Always inspiring, always teaching, 'The Whistle' was one-of-a-kind

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Curry's new book, "Ten Men You Meet In A Huddle."

Everybody who played football for him referred to Robert E. Lee Dodd -- behind his back, of course -- as The Whistle.

With that infernal device that hung around his neck, Coach Dodd controlled every move of every minute of every practice session. But beyond that, there was a collective feeling among Yellow Jackets who played for him that The Whistle seemed to be everywhere, seemed to know everything, and seemed to control every detail of our lives, seven days a week, off the field as well as on …

Every year for the last couple of decades, players from Dodd's Georgia Tech teams of the 1960s have held a reunion. Engineers, corporate CEOs, bank presidents, teachers, entrepreneurs, airline pilots, ministers, military officers, and even a couple of old football coaches turn up at the joyous occasion.

What brings us back every year, the bond that unites us … is that we all negotiated the transition from boy to man under The Whistle.

We heard The Whistle, and we grew up in a hurry.

The life of a college freshman football player is a jarring mixture of excitement and fear … At Georgia Tech, the process was especially daunting because it involved two distinct and competing disciplines that collided in rapid succession with immature psyches. One was football at a level that was a quantum leap forward from high school. The other was a core academic curriculum that included calculus, physics, chemistry, and statistics -- even for football players …

[My earliest clash with this curriculum] came in Chemistry 101, taught by a distinguished gentleman who looked like he'd escaped from the House of Lords. He spoke in a clear, strong voice, but for the life of me I could not understand a word he said. There were more than a hundred students in the lecture portion of the class, which met at 8:00 a.m. Monday through Thursday, so I was sure no one would notice if I slept in. And so, in the second week of classes of my freshman year, still drained from the previous fortnight of two-a-days, that's exactly what I did.
The next morning there was a notice on the bulletin board in front of the locker room:



When I arrived at Grant Field the next day, the sun was just coming up. Standing in the shadows along the West Stands was Coach Dick Inman, the varsity defensive line coach. He did not look happy. He pointed to the stands.

"We're going to run the stadium steps this morning."

"We" meant me.

By my 50th trip up and down the steps, I was gagging, retching, practically sobbing. At the end of the ordeal, Coach Inman asked what I thought about class attendance. I responded that I thought it was a good idea, and he cut me loose so I wouldn't be late for my Chem 101 lecture.

I never missed another class. I learned that if I paid attention, and worked hard, I could make up for not having been academically prepared to be at Georgia Tech in the first place. I graduated with a 2.8 GPA in Industrial Management. Not great, but way better than my high school counselor would have predicted.

So did most of my teammates. Bobby Dodd's graduation rate, at a school where every student was required to take the dreaded calculus, was over 90 percent during his 22-year career as head coach at Georgia Tech.

We had heard The Whistle.

Coach Dodd fell in love with football as a child, and it was his abiding passion for the rest of his life. He is one of only three men to be elected to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. But at Tech he was just as obsessed with the notion that his players should get an education -- not just "stay eligible," but get an education -- as he was with teaching them how to play football.

His brilliance as a builder of men was matched by his genius as a game-day strategist. Bear Bryant once said that he would rather look across the field and see anyone other than Bobby Dodd. And yet other coaches and savvy sportswriters of the era … were united in their puzzlement that anyone could coach with as light a hand and still win so many games.

Coach Dodd secretly loved the criticism. He knew that his Books First rep caused moms and dads -- mine included -- to favor Georgia Tech over his competition. He set forth his basic philosophy on Day One:

    "Men, you are here because I want you here. I did not bring you here to kill you at practice.
    If you turn out not to be a very good football player, that's not your fault. That's my fault. I invited you here. I will love you, discipline you, keep you here, and encourage you. I will make sure that if you work hard enough, you will get your degree. I want every single one of you to graduate."

He didn't have many rules, he told us, but there were three that would get us in big trouble if we broke them:

1. Go to church. Or, in the case of the half dozen Jewish players on the team, Go to Temple.
2. Go to class. "I don't care how smart you are, you cannot survive at Georgia Tech unless you go to every single class. I will be real hard on you if you cut class. And do not cheat in school. That will get you kicked out of here immediately."
3. Do not drink, carouse, or break curfew. "Don't test me," he said. And in the five years I was at Tech -- I redshirted the 1961 season -- no one did.

