When he was a teenaged boy growing up in Sharon, Pa., Mike Dietzel’s bedroom walls defied the norm. Go elsewhere in the neighborhood and other football-minded kids might pledge their allegiance with Penn State pennants and pictures. Or maybe put their support behind Pitt. Dietzel’s choice of decor screamed South Carolina Gamecocks, which certainly made him unique among his peer group.
Dietzel owned South Carolina posters and calendars. He spent many an hour thumbing through the media guide, developing a familiarity with players little known outside the university town of Columbia.
“As a kid I lived in Pennsylvania and I didn’t know anything about South Carolina,” Dietzel, UB’s safeties and special teams coach, said this week. “All of a sudden I’d get a poster and a calendar in the mail. So I’m putting this stuff on my wall and asking my dad, ‘Who’s Paul Dietzel?’”
Who’s Paul Dietzel? Most any old-time football fan in Columbia or West Point, Baton Rouge or Oxford, Ohio, could answer that question. Paul Dietzel? You mean the former Miami (Ohio) All-American who played for the legendary Sid Gillman? The Paul Dietzel who served as an assistant under the legendary Bear Bryant at Kentucky? The guy who as a young buck in his 30s recruited a future Heisman winner in Billy Cannon to LSU and coached the formerly woebegone Tigers to the 1958 national championship?
Paul Dietzel, the guy who would leave Baton Rouge for West Point, where he had once served as an assistant under the legendary Red Blaik before heading back south to head the program at South Carolina?
Mike Dietzel had no idea. But Paul Dietzel knew that his cousin, Rev. Dave Dietzel, had a boy named Mike who was getting into football. He’d offer his encouragement by sending along notes wishing him the best – along with everything Gamecocks.
Mike Dietzel remembers meeting Paul in the late ’70s, when Paul was athletic director at Indiana. The story goes that he got that job through his friendship with basketball coach Bob Knight, who insisted he apply even after the interview process had closed.
Paul gave Mike and his family a tour of Indiana’s athletic facilities and made them feel right at home. And Mike Dietzel laments the fact that they never met up again, even though Paul Dietzel, who died Sept. 24 in Baton Rouge, lived to be 89.
“The funny thing was I would always miss him at conventions,” Mike said. “I would go to conventions and he may be going, or some years he didn’t go, we just never connected. Because if I had ever seen him at a convention I would have ran right up to him. I’m sure we would have been able to have a good conversation.
“I’ve always regretted the fact I never just picked up the phone. I got all his books, a couple different books he’s written, memories and stuff, but I never had the opportunity to do that and I wish I would have.”
Imagine the stories Paul Dietzel could have shared. College football abided by curious rules in those days. A player could be subbed out and in just once per quarter, which explained why most everyone played both sides of the ball. Dietzel brought the platoon system to the college game by subbing in specific personnel groupings. His second defensive unit was dubbed the “Chinese Bandits,” a name borrowed from characters on a television show, and it became integral to LSU’s success.
He was also one of the first coaches to break down film in painstaking, play-by-play fashion by sifting through reels of hazy black and white.
Paul Dietzel had minimal personal contact with that boy back in Sharon, Pa., but there’s no mistaking the influence his correspondence had on Mike’s life. Mike’s grandfather served as a pastor, as did Mike’s dad and his uncle. But those South Carolina materials opened Mike’s eyes to the immensity of the football world. There was more out there than Penn State and Pitt. Football offered widespread opportunity.
“I remember as a kid just getting all that literature and all that stuff and putting the poster up there and just gazing and dreaming about coaching some day,” he said. “They had his picture in four or five photos and thinking, that would be nice.
“I think that kind of triggered and put the vision there. I’m in Sharon, Pennsylvania, and I see a Gamecock logo and I’m asking my dad, what’s a Gamecock? We’re in Pennsylvania and I knew Penn State and Pitt and my mom went to Ohio State so I knew Ohio State, Penn State, Pitt. All of a sudden I get this stuff from South Carolina. Guy’s got my name and same hairstyle as my dad.”
Mike Dietzel played at Otterbein and joined his first coaching staff as a graduate assistant under Bill McCartney at Colorado. He served as a GA for Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, one of Paul’s college teammates at Miami. Like many an assistant coach he meandered, following in Paul’s footsteps as an assistant at Army.
A Paul Dietzel statue stands in the Cradle of Coaches tribute in the plaza outside Miami’s Fred C. Yager Stadium. The array of coaches honored includes Schembechler, Ara Parseghian (another of Dietzel’s Miami teammates), Red Blaik and Weeb Ewbank.
Who’s Paul Dietzel?
Just one of the more influential and innovative coaches in the history of college football.