Tuesday, September 24, 2013
The coach is dead
I was a 20-year-old student journalist at LSU, covering the latest outrage against the long-suffering student body of that august institution.
The athletic department had announced it would begin searching, at the gates of Tiger Stadium, football fans' purses and backpacks for Demon Rum.
And Demon Bourbon.
And Demon Vodka.
And Demon Beer.
The goal was to sober up the student body -- and everybody else -- a little bit in hopes of improving Tiger fans' demeanor at games.
MY JOB was to interview the athletic director, LSU coaching legend Paul Dietzel, about the new policy and come up with a front-page story for The Daily Reveille. As a newspaper reporter, my aim was to get a good story.
As a student, my opinion was that this smacked of an egregious violation of the Fourth Amendment.
As someone who was most appreciative when somebody passed the flask down the aisle so we could put a little zip in our ballgame Coca-Colas, I already was feeling a little dry. Remember, this is Louisiana we're talking about -- not Utah. God Almighty, not Utah.
On the one hand, I was going to have the lead story in the paper. On the other, I was going to meet the Tiger coaching legend, the man who had delivered the school (at that time) its only national championship of the modern era with the undefeated 1958 football team -- the man behind the iconic Go team, White team and the mighty Chinese Bandits defense specialists -- who also happened to be, in this instance, The Enemy.
The second coming of Carrie Nation.
SO I GO in there for the interview, I shake the legendary Enemy's hand, sit down on the other side of the desk and we start to talk. It was the best kind of interview . . . a real conversation. Coach Dietzel treated this wet-behind-the-ears reporter with the utmost respect, to the point where it was like solving all the problems of the world with your favorite uncle.
He explained the policy, the reasoning behind it, and then he started asking me questions -- questions about what students were thinking 20-odd years after he had engraved his name onto Tiger fans' souls, forever and ever, amen.
Dietzel was gracious, down to earth and funny. He was a true gentleman. Humble, even. And he allowed that his favorite student-section cheer was the one reserved for hated Alabama -- "Around the bowl and down the hole! Roll, Tide, roll!"
That one really cracked him up.
If I've ever had a more enjoyable interview with someone, I can't remember when, or with whom, it was. I don't know that Coach changed my mind about the Tiger Stadium War on Fun . . . er, Booze, but he did win my respect, and he taught me something about honorable people and honest differences of opinion.
THOUSANDS upon thousands of words will be written in Tigerland -- and across the sports universe -- about Paul Dietzel on the sad occasion of his death today. The vast majority will be about his tenure as coach, and later, AD, and his magical team that conquered all of college football 55 years ago. Some will be reserved for how he became an accomplished watercolor artist later in life. A few might touch on his World War II days as a B-29 crewman in the Pacific theater.
But Coach's greatest accomplishments -- gentleman, husband of 69 years, father, good man -- get short shrift. Those are the ones I'm thinking about right now. Those accomplishments and the graciousness and good humor he showed this young-punk reporter back in 1981.
Godspeed and God bless, Coach. You will be missed tremendously.