Under Coach Dodd we learned routine, system, moral compass, and unselfish teamwork. We learned to think under duress. We learned the fundamentals of winning football with the same diligence required in the physics lab. We learned to respect tough faculty, tough opponents, and tough situations without fearing them.

Coach Dodd's lesson plan for us had an immense impact on the world of college football. Ask Joe Paterno today who his early role models were, and Coach Dodd will be among the first he mentions. When Jim Tressel received the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award in 2002, he said that Bobby Dodd on Football, published in 1954, had been one of his primary guides since the beginning of his career.

I can see Coach Dodd now, walking crisply into our cramped meeting room beneath the east stands of Grant Field before a game. Dressed in a custom-tailored gray suit and a crisply starched white shirt with a gold tie, he would slip off his brown fedora, exposing his trademark shock of gray hair. His wingtip shoes sparkled.

On game days, we used a backup nickname: The Whistle became The Gray Fox.

Coach Dodd could have simply stood and eyeballed us and not said a word, and we would have been ready to play. But he came armed with a rare combination of charisma, calm, and control. He exuded mastery of the situation.

Like a presidential candidate, he had his basic stump speech, whose core message he delivered from game to game with little deviation in substance. We especially liked the version he delivered before the big game with the University of Georgia, because he steadfastly refused to pronounce our No. 1 rival's name correctly. He had no trouble saying Georgia Tech, but he always said "Georgie" when referring to the Bulldogs:

    "Men, Georgie's a fine football team, a very fine football team. Georgie's bigger and faster than we are. Probably a little tougher, too.

    That's okay, because we're smarter than they are.

    Now, let me tell you what's going to happen. That Georgie team's going to come running out of the tunnel screaming and foaming at the mouth and smashing one another upside the head just to get warmed up.

    We won't do any of that. While they waste their energy, we'll conserve ours. I've told you that they're bigger, faster, and tougher than you. That's true. But we do have that one big advantage.

    We … are … smarter.

    Think about what I teach you. Play field position. Play great defense. Make no mistakes on offense. Be great in the kicking game. Do that and we'll keep it close.

    As the game goes on, they'll start to get tired because they wasted so much energy in the beginning. Because we're smart, we'll have plenty of energy left, and at some point in the fourth quarter they'll make a mistake.

    When they do make that mistake, we'll get the football. And when that happens, I'll think of something and we'll win!"

More often than any football "expert" could have predicted, he was right on the mark. Most weeks we played teams that were physically superior to us. They would run up big numbers, 400 yards of total offense and 20 first downs to our 200 and 10. And yet the score would somehow end up something like 7-6, Tech.

The experts called it "Dodd luck."

But it wasn't luck, unless one's definition of luck begins with a deep understanding of motivational psychology, football strategy, and innovative game-planning. I am convinced the "Dodd luck" derived from a genius who understood his people, understood his game, and understood his opponents better than any other coach in the history of the game …

I owe a great deal to the combination of Georgia Tech and Bobby Dodd.

Like most of my teammates, I needed both to succeed. From the grueling pace of the classroom I learned how to work and how to think. From Coach Dodd I learned that perseverance and grit would lead me to personal victory. Those lessons, combined, turned out to be perfect preparation for what was right around the corner for me.

Bobby Dodd was a man of many parts: self-described "football bum" in high school … Hall of Fame college player … Hall of Fame college coach … inspirational leader, Presbyterian elder, educator, humanitarian, mentor … dedicated husband and father … addicted gambler (only on checkers and doubles tennis, with his buddies) … raconteur … rabid bass fisherman … youth camp co-director (with me, when I coached at Tech) … and football genius.

The Whistle still pierces my consciousness every day -- and as the years pass, its clarity only increases. I steadfastly believe that he continues to represent all that is good about college football.

Bill Curry is a former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket player and coach and former NFL player who currently coaches Georgia State. His book, "The Ten Men You Meet In The Huddle" is out now