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AP photo by Bruce Lipsky / Former Auburn football coach Pat Dye's death Monday brought to mind memories of what he meant to the Tigers and the Southeastern Conference.

A couple of years before Mack McCarthy became the head men's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga late in the summer of 1985, he was Sonny Smith's top assistant at Auburn.

The Tigers about to welcome an undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky team to the Loveliest Village on the Plains in January 1984, Smith told McCarthy he'd be hosting that weekend's postgame party for boosters, media and such because, in McCarthy's words, "Sonny didn't want to host them after a loss."

Only the Tigers didn't lose that one. They crushed the Wildcats by 19 points, which meant the party at McCarthy's home lasted so long that Mack and Jean went upstairs to bed before it ended.

A couple of hours later, McCarthy woke up to voices in his living room and got out of bed to investigate.

"It was Sonny and Coach (Pat) Dye," McCarthy recalled. "They were both laying down on the floor, Dye holding a bottle of scotch and Sonny holding a bottle of Jack Daniels and there was a half-eaten bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken between them.

"They were just having the best time, just the two of them, and all of a sudden Coach Dye looks at Sonny and says, 'Let's watch (the game) one more time.' He loved seeing Auburn win in anything."

If you put a gun to most folks' heads who know about such things, they'd probably say former Auburn sports information director and athletic director David Housel has always been the ultimate War Eagle, a man whose blood is surely blue and orange because no real Auburn fan would ever admit to having blood colored crimson.

But Dye, who died Monday at the age of 80 from kidney and liver failure, would never be worse than second in such a poll, that ranking made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had not only grown up in Georgia but was an All-America football player for the Bulldogs.

Of course, truth being stranger than fiction, retired former Georgia football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley played his college ball at Auburn, then wound up being a close friend of Dye's in the two men's later years.

"Our relationship grew even more after football because of our mutual interest in plants, particularly Japanese maples," Dooley told ESPN, referring to the times Dye would visit Dooley's vast garden in Athens and Dooley would visit Dye's farm and nursery in Alabama. "We swapped some of our favorite plants on a couple of occasions."

It's the kind of relationship that rarely exists in today's SEC, two opposing head coaches being close friends in their private lives. But then Dye always had a personal touch that was unique.

"I was a very young newspaper reporter for the Free Press when I was assigned to cover Auburn in the 1982 Tangerine Bowl," recalled James Beach a former sports writer for this newspaper, on Monday. "It was Pat Dye's second year at Auburn, and they were playing Boston College, which had Doug Flutie at quarterback.

"Auburn won, and on January 7 of 1983, I got a hand-written letter from Coach Dye thanking me for covering the game. I still have it. He just wasn't like most coaches. I got a chance to hear his pregame speeches a couple of times, and it was never about going out there and kicking butt. It was always something personal. He'd tell the players how much he loved them, stuff like that. You just don't see coaches like him anymore."

Perhaps that's why Housel issued the following statement Monday: "People will talk about all the games he won, the championships and bowl games, but his greatest contribution, his legacy, is the difference he made in the lives of the people who played for him and worked with him. I am one of them. He made a difference in my life."

How much of a difference did Dye make at Auburn beyond the 99 football games he won in 12 seasons, his six bowl victories and his four shared or outright SEC championships? He got the Iron Bowl against archrival Alabama moved to Auburn for the first time in 1989. It had traditionally been held at Birmingham's Legion Field, regardless of which school was designated the home team.

"That's the thing that endeared him to the Auburn people," Dooley told ESPN. "He was responsible for getting that game out of Birmingham and bringing it (to a) home-and-home (series)."

Every summer during his time at Auburn, Dye would invite a group of media folks, boosters and assistant coaches to his home away from home at Lake Martin for the Pat Dye Invitational golf tournament.

One year he asked several of them, including former Free Press writer James Beach, to Dye's own cabin to meet someone special. Before they entered, he told them they could ask this person anything they wanted except for one thing.

"You're not to say a word about Marilyn Monroe," he said of the late famous actress.

Once inside, they were greeted by all-time baseball great Joe DiMaggio, who was once married to Monroe.

"Coach Dye was like a kid in a candy store that night," recalled Beach.

This is not to say Dye was always a warm and fuzzy coach.

McCarthy recalled how Dye's assistants would call the dining hall before he reached the office each morning "To find out what kind of mood he was in. If it was bad, you'd hear a lot of office doors close."

But for Auburn fans the world over, his opening the door to a home-and-home series with Bama will remain the gift that keeps on giving for decades to come.

Or as the Tigers football program wrote Monday afternoon on Twitter: "There wouldn't be the Auburn we all enjoy and love today without Coach Pat Dye."

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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