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AP photo by Jim Lytle / Mississippi State assistant coach Joe Lee Dunn raises his hand to the defense during a home game against Kentucky on Nov. 2, 2002. Dunn, known for his defensive innovation, was a former University of Chattanooga player and Mocs assistant. He died Oct. 26 at the age of 75.

The school isn't important. Nor the year. All that needs to be known is that less than a week from college football's February national signing day that winter, there was a dusting of snow on the ground outside the football offices of Big State U, and Joe Lee Dunn was the only assistant coach inside the building.

And, as usual, he was wearing loafers with no socks.

So as Dunn heated his Campbell's bean with bacon soup on a hot plate, a reporter couldn't help but ask why he wasn't out there somewhere attempting to lock up another high school defensive star for his employer.

A smile breaking across his face, Dunn replied: "Oh, they don't want me to recruit. They know I won't cheat."

If ever a college football coach said what he meant and meant what he said, it was Joseph Levi Dunn, who sadly passed away Oct. 26 at the too-young age of 75 after battling Alzheimer's. Before he became one of the best and most copied defensive coordinators in all of college football, creator of the blitz-happy 3-3-5 defense, Dunn was both a University of Chattanooga Moc and, later, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga assistant coach under the late Joe Morrison.

Talented enough on the field as a player to become a Little All-American for those small-college Mocs as a 5-foot-9, 158-pound running back, defensive back and kick returner, he was an even better coach under JoMo.

In fact, while many credit the ex-New York Giants great Morrison's high-scoring, efficient offense with moving the pair up the coaching ladder to New Mexico, then South Carolina, Dunn's diabolical defenses were probably equally responsible for the two Joes' upward mobility.

Or as former former Auburn offensive lineman and current SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic shared on social media upon Dunn's death: "Joe Lee Dunn-coordinated defenses caused us more misery & failure than any other group we played against. I cannot think of a better compliment. He made college football better."

Added current Texas Tech defensive coordinator Derek Jones, who played for Dunn at Ole Miss, on his Twitter post: "One of the best defensive coordinators college FB has ever seen. Coach Joe Lee Dunn demanded that you play hard and if you weren't mentally and physically tough, you couldn't play for him. His mentality helped to mold many men. RIP Coach."

Said longtime Chattanooga sportscaster Darrell Patterson, who is now retired but covered Dunn during his assistant coaching days at UTC: "Joe Lee was the defensive equivalent of Steve Spurrier. He coached by feel. He'd ad-lib some blitz in the middle of the game, and 90% of the time it worked."

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AP photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack / Memphis defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, kneeling, and the rest of the Tigers' coaching staff watch as the University of Central Florida scores during a game in Orlando on Oct. 8, 2005. Dunn, known for his defensive innovation, was a former University of Chattanooga player and Mocs assistant. He died Oct. 26 at the age of 75.

Josh Morgan, now a high school coach in Mississippi who started for four years at safety for Dunn's defense at Mississippi State after walking on, recalled just such a moment at Kentucky against the Wildcats' hefty lefty quarterback Jared Lorenzen, who died a couple of years ago.

"We were sliding our defensive line one way, and they kept picking it up," recalled Morgan on Friday. "Then Coach switched blitzes for one play and had us go the other way. I got through, hit Lorenzen up high, the ball popped loose, and we picked it up and went 85 yards for a touchdown. There's never been anybody else like him."

Longtime Alabama sports writer Tommy Deas recalled another Mississippi State game against Kentucky: "I drove to Starkville once to see Joe Lee Dunn's defense go against a Hal Mumme Kentucky offense. First play, JLD put all 11 within a yard of the line of scrimmage. Second snap, he didn't have a defender within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage."

He had come to the University of Chattanooga in the 1960s from Columbus, Georgia, which is also where he passed away. And that was always home, regardless of the nine colleges and two high schools he worked for at one time or another, including head coaching stints at New Mexico and on an interim basis at Ole Miss after Billy Brewer was fired at midseason in 1994.

"During football season he was in the moment," his brother-in-law Jay Sparks — whose sister Susie was Joe Lee's wife and the mother of their three children — told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "But outside of that, he was a funny, loving person. ... He kidded around. He would break out in a dance with his children. He was so polar-opposite when he didn't have the burden of competition."

Few friends or colleagues saw the multiple sides of Dunn more than Sharon Fanning, who was a UTC Lady Moc in basketball when Dunn was an assistant coach, then wound up helping recruit him to Mississippi State when she was the women's coach for the Bulldogs.

"Joe Lee was very laid back but also very competitive," said Fanning, who often played racquetball against him. "He was a very loyal person who loved his wife and kids and never promoted himself. He always got the job done, though. I tried to call him last month, but he was too sick to come to the phone. Such a loss."

He was as Southern as the day is long. Patterson recalled a UTC defensive player whose first name was Jordan. Only Dunn would never pronounce it that way. Falling back on the way people always pronounced former Auburn coach Shug Jordan's last name as "Jurden," Dunn would do the same.

"I'd say, you mean Jordan, don't you?" Patterson said.

"And he'd say, 'No, I mean Jurden."

But he always had the right answer for anything involving defense, which brings us back to Morgan and his days with Dunn on the Memphis Tigers staff.

"Joe Lee was conducting a coaching clinic one year, and coaches from all over the country had come in for it," Morgan said. "Joe Lee was a coaching star. During the clinic, he starts talking about this 2-4-5 defense he was experimenting with. Someone asked him why he thought he could run a defense with only two defensive linemen.

"Joe Lee said, 'Maybe because I've only got two good defensive linemen.' That was his genius."

No socks required.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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