Tuesday, September 29, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Paul Bryant vs. Ralph Jordan, 1958-75

Perhaps no coach in SEC history became so intensely identified with his alma mater through a career of long and loyal service than Ralph “Shug” Jordan. The Selma native lettered at Auburn (or Alabama Polytechnic Institute as it was known until 1960) in football, basketball and baseball. As a senior in 1932 Jordan was named the school’s most outstanding athlete. That was no mean feat on an API football team that went undefeated at 9-0-1 to claim a share of the last Southern Conference title before the inception of the SEC in 1933.

Jordan loved Auburn. With the exception of wartime tours of duty in Europe and the Pacific and a few years in exile as an assistant coach at UGa, he literally spent his entire adult life on 'the plains'. A year after graduating he returned to API as head basketball coach and assistant football coach. He served through the Depression without great distinction in either sport. API football and basketball both hovered slightly above .500 during the 1930s. Jordan was a soft spoken coach, never the kind of coach to make great waves or draw attention. But there was no doubting his determination. Nor his courage, given his wartime service record. Jordan participated in the invasions of Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Okinawa. He was wounded seriously enough in the Normandy campaign to require lengthy recuperation and transfer to the Pacific. His service earned him both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Toward the end of his life as he struggled through a losing battle with aggressive and painful cancer Bear Bryant commented to a reporter:

“[Ralph Jordan] has more courage in his little finger than I’ve got in my entire body.”

Understandably after such selfless wartime service Jordan wanted to return to the place and work that he loved. He resumed his work as API basketball coach for one season, but he found the appeal of football growing and decided to take an assistant position with the professional Miami Seahawks. After one year Jordan moved to Athens as an assistant to Wallace Butts. His time at Georgia coincided with Earl Brown’s disastrous tenure as head football coach in Auburn. After Brown posted an 0-10 record in 1950 there was only one choice for API. The school's most loyal son received the call.

Jordan didn’t right the ship overnight, but in his quiet, committed way he began coaching with simplicity, clarity and humanity. Shug kept his play-book very simple, running only variations of roughly ten plays but insisting that they be run well every time. He also refused to exact too high a price from his players in practice. He once told a reporter:

“We don’t eat ourselves alive in practice… It’s unthinkable for us to lose a Saturday game in a Tuesday scrimmage.”

After a three decade hiatus following a dispute regarding gate receipts from the 1907API-Alabama game the state’s leading football schools resumed their annual series in 1948. Since the 1907 fixture the Crimson Tide had become a national power, winning national titles under two coaches and claiming multiple Rose Bowl crowns. The Plainsmen, on the other hand, remained a regional power at best and were clear second in the state. Men of Alabama’s less favored institution chaffed under the feeling of second-class status. Athletics offered a way to regain some pride, but from 1948 to 1953 Bama won five of six. Jordan’s first two seasons were tough going. He followed a 5-5 record his first year with a disappointing 2-8 campaign. But through a combination of confidence, charm and some dubious recruiting practices that quickly landed API with six-years of NCAA probation Jordan began to convince the state’s better athletes to play for him. As API’s stock rose the Crimson Tide fell. From 1954 to 1958 Shug took five straight over the state’s flagship university, restoring API pride and giving the Plainsmen their longest winning streak in the rivalry until recent times.

The API 1957 national championship team

Jordan’s career was not one long string of championships. Many might not even consider his coaching success to be outstanding. Shug coached Auburn football for twenty-five seasons from 1951 to 1975, compiling a record of 175-83-7. 1957 provided his only conference and national titles. But Jordan's teams finished second in the conference seven times. After his first four seasons as coach Auburn finished below third in the conference only ten times in twenty one seasons. That doesn’t sound too impressive at first. Nor does a 5-7 bowl record without a single victory in any of the four major New Year’s Day games. But finishing in the top third of SEC play in almost two of every three seasons over several decades is very difficult. Ask a coach who has tried. Very, very few have done better.

