the 1986 Super Bowl Champions New York Giants.
“Coach Dye always preached poise and confidence and to rely on the guy next to you for strength. I guess if you had to sum up one characteristic about Coach Dye, he was and still is an intense fighter, and he taught every player and coach how to prepare yourself for the fights you would have on the field as well as later in life,” says Jordan. Missy Dye McDonald says her father taught the same lessons to his children. “One time he challenged my brother, Pat Jr., and I to see who could brush their teeth and get into the bed quickest. The winner would receive a nickel. Well, I thought I would win because I was the quickest. But Dad gave Pat Jr. the nickel because he brushed his teeth more thorough. And he made me re-brush!” Missy adds her father taught her by example to put heart and soul into whatever she does. “People who know Dad know he lives leaving everything out on the playing field.” Unfortunately, Dye’s tenure at Auburn concluded in 1992 under a cloud of controversy due to a former player’s allegations of racism. “I can tell you, as much as I love football, as much as it has been a part of my life since I was a boy, all of the joy went out of the game for me in 1991,” Dye writes in his book. The NCAA found Dye innocent of any personal wrongdoing, and he left coaching with a tinge of sadness.
Divorced since 1998, Dye now spends his days tending to trees and a rotating number of dogs and horses, while in the company of Professor Emerita Nancy McDonald, Ph.D., whom he lovingly calls his “spousal equivalent.” “When Pat and I met, I had a specific list of things I didn’t want in my life, and one of them was dating a man interested in football. I don’t care a thing for football. So when Pat started after me, I told him his legendary status didn’t mean a thing to me. What might have appealed to other women wouldn’t work. I was more interested in the man inside,” says Nancy. “I told Pat I wasn’t interested in dating, but we could be friends. I’ll never forget what he said then. He told me, ‘I’m as hungry for a friend as I’ve ever been in my life.’ In his deepest part, Pat works from love.” After balancing academics with athletics most of his life, it’s strangely apropos Dye winds up with the retired Auburn University at Montgomery assistant dean of Nursing.
“The things he loves, I love. Most people look at Pat through a football lens, but he’s so much more than that. If I had met Pat as a child, we’d be like wild kids out in the woods. We share a love of nature and animals. He’s always running up to me about something new he’s found and wants to show me. We both grew up in the country so we love being outdoors.” The farm is often filled with visitors, hunters or family as the couple shares 11 grandchildren between them. But in quiet moments, they often sit in chairs overlooking the pond while a descending sun burns the water in red and gold. “Pat always wonders why we would ever want to go anywhere when we live in paradise,” says Nancy. But trees seem to be the bonding agent between the two as McDonald says she grew up in tree tops. She recalls Dye showing her a tree and commenting, “This little fellow is in trouble.” “Pat would give it attention, and it would blossom. He’s that way with people, too. I would imagine that’s how he was with his players,” says Nancy.
Dye’s philosophy on tree management is simple, reflecting once again the derivative of his coaching mentality. “If an acorn falls and lands under the parent tree, it’s always going to be dependent on the parent for nutrients and sun. But if an acorn lands away from the parent tree, its roots grow deeper in search of water during dry times so that when a natural disaster occurs, the tree is ready with strong roots. It’s kind of like children. Both will grow, but one will never reach its full potential and will become fragmented when faced with challenges.” Dye’s Crooked Oaks and Auburn Oaks guest lodges host quail, deer and turkey hunting parties of up to 20. Crooked Oaks, which houses the majority of Dye’s football memorabilia, is also available for weddings, corporate retreats and special events. For information regarding the lodges, contact Chico Canady at 334.525.1593.
Dye’s Japanese Maple trees are available both wholesale and retail. Prices start around $10 and go up to $2,500 for a fully developed specimen. For more information, contact Casey Teel at 334.313-6921.