By Billy Watkins
Joe Lee Dunn never sought attention. He wanted to develop his defenses, wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, and spend time with his family — wife Susie and the couple’s three children.
And this is how good he was at his craft: Dunn produced defenses at Ole Miss (1993) and Mississippi State (1999) that ranked No. 1 nationally.
Dunn died Tuesday at age 75. No cause of death was given, but he had been seriously ill.
Fans in Mississippi mourn because Dunn gave them a lot of joy and a lot to talk about. His defenses didn’t sit back and let offenses dictate the flow of the game. He blitzed a lot, from every angle, through every gap.
His first defense at MSU, in 1996, set a school record with 39 sacks. Two years later, his unit held five teams to no more than six points. State reached the SEC Championship game.
State fans were already familiar with Dunn when he arrived in Starkville. Four years earlier, his Ole Miss defense denied State the end zone 11 times from inside the 10-yard line in the final four minutes. The Rebels won that Egg Bowl on a cold, gray day in Oxford, 17-10.
His stint with Ole Miss ended when coach Billy Brewer was fired due to NCAA infractions. Dunn stepped in as interim coach in 1994. The Rebels finished 4-7 and his contract wasn’t renewed.
He was one of those guys who seemed more comfortable as an assistant coach. He’d rather watch film and tinker with his schemes than go to press conferences and glad-hand alumni.
Though I long admired him, I had never met him until traveling to Starkville in August 2001 to interview him for a story in the Jackson Clarion Ledger.
He took me to his office where I was stunned to find a photo on the wall of the cast from the late 1980s, early ’90s teen sitcom, Saved by the Bell. Turned out, he was longtime friends with Don Haskins, who played the high school principal on the show.
Those couple of hours I spent with Dunn were memorable. I’m not sure what I expected him to be like, but I came away surprised that the guy behind all those fierce defenses was laid back, open, funny, humble and friendly.
More than once during the interview, Dunn pointed to framed photos of his children. “That’s what I’m all about these days,” he said. “Family.”
During the season, he carved out time to pick up his son, Levi, from daycare. When practice ended around 6:15, he was at home 10 minutes later. After games in Starkville, he usually beat Susie home.
“I just don’t like talking to people after a game,” he explained. “By then, I’m already thinking about next week’s opponent. I just want to go home and spend time with the kids.”
He made at least one exception. After losing a heartbreaker to Ole Miss in the 1997 Egg Bowl, 15-14, Dunn stood after the game and greeted several of the Rebels’ senior defensive players as they exited the dressing room.
“Listen, good luck in the draft, and if I can help you, let me know,” he told each one.
He grew up in Columbus, Ga. and played college football at Tennessee-Chattanooga. He was a speedy running back, defensive back and kick returner at 5-foot-9, 158 pounds.
His coaching career began at his alma mater in 1971. He later made stops at New Mexico, South Carolina, Memphis, Arkansas, New Mexico State and Division III McMurry, located in Abilene, Texas.
I love football strategy, so talking to Dunn that day was a rare treat.
“You know, I know your signals,” I told Dunn. I proceeded to tell him if he pointed to the ground, that meant zone coverage. If his rubbed either arm, that’s the direction his line would slant. If he made an X with his arms, the strong safety and defensive end/outside linebacker on one side would do just that.
“Aw, look, I’m sure opponents know my signals, too,” he said. “But that don’t bother me. If we do what we’re supposed to, it won’t matter.
“I know my defense. And if a play is hurting us, I know there could be only one or two reasons. So we can usually get it fixed in a hurry.”
That is why he rarely carried a play sheet or wore a headset.
His defenses based out of a 3-3-5, which is used by a lot of teams. But his go-to was a variation of the old Bear 46 defense made famous by Buddy Ryan in Chicago. Seven players across the front, a middle linebacker, and cornerbacks locked up man-to-man outside. When he needed a stop and when a team got near the goal line, you could bet he was going to call it.
He signaled it in by cupping his hands together, like he was trying to catch rain.
“Why use that signal for your most aggressive call?” I asked him.
“We call that defense ‘Special’ and I tell the players to think about holding a little baby in their hands,” Dunn said. “Because I can tell you right now, that is the most special thing in the world.”