My first introduction to Pat Dye was on the football field that now bears his name.
I was a young reporter trying to learn the ropes and then Auburn sports information director David Housel took me into a preseason practice at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
As I best recall, Housel walked me over to Dye as the practice was concluding and said, ‘I’ve got someone else I would like you to meet.”
Dye — locked into football and not so much to a visitor — extended his hand for a firm shake.
I’m not sure he even said a word, but those steely eyes intimidated the mess out of me.
Over the past 35 years as a sports writer, I’ve been fortunate to interview countless coaches, athletes and sports personalities. I always find enjoyment chatting with them and delving into their innermost thoughts. I’m thankful for being able to do my dream job, but I’m rarely in awe of these figures.
I was in awe of Pat Dye — scared is the better word — and it never changed.
That softened some over the years when I interviewed the legendary Auburn football coach from time-to-time, but my heart still beat a little faster when I was around him.
There was an air about Dye that demanded attention and respect. He was a coach who cared deeply about his players and had a soft side, but that was a side few too many people ever saw.
D. Mark Mitchell, a radio talk-show host and sports director on FOX Sports The Game in Opelika/Auburn, saw that other side.
Mitchell has battled non-alcoholic liver disease for the past 13 years. Dye passed away Monday after a lengthy battle with kidney and liver issues.
Both having to deal with such serious health issues bonded the two men.
“I was really close to dying,” Mitchell said. “He called me because we had a mutual buddy — and he called me to talk to me about it and encourage me. We talked two to three hours.”
It would be the pep talk Mitchell needed from a coach who had a knack of saying the right thing at the right time when he addressed his football team.
“He told me some things about what he went through with his issue and was really compassionate,” Mitchell said.” And he never lost the topic — he never drifted. He was focused on talking to me about my situation.
“It was all about encouraging me and what to expect. He explained what they did to his liver and what they were doing. We had different things, but it was still involving the liver and he still had a lot of the symptoms I was going through.
“Boy, he did so much for me to calm my mental state, you know what I mean?”
And it was indeed a critical time for Mitchell.
“The doctor drew a line and said there’s living and there’s dying, and there’s one thing you can’t live without and that’s your liver,” Mitchell said. “That’s how I got introduced to how serious it was.
“They had me on the bottom part of that line — like you don’t have long to live. I was in the beginning stages of putting me on a liver transplant list at UAB.”
It was in the last part of that conversation that Mitchell really saw a different side of Dye.
“I was like, ‘Coach, I’m scared,’” Mitchell remembers. “He said, ‘Well, hell son, I was scared, too.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, if Coach Dye was scared, it’s OK.’”
Then Dye told him, “Well, don’t worry, buddy. God’s got your back.”
Turns out, Mitchell did get better and a liver transplant was not required.
“I live with the disease,” Mitchell said. “God blessed me.”
For the past 11 years, Dye would be a regular guest of Mitchell’s radio show on Mondays. He eventually invited Mitchell out to his Crooked Oaks farm, where he raises and has a special interest Japanese maple trees.
“He loved those Japanese maples,” Mitchell said. “I said, ‘Coach, you have been culturized.’ He thought that was the greatest line.
“I said, ‘You know what coach, you should teach a class.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about that D. Mark.’ That joker was so serious.”
Dye never got to teach a class on Japanese maple trees, but he taught many players — people in general — lessons in life.
After all, that’s what a coach does.
Dye was one of the best.