Jordan was voted coach of the year by the national coaches association, the AP and the SEC. Even though NCAA regulations prohibited API from accepting their Sugar Bowl bid, it was a great year. But Auburn fans don’t remember Shug for one great season, or even for a considerable number of very respectable seasons. They remember him as a consistent, committed, unassuming, unerringly loyal servant of their school. Shug Jordan was, more than anything, an Auburn man. His legacy would be remembered with more reverence by people outside of eastern Alabama had Jordan not suffered the misfortune of spending much of his coaching tenure across the state from a man whose legend became utterly insurmountable.

Paul Bryant was simply a football man. Growing up dirt poor in Fordye, Arkansas life didn’t offer many opportunities. Bryant earned his life-long nickname by agreeing to wrestle a bear at a travelling carnival. He was promised a dollar for every minute he stayed in the ring but never saw a cent because the bear’s muzzle came off and Bryant wisely ran away. Bryant was no coward. When Frank Thomas offered him a scholarship to play football for Alabama he grabbed the first real opportunity life had given him with both hands. The Bear played hurt on numerous occasions, including the entirety of a famous game against Mississippi State on a broken leg. He went to be the most demanding coach in the business, but no one could call him a hypocrite. Bryant gave 100% as a Bama player, despite not possessing the most talent. He played opposite Don Hutson on the 1934 Rose Bowl winning team and was jokingly known as “the other end”. Hutson, not Bryant, went on to set countless NFL receiving records. Bryant later said of his own coaching career that he was an ordinary coach of great players but a great coach of average players. He boasted that he could make his players think they were all-Americans. That boast wasn’t arrogance, it was fact.

Alabama has never had a Heisman Trophy winner. Through a quarter-century of unrivaled success in Tuscaloosa the Bear never produced a single player that critics viewed as individually peerless. Bryant excelled by producing not a handful of great players but hundreds of players like himself. He made men play above their ability, consistently give full effort, and perform as a team far beyond individual capability. Bryant’s records speak for themselves. After graduation he worked as an assistant to Thomas. He never wanted to do anything but coach. Bryant committed his entire life and legacy to the game and the men football can produce. When the U.S. entered WWII he went to the Iowa pre-flight program and coached with various future greats including Woody Hayes to help physically prepare pilots for war. Bryant coached the University of Kentucky from 1946 to 1953, going 60-23-5. More than half a century later Bryant still holds the best winning percentage of any Kentucky coach. The Wildcats have yet to repeat his 1950 SEC and Sugar Bowl championships.

The Bear’s practices were demanding; probably unnecessarily so. After taking over a lifeless Texas A&M program in 1954 he famously drove his entire football squad into rural west Texas and held brutal workouts for two weeks. Half his team quit and the Bear posted the only losing year of his career with a 1-9 record. A lot of commentators look at that camp as a sacrificial separation of men from boys that founded the nucleus of an A&M program that lost only four games over the next three seasons. It seems more likely that Junction was the disaster it appeared. For the only time in his career the Bear lost most of his team, literally and metaphorically. Bryant was a great coach for the same reason Alexander was a great general. His players believed in him and would do anything for him. At Junction, the Bear learned how far was too far. He remained a grueling, exacting, gruff and demanding mean cuss of a coach, but he never pushed a team so far again.

In 1955 Jennings Whitworth’s Tide went an unacceptable 0-10. The next two seasons were little better at a combined 4-14-2. A university accustomed to Rose Bowls and national acclaim did not like losing football games to the state’s agricultural school. The Bear took over in 1958. His first Crimson Tide team finished 5-4-1. That was the only time in twenty-five seasons that Bryant did not take Alabama to a Bowl. In a quarter-century, without ever incurring any penalty for any kind of NCAA violation, Bryant went 232-46-9. He went to 24 bowls with a record of 11-10-2, winning seven Sugar Bowls, two Orange Bowls and a Cotton Bowl. His teams earned six national championships and ten SEC titles. In an incredible eleven year stretch from 1971 to 1981 the Bear’s teams won nine SEC titles and finished second the other two years. After finishing sixth and fourth in the SEC his first two seasons Bryant never came in lower than third in the SEC standings - twenty-three consecutive seasons in the top third of the SEC! His coaching record is not only peerless, it will never be matched. No one will ever come close.

