Hall of Fame: Dietzel led period of growth

Former coach, athletics director among honorees

bspear@thestate.comSeptember 12, 2012 

Paul Dietzel, former USC football coach and athletics director

FILE PHOTO

  • USC HALL OF FAME 2012 INDUCTEES: Thomas Dendy (football), Paul Dietzel (football coach/athletics director), Jay Lynn Hodgin (football), Heather Larkin (volleyball), John LeHeup (football), Steve Liebler (golf), and Warren Lipka (soccer). WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday. Inductees also will be honored at the USC-UAB game on Saturday. TICKETS: Call (803) 691-8447

At long last, the man who propelled the University of South Carolina’s growth in athletics will receive his deserved recognition from the Gamecocks.

Paul Dietzel will be among the inductees Thursday evening into the school’s athletic hall of fame almost a half-century after he came to Columbia with a vision and a plan that has evolved through the years into the giant enterprise of today.

“He taught us to think big,” Johnny Gregory said.

The future began the day in he arrived in the spring of 1966.

Dietzel became the catalyst for the epidemic of football fever that rages unabated in the USC community, and he guided the 1969 Gamecocks to the only conference football championship in school history. More significantly, his contributions from his athletics director role — building first-class facilities and emphasis on non-revenue sports — blazed the trail for those who followed.

“I’m very honored, but nobody did anything by himself,” Dietzel, 88, said, and he reeled name after name of contributors — players, coaches, fans and administrators.

“But everyone needs a leader,” said Gregory, a Columbia attorney who played on Dietzel’s first three Carolina teams, “and coach Dietzel was the leader.”

Dietzel and Anne, his wife of 66 years, will fly from their retirement home in Baton Rouge, La., for Thursday’s ceremonies at the Zone at Williams-Brice Stadium, and the setting is apropos; upgrading the original Carolina Stadium became his first order of business after joining the Gamecocks.

The wooden relic, built during the 1930’s depression and expanded in piece-meal fashion, would never do in the coach’s grand scheme.

Dietzel had revived LSU football and built the Tigers into a national champion before leaving to coach at the U.S Military Academy. After Marvin Bass resigned to coach in Canada, USC officials sought Dietzel.

“I sent my good friend George Terry to check out USC,” Dietzel remembered. “He came back and said, ‘Paul, that’s a great place that has a lot going for it, and they need someone willing to take a challenge.’ ”

Dietzel did.

“I knew right away we needed more good football players and we needed to do something about that stadium,” he said. “We got the players, some as good as I ever coached, and we got to be a darn good football team and won the (ACC) championship. The stadium ... well, they said it seated 43,000, but that could be only if half the people stood up because the seats were so small.”

Cosmetic improvements started immediately, and the bequest from the Martha Williams Brice estate put the stadium renovation on the front burner. The upgrading through the years has created a facility Dietzel now calls “as fine as any in the country.”

Mike McGee, USC’s director of athletics from 1993-2004, noted, “Paul deserves great credit for the initial foundational development of Williams-Brice Stadium.”

Developing facilities did not stop with the football stadium. Dietzel oversaw the building of The Roost dormitories for athletes and the George Terry spring sports center. Carolina Coliseum went up on his watch, too.

Equally important: He focused on the non-revenue sports, and USC still prospers from his hiring Bobby Richardson to take over the baseball program in 1970.

“Ken Wheat nominated coach Dietzel for the hall of fame, and the selection committee approved him unanimously,” Gregory said. “He brought a vision that we all embraced. He taught us what we could be and started the university on the way to what it is today in athletics. He got the Gamecock Nation moving in a positive direction.”

Too, Gregory said, Dietzel paid more than lip service about the development of student-athletes.

“He would tell underclassmen that he would be going out of his way to say (positive) things about the seniors in order to help them get recognition,” Gregory said. “He wanted to get young people squared away for life.”

Players remembered. Many visited with their former coach during the Gameocks’ trip to play LSU in 2007, and four — Gregory, Fred Zeigler, Stan Juk and Dave DeCamilla — made a special trip to Baton Rouge last summer.

“We went out to dinner and every three minutes, someone would come up and talk to him,” Gregory said. “That’s how he was. That’s how he is.”

In one of those twists of fate, Dietzel’s first game at Carolina came against LSU, and he had scheduled it as a sure-win for the Tigers and that surely will be one of the topics discussed tonight on a trip down memory lane.

“In 1959 or ’60, (LSU athletic director) Jim Corbett was making out the 1966 schedule, told me it looked pretty tough and asked me to pick out a team we could beat in the opener,” Dietzel said. “He had a list of six teams, including Carolina and Clemson, and I picked Carolina. Little did I know. . . . .”

The trip to the school he had returned to national prominence came with an assortment of sub-plots, including bomb threats on the USC chartered plane and FBI protection. One Baton Rouge friend baked the coach a German chocolate cake and ran into security challenges before getting the dessert to Dietzel in the team motel.

“At the stadium, I told our players that they would put the tiger in his cage outside our locker room and make him roar at us,” Dietzel said. “I told them, ‘Don’t worry; he can’t get out.’ Also, we weren’t going to let the crowd intimidate us. We wouldn’t come out (on the field) until LSU came out.

“They waited and we waited. An official came in and said, ‘Coach, you’ve got to come out.’ I said, ‘Not until they do.’ Finally, LSU came out and we did. Our guys didn’t know if they were being cheered or booed. But that was quite an experience. I looked across the field and saw the uniforms I had designed. It was weird.”

The Gamecocks found the best way to silence the crowd, proving to be anything but a pushover with a solid performance. Jay Killen’s touchdown late in the first quarter left USC trailing 7-6, and Bobby Bryant’s 77-yard punt return brought the Gamecocks within 21-12 in the third period.

The Gamecocks lost that game, 28-12, and they would have an overall losing football record under Dietzel. But in the grand scheme, the university’s athletics prospered with his presence.

He inherited a mindset that mostly focused on the Clemson football game that figured that raising $50,000 for the Gamecock Club and selling a couple of thousand season tickets represented a bonanza. Compare that attitude with expectations of today.

The future began the day he arrived.

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