Hired from Army in 1966 to turn around South Carolina's football fortunes, Paul Dietzel coached the Gamecocks nine seasons before resigning in 1974 with a 42-53-1 record. A visionary athletics director, he expanded then-Carolina Stadium and built other athletics facilities; on the field he had three winning seasons and one 5-5 record. Now 85, he spoke with The State's Bob Gillespie about the 1969 ACC championship season.
QUESTION: Have you kept in touch with players from that season?
ANSWER: Yes, and it's been a real pleasure. They were so nice to have (wife) Anne and me back this spring. They sent airline tickets, had us stay in a hotel on campus. ... When you talk about coaching, the thing that sticks out in your mind is the relationship with the players. The dressing-room camaraderie was great when you won, not as pleasant when you lost. ... (Coming back) was a wonderful occasion.
Q: What did winning the 1969 ACC title do for South Carolina?
A: I think the greatest impact was, by George, we can win a championship. Also, getting to go to a bowl, which had not been done in a long time (since 1945). ... It just was a tremendous help for the outlook of the players. That team ranked among the best I coached. That was a real good football team.
Q: What were preseason prospects for USC in 1969?
A: Even in spring practice, the write-ups (predicted a run at the conference title). Tommy Suggs had a great knack for throwing the ball, and he and the receivers would stay and throw deep balls after practice. We had most of the same players back on defense, and all the players liked each other. There was great togetherness.
Q: What were your major concerns?
A: No question, we weren't to the point we had great depth. A few injuries in the season could've wiped us out; if something happened to Suggs or (Fred) Zeigler or (Warren) Muir ... We were lucky we didn't have any (injuries) that knocked players out for several games.
Q: You played five of six conference games at home. How important was that?
A: Especially if you can win a few of those games, the crowds get behind you, get rambunctious and loud. The home field is a definite advantage, if only because you go through the same routine; you can control that, so you can concentrate on getting ready for the games.
Q: After two wins, you lost 41-16 at Georgia but bounced back with three straight wins. How did you prevent your players from dwelling on that loss?
A: (Georgia) had a very good team, and we knew that going in. When you hold your own, it's not a disgrace or a downer. They should beat you, and they wore us down. We dwelled on the good things. We were convinced we did all we could do, and we couldn't have asked more from the players.
Q: The 17-16 win at Virginia Tech, your only non-ACC win, probably was crucial in USC earning a Peach Bowl bid. What else did that do for you?
A: They were a big, strong team, always extremely good on defense, so it was quite a victory, and because we won in the last few moments, it had an impact on everyone. Riding home on the plane, we had that attitude: We can come from behind and win. That was a plus for us.
Q: Your players talk about their celebration in the locker room after beating Wake Forest to lock up the ACC title. What was that moment like?
A: When you set out to do something, and it takes several years to do, (getting there) is gratifying. To win the conference was really big for us. We were so pleased; it was a chance to ride home (from Winston-Salem) and have a happy time.
Q: Were you worried about a letdown for the Clemson game after clinching the ACC?
A: No, because Clemson has been the big game ever since the Big Thursday games. I've been in different (rivalries), but with Clemson-South Carolina, the "other guy" is your next-door neighbor. He's waiting on you when you get home if you lose. The competition never goes away.
Q: USC lost the Peach Bowl 14-3, but what did you tell the players about what they had accomplished - something no USC team before or since has done?
A: What they did has been really proven with the way they conducted themselves since that time. They were winners, and champions, and champions in later life. I'm extremely proud of all of them. I was honored to be their coach.