Year in, year out with whatever players he had, Bryant found a way to win. He once called over to the Auburn football office at 6 a.m during Iron Bowl week. Someone answered the phone and told him that no coaches were in their offices yet. The Bear asked:

“Don’t they care about football over at Auburn?”

That was the effort he demanded. That was the effort he gave himself. When he saw his all-American quarterback Joe Namath slacking off in practice and heard other players complaining, he instructed an assistant to give Namath a dirty old jersey. Bryant told his quarterback in front of the entire team that he had to work harder than the other players to earn a clean jersey back. That was the summer of 1966. The Tide went unbeaten that year, won a national title and Namath went on to the New York Jets where he did quite well.

Everything Paul Bryant did at Alabama he did well, but especially beating Auburn. Over a quarter century the Bear went 19-6 against the Tigers. The record prior to Jordan’s retirement is slightly more favorable to Auburn at 13-5. But out competing Bryant on a consistent basis was simply impossible. Even the best coaches failed to keep pace. But every so often Shug’s patience, tenacity, and humble resolve would produce teams that caught their perennially more favored in-state nemesis off guard. Sometimes, as if in response to shows of hubris of Homeric proportions, the gods themselves intervened on Auburn’s behalf.

Such was the case with Auburn’s most legendary Iron Bowl triumph. Heading into the Birmingham showdown on December 2nd 1972 the second ranked Crimson Tide were 10-0 and already had the SEC title wrapped up. Bama had not lost a regular season game in two years, since Auburn’s last Iron Bowl triumph in 1969. The line on the game was Bama by 16. Auburn men had every right to take exception to such an insult. The Tigers were 9-1 with only a lopsided loss to LSU blemishing another manifestly respectable season for Shug’s boys.

Despite Auburn’s determination to upstage their rival the Tiger offense accomplished nothing all day. Superior execution and athletes appeared to have made the difference, as they so often had before, with Bama leading 16-3 deep into the fourth quarter. With 5:30 left in the game Auburn forced a punt on the Alabama forty yard line. As Greg Gantt wound up for his kick Auburn committed about everyone but their return man to the rush. The Bama line collapsed almost instantly and linebacker Bill Newton spread his huge body in front of Gantt with abandon. The ball bounced back with enough force to carry it to the Bama 25, where defensive back David Langer reeled it in without apparent effort and strode into the end zone. Langer’s move from Auburn’s line into rushing the punter and on through Bama’s goal-line took place in one fluid motion. Auburn celebrated, but at 16-10 the victory appeared a moral one.

The gods had other ideas. After receiving the ensuing kickoff the Alabama offense once again reached only their own forty-yard line before stalling. By that point only 1:30 remained. The chances of Auburn achieving offensively in a minute and a half what they had failed to manage in the preceding fifty-eight were negligible. With nothing to lose Jordan signaled for his team to send everything at the kick again. Incredibly Auburn repeated the penetration of an Alabama line that seemed to evaporate under the pressure as it hadn’t done in two entire seasons. Once again Newton reached the ball first, swatting it as it left Gantt’s foot. Once again it fell into the path of Langer, and once again the Auburn defensive back sailed without breaking stride for a score. Auburn won 17-16, derailed Alabama’s national title hunt, and earned a Gator Bowl berth for themselves. Without having gained anything worth remembering on offense all day Auburn posted an immortal victory on the strength of two special teams TDs and a missed Bama point-after. The odds were so staggeringly improbable that even the most casual of fans can readily ascribe the legendary “Punt, Bama, punt!” Iron Bowl of 1972 to the football gods. This game was their gift to a long suffering API graduate who spent his life faithfully toiling in the Bear’s expansive shadow.

