Ever get aggravated at the traffic snarls on Game Day? Ever grumble about the difficulty of getting a good seat for the Clemson or Georgia games? Ever wonder what started all this?
Blame Paul Dietzel.
No. Credit Paul Dietzel.
Paul Dietzel died Tuesday, a few days after his 89th birthday and almost 39 years after coaching his last game. His teams’ records at South Carolina never reached the lofty expectations created by his national championship at LSU. Yet the full stadiums and the electricity that ricochets throughout the state on Football Saturdays can be traced directly to the lanky coach who refused to accept the athletic malaise he inherited in the spring of 1966.
The ever-expanding athletic facilities at Carolina started on his watch, and the emphasis on the non-revenue sports bears his fingerprints, too.
Dietzel always brushed off the accolades, saying, “No one ever did anything by himself,” and he would reel off the names of the helping hands. But every band needs a conductor and 1968 USC captain Johnny Gregory said, “Coach Dietzel was the leader.”
Even so, until his induction into the school’s athletic hall of fame just over a year ago, his memory to the masses had been reduced to a few lines of small type in the archives, and that’s wrong. Remember him for this: he began the move to push the Gamecocks out of the shadows and into the spotlight in athletics.
The death of the man they called “Coach” left Carolina athletes who played for him with heavy hearts and a treasure-chest full of memories.
“He gave us a vision of the future and made us believe,” said Tyler Hellams, hero of the 1968 victory over Clemson and now an area banker.
“What I will always remember is his vision and creativity,” said Tommy Suggs, Columbia business man and quarterback on the Gamecocks’ 1969 ACC champions.
“He gave me a second chance,” said all-star offensive lineman Dave DeCamilla, who followed Dietzel from West Point to Carolina.
“He was not only a coach, but he was also an educator,” DeCamilla said.
Stories about the coach? Oh, yes, they have stories.
Suggs remembers his final game, at Clemson in 1970. The quarterback experienced first-half struggles and arrived at the dressing room to find Dietzel waiting with his arms folded across his chest.
“You know how tall he was and how short I am,” Suggs said. “He’s standing there, looking down, and said, ‘Well, Tom,’ – I knew he was mad when he called me Tom instead of Tommy – ‘you’re a perfect eight for eight (passing), five to us and three to them.’ We adjusted and won the game, but that’s something I’ll always remember.”
Suggs cherished the thank-you note written in Dietzel’s precise penmanship that he received after the coach visited his home last year. “It’s on my desk at home and always will be,” Suggs said.
Columbia cardiologist Stan Juk remembers the three-a-day preseason practices in 1966, Dietzel’s first year. The coaching change came late in spring practice and, Juk said, “The coaches didn’t know us and we didn’t know them.”
“We didn’t know then what we know now about hydration and such,” he said. “We would go at 6 or 7 in the morning, then again at 2 in the afternoon and again at 7. The linemen would lose 15 pounds a day and the rest of us about 10 pounds.”
But those guys would not trade the experience for anything.
For all the positives he established and the excitement he created, many fans have a negative image of Paul Dietzel. Despite winning the school’s only conference football championship, his Carolina teams had a losing overall record and the dream of his matching the excellence he achieved at LSU never materialized.
“People don’t know about one of the great coaching jobs ever,” DeCamilla said. “They see the 5-5 record in 1967, but we hardly had enough (healthy) players to practice. I red-shirted that year, and (the practice squad) kept running from one field to the other.”
Dietzel’s role in the Gamecocks’ leaving the ACC turned out to be ill-advised, given that federal courts solved his complaints by overturning the league’s regulations on entrance scores for athletes. Then again, even though suffering a generation of struggles without league affiliation, would Carolina be in the SEC today without that 1971 decision?
“Most people associate him more with the teams’ records and don’t see the big picture,” Gregory said. “He brought energy and vitality to the university. He showed that we could be first class in everything.”
The “thinking big” contributions include Dietzel’s scheduling games against Notre Dame, Southern California and Michigan – not only impossible but also never considered before his arrival.
He looked ahead for his players, too. More than one pointed out how he focused on preparing them for lives beyond the games, and seeing some of his athletes develop into stalwarts of the community always brought a smile to the coach’s face.
“He would tell the underclassmen that he would be going out of his way to say (positive) things about the seniors in order for them to get recognition,” Gregory said. “He wanted to get young people squared away in life. He would have us make public speeches. He would have educational trips on the road; when we played at Virginia, he would take the team to Monticello or Mount Vernon.
“You know what? They don’t make coaches like him any longer.”
No, they don’t, and that’s too bad.
Bob Spear, former sports editor of The State, is a longtime observer of USC sports.