Paul Dietzel believed he could win a national championship at LSU with a team built primarily with players from Louisiana.
Not only was he right, but he handed down a blueprint for Nick Saban and Les Miles.
“Paul Dietzel believed he could win with Louisiana players, and he gave me a scholarship when no one else would,” Johnny Robinson said. “He recruited from all the high schools in the state — from Class A to B to the highest ones — and gave all the kids a chance if they were good enough to play.”
Dietzel, who died Tuesday at 89, led the Tigers to their first national title in 1958 with 25 of 34 players from Louisiana, including a backfield trio of Robinson (University High), fellow halfback Billy Cannon (Istrouma High School) and quarterback Warren Rabb (Baton Rouge High).
Saban arrived in 2000 and started reeling in top in-state recruits that would be the foundation of the 2003 championship team. Miles replaced Saban in 2005 and supplemented his leftovers with top-flight locals of his own as he won the 2007 title.
“Coach Dietzel laid the foundation for all the conference championships and national titles we’ve won since then,” said Jerry Stovall, who played under Dietzel (1960-61) and was hired by him as Tigers coach.
Robinson cited Dietzel’s “innovation” in playing three units to circumvent substitution restrictions as a key to the undefeated season in ’58.
“I can’t tell you how good the team unity was,” Robinson said. “I can’t think of anybody who was jealous of anyone. Everybody knew they were going to play, when they were going in and when they were coming out. Each guy had a responsibility and was proud of it. It was a fabulous idea.”
Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Taylor said Dietzel’s influence on him at LSU (1956-57) was comparable to that of Vince Lombardi, who coached Taylor for nine seasons with the Green Bay Packers.
“They were both great leaders whose legacy was building men of character and integrity,” Taylor said. “Coach Dietzel devoted his life to his players.”
Robinson called Dietzel “a disciplinarian to the nth degree.”
Jimmy Field, who followed Robinson from U-High, recalled Dietzel having players wear blue LSU sports coats reserved for special occasions to attend honors assembly to strengthen the bond with the university.
Dietzel had business leaders dine with the team, planting seeds for employment.
“He wanted us to succeed long after we left,” Field said.
After Dietzel returned to LSU as AD he hired Bo Rein replace Charles McClendon as head coach in 1979.
After Rein died in a plane crash a few weeks later, Dietzel turned to Stovall to replace Rein. Dietzel retained Rein’s staff even though Stovall had never met them because they had sold their previous homes and had families.
“That’s not a good business decision,” Stovall said, “but it had to be made from a character standpoint.”
As a fledgling coach Stovall told Dietzel, “ ‘I want to make a young man who plays for me feel the way you made me feel.’ ”
“The lessons learned from legendary people don’t go away,” Stovall said. “They’re building blocks in every venture as a husband, father, neighbor, friend and employer. That’s his legacy.”