Two years later, the 1974 Iron Bowl featured undefeated 1st ranked Alabama and 4th ranked one-loss Auburn. The national as well as SEC championship was on the line. But in the state of Alabama one thing is more important than national fame. Bryant told a reporter succinctly in the run up to the game:

“The state championship of Alabama means everything. This is for bragging rights for the next 365 days.”

Alabama had limped through the season with various injuries, finding ways to win with whoever was available. Starting quarterback Gary Rutledge was lost early. Later his replacement Richard Todd missed three games with a knee injury. Despite the unblemished record and top ranking it had been an ugly season from the Tide, including a late comeback 8-7 win over a Florida State team that had lost sixteen straight. The ’74 Iron Bowl proved no exception. Both teams moved the ball but also made their share of mistakes. Only gritty special teams play kept the Tide unbeaten.

Early in the first quarter a 35 yard strike to tight end Ozzie Newsome took Bama into Auburn territory. The drive continued to the Tigers’ three yard line before Todd lost a fumble. Bama’s next possession started deep in their own half after a clipping penalty on Auburn’s punt. After grinding their way into Auburn territory the Tide seemed to have settled down when Todd hit Willy Selby on a short swing pass that the receiver converted for a 45-yard touchdown. After Bama extended the lead to 10 on their next possession Auburn responded with an impressive long drive, pounding the same basic inside running play with Sedrick McIntyre most of the 71 yards to the end zone. The teams would have finished the half tied at ten except for Alabama end Leroy Cook managing to get his long arms in the way of a seemingly simple 21-yard field goal attempt from Auburn’s Chris Wilson. Alabama extended the lead to 17-7 early in the third quarter behind the gritty running of Calvin Culliver and Randy Billingsley. Auburn responded with a 41-yard touchdown pass from Phil Gargis, only to see the score wiped off because the receiver had stepped out of bounds prior to catching the ball. In the fourth quarter Todd was stuffed in brutal fashion on 4th and goal before Auburn drove 72-yards two possessions later on a touchdown drive that included a twelve yard pass from a fake field goal attempt. After a two-point conversation failed Bama led 17-13. Auburn gained one last possession with a minute remaining but defensive end Mike Dubose sealed the victory by busting up a developing reverse hand-off in the back field. Dubose batted the ball from Gargis’ hand and fell on it gratefully.

As Auburn had in their famous win two years earlier, Alabama rode their luck. In the grand scheme however, the Bear made his own luck. As a freshman Mike Dubose had suffered an excruciating injury when another player accidentally stamped on his crotch in a scrum. Dubose underwent surgery to remove a crushed testicle and doctors told Bryant the boy could not play again. When he heard the news Dubose threatened to transfer to Troy State and continue playing there. Bryant realized that if an athlete that tough wanted to play football so badly, he should play it for Bama. Dubose was the kind of player that gave everything. He gave as much as Bryant demanded. He gave as much as Bryant had given for Frank Thomas.

Players like Dubose, whom Bryant seemed to produce or find by the truck-load, were the reason Alabama won so many titles in that magical quarter century. No one else could keep up. In many senses it is hardly fair to say Bryant had any rivals. His career truly was peerless. And yet, without the constant, unyielding service of Ralph Jordan there is no knowing how much farther behind Auburn might have fallen. Bryant respected and admired Jordan more than anyone. He told viewers on his Sunday morning TV show after the 1973 Iron Bowl:

“Coach Jordan’s a wonderful person and I consider him a close personal friend.”

That was a friendship built on competition that bred mutual respect. Bryant’s commendation of another coach’s career should be high enough praise for any critic.

The Bear not cooperating with a new fangled female sideline reporter.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Sorry for the long delay in posting, if anyone noticed. I was sidetracked by some rather serious exams. I'm done. I passed. It's time for football.

