Paul Dietzel, a visionary who happened to coach football, died early Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La., leaving a legacy that extends far beyond the world of games.
The charismatic man with a million-dollar smile will be remembered for building a national champion and for the unforgettable defensive unit named the Chinese Bandits at LSU and for guiding South Carolina to its lone conference football championship in its 120 years of football.
But those achievements only scratch the surface of an amazing career. Texas coach Mack Brown once called Dietzel “a man for all seasons.”
“He taught us to think big,” said Columbia attorney Johnny Gregory, captain of the 1968 Gamecocks. Dietzel blazed the trail for Gamecocks’ athletics.
Although his nine Carolina teams suffered a losing record overall, “his contributions to the University cannot be overstated,” said Tommy Suggs, Columbia business man and quarterback on the 1969 ACC championship team.
His organizational skills and salesmanship kindled the flames that eventually led to Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, converting a fan base that cared only about the Clemson game into one the one that lives and breathes football the year around.
Compare today’s Gamecock Club with the early 1960s version that celebrated receiving $50,000 in annual donations. The sale of 2,000 season football tickets in those days earned headlines.
On his watch — football coach and athletics director 1966-74 — Dietzel provided the spark that led to the upgrading of facilities and emphasizing non-revenue sports.
He inherited a football stadium that had been built during the Depression and expanded twice to enclose both end zones into a bowl. Wooden seats, old concession stands and lousy restroom facilities demanded improvement. The baseball team often played games at the Veterans Hospital field, the basketball field house seated 3,200 and historian Don Barton says the “clay” tennis courts were dirt.
Dietzel refused to accept the status quo. He secured the funding to begin the expansion of the football stadium, installed the first seats at the baseball park and constructed a spring sports complex that featured a dormitory for athletics. His many contributions included hiring former New York Yankees star Bobby Richardson to coach the baseball team, planting the seeds that led to a powerhouse program.
All the while, he focused on developing his athletes for their lives after the games.
“He has been a blessing to so many,” Gregory said.
Ask Stan Juk, a defensive back on Dietzel’s first South Carolina team, the 1966 Gamecocks.
“I had been drafted by the Dolphins and also had been accepted for medical school,” he said. “I asked Coach for his advice, and he told me, ‘Not too many people get the opportunity to go to Duke medical school.’”
Juk chose Duke and embarked on a successful career in cardiology.
Dietzel knew about football and Duke and he knew about medical school. He spent his freshman year at Duke on a football scholarship before leaving to join the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. His military service included flying 12 bombing missions over the Japanese Empire prior to his 21st birthday. He finished his undergraduate college work at Miami University in Ohio, earning Little All-American honors, and had been accepted to Columbia University Medical School.
He also received an offer to coach football at the U.S. Military Academy, and, unlike Juk, he chose football.
By the time he arrived at Carolina in 1966, he had learned football under some of the game’s great coaches — Earl (Red) Blaik at Army, Sid Gillman at Cincinnati and Paul (Bear) Bryant at Kentucky. He had also awakened a sleeping giant at LSU, turning the Tigers from an also-ran into a national champion in his first head-coaching job, and had spent five seasons at Army.
Dietzel came to Carolina after Marvin Bass resigned to take a coaching position in Canada, and the new regime arrived in the middle of spring practice. On his first day on the practice fields behind the old Roundhouse, he gathered the players and started to talk about his dreams, including a dormitory for athletes. He pointed to the proposed location and received a rude interruption; a lightning bolt streaked across the sky following by a clap of thunder.
“I never had a team move so fast,” he recalled later, “but I took that as an omen that being at Carolina would be exciting.”
Those nine years did prove to be exciting, with the 1969 ACC championship the pinnacle in football. The Gamecocks swept through the league undefeated, clinching the title at Wake Forest, capping the regular season with a triumph against Clemson and earning a berth in the Peach Bowl.
Dietzel announced after the second game in 1974 that he would give up his football duties after the season and planned to remain director of athletics. The administration, however, hired Jim Carlen for the dual role, moving Dietzel into a vice-president position. He resigned soon after, then became commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference and later director of athletics at Indiana University and LSU prior to retirement. He spent time at his home in the North Carolina mountains before settling in Baton Rouge, La.
He became an accomplished artist in his later years, a talent that, Suggs said, “shows what a really creative person he was.”
Services for Dietzel, who died at Baton Rouge General Medical Center after a brief illness, are scheduled for Friday at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge. Representatives from South Carolina, West Point and LSU will be among the speakers, with Gregory scheduled to talk on behalf of the Gamecocks. Visitation will begin at 9 a.m. in the church’s Ory Parish Hall, followed at 11 a.m. by the service in the sanctuary. Burial will occur in a private ceremony later in the afternoon.
Dietzel and his wife Anne would have celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary on Wednesday.