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I was sad to learn of Pat Dye’s death today. I never met Pat, but for about 10 minutes over 40 years ago, our paths crossed.
He taught me a lesson that day I will always remember.
It was 1977, and the Virginia Tech football program was a mess. The Hokies had just finished 3-7-1 and a player had died in the athletic dormitories after being forced to run punishment drills. Coach Jimmy Sharpe and the entire staff were fired.
As is always the case when a coach is fired, the rumor mill immediately fired up as to who the potential replacement would be. I was the sports editor of a twice a week newspaper called the Blacksburg Sun (we even had T-shirts that said “now doing it twice a week”) and was also a senior at Virginia Tech, trying to take classes and work a fulltime job to pay the bills.
To make a few extra bucks, I also wrote some stories for United Press International, and the bureau chief in Richmond and I had become good friends (which we still are to this day). He asked if I had a story on who the potential replacements were I could send him, and given that I could write it for my newspaper, then send it to him and get an extra $15, the story moved to No. 1 on my priority list.
Back in the days before social media, rumors of who the next coach would be were usually rumors sportswriters themselves started. I’m not sure that’s changed any since that day, but if you looked at a map and tried to rationalize who would be a good coach and was nearby, East Carolina’s Pat Dye seemed like a logical choice. A columnist in the Greensboro News & Record had pretty much said the same thing, so as far as I was concerned, Dye was the leading candidate to become the next Hokie Coach.
These were the days of Watergate, and if you saw “All The President’s Men,” where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were tirelessly calling everybody on the planet to chase down a lead, then you too – if you were at the young age of 21 as I was – did the same thing.
I tracked down the Greensboro columnist, and he pretty much said it was a guess and don’t read too much into it. But I wanted to talk to Dye and asked for his home phone number. These were the days before computers, cell phones and the internet, and asking for a home phone number wasn’t considered that unusual a request. So he gave it to me.
On my dingy black rotary phone in the Blacksburg Sun offices, I dialed the number. It was a little after 7 PM, and a voice with a Southern accent answered. I introduced myself and asked the coach his reaction to being considered the leading candidate to become the next head coach in Blacksburg.
Dye was very nice, and approached the conversation like a coach schooling a player. His first words were “who told you THAT?”
I replied it was the rumor going around.
“Well, first of all, I already have a job” Dye said. “And second of all, don’t believe everything you hear unless you hear it directly from the person being talked about.”
Dye then said he was flattered anyone would think he’d be a candidate for the job, but was quite curious where any of this started. I said it was the word around town, and used the term “bar talk” in my explanation, which seemed to amuse him. “You particularly can’t believe everything you hear in a bar” he chuckled.
The call then ended, I wrote that Dye had no interest in the job and collected my extra $15 from UPI after the story ran in the Sun. Dye would then end up coaching a year at Wyoming before coming to Auburn and building that program into a powerhouse.
Over the years, I’ve always remembered him because of that call. Part of it was the graceful way he handled a 21-year-old Woodward and Bernstein wannabe trying to find out if he was going to be the next Virginia Tech coach. And part of it was his simple declaration of don’t believe everything you hear. It's common sense, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget. Every time a coaching job comes open these days and there’s an immediate story listing leading candidates, I can hear Dye’s voice saying “who told you THAT?”
So coach, thanks for straightening a young man out that day. As every great coach is, you were a teacher first.
Rest in peace.