As an appendix to my recent Vince Dooley-Pat Dye post here are some gratuitous Bo Jackson/Herschel Walker highlights.

Simply the greatest, ever.

This guy was pretty good, too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

SEC coaching rivalries: Vince Dooley v. Pat Dye, 1982-88

The Auburn Tigers went 0-10 in 1950. That was last season in Earl Brown's disastrous tenure. A 3-22 mark in three seasons was simply unacceptable. In 1951 a young quarterback named Vince Dooley entered the program and a new head coach, Ralph “Shug” Jordon, took over at the helm. Shug began to slowly right the ship. A 7-13 record over his first two years gave way to 7-3-1 and 8-3 campaigns in 1953 and 1954. In the latter year Shug and Dooley did what Auburn coaches are hired to do: beat 'Bama.

Quarterback and coach grew together as Dooley learned from Jordon’s workman-like approach. He returned to Auburn a few years after graduating as a history graduate student and assistant coach. Dooley’s youthful enthusiasm and skill attracted enough attention on Jordon’s perennial winning staffs that the struggling University of Georgia took a chance on him in 1964. As a 32 year old rookie head coach, his first game could hardly have been more difficult. Dooley took a team that had gone 4-5-1 in 1963 into an opener on the road in Tuscaloosa against Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide.

Dooley was too young to be scared. He felt confident of his ability to combine Jordon's wisdom with his own energy and out work older coaches. He prepared his team with feverish commitment all off-season and traveled to Alabama on September 19th somehow convinced that he would shock the football world with a stunning road win. Georgia lost 31-3. Alabama went on to finish 10-1 and win a national title. Dooley discovered to his chagrin that old coaches could work quite hard themselves. Even still, Dooley’s 7-3-1 first-year record signaled an impressive turn around for the Dogs. A year later Dooley had a second chance as Bama opened their title defense in Athens on September 18th 1965.

The Bear was high on his team and told a reporter in the lead up to the game that Steve Sloan was “the best quarterback I’ve coached” – high praise from a man who had coached “Broadway” Joe Namath. Sloan started slowly, even tossing a pick that the Bulldogs ran back for a 10-0 lead. A mistake-filled affair that possessed all the hall marks of a season opener was still tied at ten deep in the fourth quarter before Sloan led a 74 yard touchdown drive to take the lead with less than four minutes remaining. Dooley then did with timely courage what he had failed to achieve by pure effort a year before. He called a trick play. Sophomore quarterback Kirby Moore threw to his End Pat Hodgson at the Georgia thirty-five. Hodgson immediately lateraled back across the field to Halfback Bob Taylor. None of the referees noticed that Hodgson’s knee was down before the pass and fortune favored the brave as Taylor raced untouched for a touchdown, giving the Dogs a chance to tie the game. But the young coach wasn’t done. Perhaps still smarting from his embarrassing first outing and wanting to prove himself on the biggest stage he doubled down and went for two. Moore hit Hodgson again on a pass play thrown from an obvious rushing formation. Georgia knocked off the champ, 18-17. The SEC’s youngest coach had shocked its most revered.

Georgia fans wanted more than notable upset wins. The Dogs had won only two SEC titles since WWII, in 1948 and 1959. Meanwhile Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee had enough SEC trophies to take a bath in, while in-state rival Georgia Tech had done well enough to confidently striking out on its own as an independent. Georgia fans wanted a national power program. Dooley delivered. Three weeks after the Alabama win he took his over-matched Bulldogs into Ann Arbor and ground-out a 15-7 win over then unbeaten Michigan. In addition to organized, savvy and hard-working Dooley was also a genuine intellect. Not many head coaches can boast M.A. theses with titles matching “Senator James Thomas Heflin and the Democratic Party Revolt in Alabama.” When he finally retired in 1988 Georgians all the way up to Lieutenant Governor (now U.S. Senator) Zell Miller expressed public hope that he would enter politics. They didn’t just say that because he had won 200 football games. Dooley was actually mentally qualified for public office.

Brains, work, ethic, ambition and charm all helped Dooley make Georgia Tech’s in-state recruiting edge a thing of the past. UGa gained a strangle-hold on the best in-state talent that it has never relinquished. Over twenty-five seasons Dooley developed and coached that talent pool to a 201-77. He won SEC titles in 1966, 68 and 76 before adding three more in consecutive seasons from 1980-82. He was Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year in 1976 and won the Walter Camp award in 1980. His 8-12 bowl record included a Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame and two Cotton Bowl championships. Most importantly to Georgia fans tired of languishing in Bama and Tennessee’s combined shadow, Dooley earned an elusive national title in 1980 on the back of a phenomenon freshman running back named Herschel Walker.

The 1980 Bulldogs were perhaps the quintessential Dooley team: unfancied, underrated, far from flashy, organized, and fortuitous. Week after week Georgia seemed to possess the favor of the gods. Despite three first-half fumbles at Tennessee the Dogs recovered to beat the Vols 16-15. Clemson out gained them by 206 yards in the first two quarters but eventually lost 14-20. Trailing 13-10 but looking likely to score, South Carolina’s George Rogers fumbled on the Bulldog’s seventeen with five minutes to play, allowing Georgia to hold on. Against Florida Georgia trailed by a point and were pinned inside the ten with only 90 seconds to play. After grinding only as far as the twenty-six yard line with time expiring fast a Gator defensive back slipped in a one-on-one tackling situation and Georgia went seventy-four yards in one play for the win.

In the 1981 Sugar Bowl few gave Georgia a prayer. The undersized Bulldogs had managed to complete an 11-0 regular season without facing a single opponent that finished in the top twenty. 9-1-1 Notre Dame, on the other hand, had lost only to an eight win USC team on the road. On the Bulldog’s first possession Walker went down to a bruising challenge and was helped off the field. Team doctors told the freshman stud that his shoulder was dislocated and his day was over. But Herschel hadn’t travelled to New Orleans to watch. Nor had he completely eclipsed the previous NCAA freshman rushing total through timidity and caution. He instructed the doctors to pop his shoulder back into place before the next offensive possession. By the time the clock ran down to zero the Irish had gained 328 yards to Georgia’s total was a paltry 138. More astoundingly, Walker accounted for 150 yards alone. The rest of the Georgia rushing attack helped him out with negative twelve yards! Even by the unimpressive standards of a Dooley team, Georgia’s passing on the day was irrelevant. Buck Belue made his one and only completion of the day with two minutes remaining. Georgia relied on gritty defense, special-teams momentum swingers, and the good will of the gods.

In the first quarter with the Irish already up by three UGa freshman Terry Hoage blocked a forty yards field goal try. Hoage was a former walk-on who had literally earned his scholarship by blocking field goals in practice. Georgia recovered the blocked kick and gained yardage but could do nothing on offense with Walker still receiving treatment. A 49-yard kick tied the game before Georgia’s kick coverage team eagerly capitalized on a ND special-teams error to recover a fumble only one yard from the end zone. Walker came back on to put the Dogs ahead a touchdown. Notre Dame held the next kickoff only to lose it again up near midfield when defensive captain Frank Ros put a punishing hit on Irish fullback John Sweeney. The Dogs scored again from a short field, entirely on Walker’s dynamic and tenacious running. Somehow, Georgia led 17-3 at halftime.

Mid-way through the third quarter UGa all-America cornerback Scott Woerner added to his first half interception by batting down a Blair Kiel pass in the end zone that looked certain to find its intended receiver. That play was followed immediately by an Irish field goal miss. Harry Oliver, who had opened the scoring from fifty yards out, would miss another kick later making him just one of four on the day. Keil found enough breathing room to lead one TD drive, making the score 17-10, but late in the fourth quarter with three minutes remaining Woerner added a second pick. He jumped the receiver's route on a slightly under thrown sideline deep ball on fourth down. Georgia only needed to drain the clock to be national champion.

Georgia won, with a 200-yard deficit on offense. Four turnovers and three missed field goals sank the Irish, who no doubt blamed themselves. But a classic Dooley team put up a classic Dooley performance. That was Georgia football from 1964 to 1988: unfashionable, organized, stout. Teams tended to turn the ball over against the Dogs.

Overall, Dooley’s success was emphatic. Against Georgia’s great rival and the coach’s alma mater the story was somewhat more mixed. In the fifteen seasons preceding his national title Dooley was an even 7-7-1 against his former mentor, despite the Tigers’ decreasingly impressive teams. Shug Jordon’s career fizzled out in 1975 with a 4-6-1 valedictory tour. His successor Doug Barfield did about as well as the guy taking over from a legend might expect. A losing start gave way to steady improvement, climaxing with a respectable 8-3 record in 1979 before going 5-6 the year the hated Bulldogs won it all. The University alumni base and administration had little patience after chaffing for years under the Bear’s weighty presence and now suffering the meteoric rise of the Dogs under the tutelage of a former Tiger letterman. Barfield was fired.

Surely the Auburn athletics office did not think of parallels with Vince Dooley when they hired a former UGa standout as their new head coach for the 1981 season. Pat Dye grew up in coastal Georgia, near Augusta. Even in the early 1950s when the Yellow Jackets were the state’s reigning football power, the coastal region was only ever for the Bulldogs. Dye played for Wally Butts, Georgia’s longest serving and most beloved coach before Dooley. He made all conference three times and all-America in 1959 and 1960. After a few years in the NFL and CFL Dye returned to college ranks as an assistant at Auburn’s first nemesis, Alabama. Dye learned under the Bear for nearly a decade, and learned well. He took his first head coaching job at East Carolina in 1976 and won almost fifty games in six seasons before moving on to Wyoming. In 1980 he began to turn the Cowboys around, earning the school its first winning record in quite some time. That resume was more than enough for Auburn fans desperate to turn the table on the school’s two more favored rivals.

Dye’s first year didn’t give Auburn fans too much to cheer about. In the two final games of a 5-6 1981 campaign Auburn lost to defending national champions Georgia and played poetic victim to Bama for the Bear’s 315th win. Auburn fans did not enjoy sitting in Legion Field watching Coach Bryant surpass Amos Stagg’s win tally. But Dye turned things around, as his former mentor must have suspected he would when he advised him not to take the Auburn job in the first place. The Bear knew that Dye would not be intimidated. Amongst many qualities essential for coaching success Dye possessed a remarkable confidence. He commented during his first year that Auburn sat geographically between two schools that had combined to dominate the SEC for the previous twelve seasons. His only comment on that fact was:

“Well, they aint got nothing but people. You can talk about the Alabama mystique and the Georgia mystique, but they’ve done it with people. Hell, we’ve got people, too.”

And they did; one in particular. Dye didn’t beat ‘Bama his first year, or compile a winning record. But his confidence beat out the Bear in the state’s most important recruiting struggle and secured Auburn the services of a young man named Bo.

The huge, irrepressible back powered for 4,303 yards in four seasons and claimed a Heisman Trophy. Jackson’s presence in the Auburn backfield helped Dye lead the Tigers to their best decade since the fifties. From 1982 through the 1990 season Dye never won less than eight games. In those nine seasons Auburn won ten games three times and eleven once. More importantly, the Tigers moved out from under their conference rivals’ dominance, winning the SEC championship four times. Dye even turned the ables on the Bear in 1982, giving the 'Bama legend only his sixth Iron Bowl loss in a quarter century in his last ever regular season game.

Dye’s Auburn career did not finish well. In September 1991 a former Tiger defensive back Eric Ramsey gave tapes of phone conversations between himself, Dye and several AU boosters to the Montgomery Advertiser. The conversations involved discussion of various payments that had been made to Ramsey with Dye’s knowledge. The controversy eventually led to NCAA sanctions, but as with all things in the SEC the W-L column tally proved the bottom line. Dye went 5-6 and 5-6-1 in 1991 and 1992 before the school finally pushed him out. Auburn fans would quite rightly argue that everyone was cheating in the 1990s. That doesn’t make cheating right, but it also doesn’t necessarily detract from an otherwise outstanding coaching career. And through the 1980s Dye’s career was just that. Great, even by comparison to Vince Dooley.

Dooley and Dye coached against one another seven times, each one leading a former rival against his alma mater with consummate professionalism. Dye held a clear edge, going 5-2 against Dooley. But those figures certainly reflect the careers of Herschel and Bo. Walker played three years in Athens before jumping early for the pros after the 1983 season. His first year he ran for an NCAA freshman record 1,616 yards - despite missing an entire game. In 1982, the only time the two lined up in opposing backfields as college players, Bo made an impressive but incomparable 829 yards as a freshman. Georgia won the head to head contest that year in Auburn, 19-14. In three seasons with Herschel Walker on the team the Dogs had lost only one regular season game and none in the SEC. From 1983 to 1985, with an uncontested Bo Jackson in the limelight, Auburn won three straight over Georgia.

In many ways Dye’s Tigers were the mirror image of Dooley’s Bulldogs. Dye generally ran the triple option wishbone well after it had gone out of style elsewhere. If he wanted to get flashy he switched to the deep-set I. Like Dooley he relied on tough running and rarely tried passing play deeper than the opposing linebacking corps. On November 12th 1983 Bo Jackson and the Tigers walked into Sanford stadium to meet the Bulldogs between the hedges. Even without Walker, Dooley had his Dogs at 8-0-1. Georgia hadn’t tasted defeat in conference play since 1979. But Dye’s 1983 Tigers were a different class than his first two teams. When Dye had his first team meeting in the spring of 1981 he told his players:

“I’m going to the Sugar Bowl and anyone who doesn’t want to go with me can leave.”

The confidence and will to win that made Dye think he could stand toe to toe with the Bear and Vince Dooley caused dozens of Auburn players to quit by the end of spring ball. But by 1983 it had bred a like-minded team. Before the final three minutes of the 1983 Georgia-Auburn contest the visitors had ground 359 yards, led by Bo Jackson’s less-than-innovative power running. In answer the Dogs only managed 90 yards running into the teeth of a Tiger defense that simply refused to move. Dye ran a 5-2 defense, front loaded against the SEC’s run-first approach. Anchored by monster nose-tackle Dowe Aughtman and shored up by lighter, faster linebackers like Gregg Carr, conservative offenses struggled to turn the corner on Auburn. And Dooley was certainly conservative with the ball.

Without Herschel Walker the Bulldogs couldn’t find the extra gear. In the final three minutes quarterback John Lastinger finally found his rhythm and led the Bulldogs on an 80 yard TD drive, making the score 13-7. Georgia safety David Painter recovered an onside kick and suddenly the decision looked in doubt for the first time all day. But Dye’s gutsy team booked its place in the Sugar Bowl after all. After seemingly catching a lifeline the Bulldogs managed negative six yards including two Auburn tackles for loss. After decades of Dooley-Bryant dominance in the SEC the Tigers had finally turned the corner.

Though Dooley coached at Georgia a quarter century, his very best years were clustered in the early 1980s when Herschel Walker was carrying the ball. But the decade as a whole belonged to Dye. Two coaches (who each graduated from the other’s school) perennially hovering around 10 wins and sharing six SEC titles in ten seasons. Two Heisman Trophy running backs each wearing the same number; both leaving lasting legacies as their programs’ favorite sons. That was SEC rivalry at its very best.