Jim Mashek column: The wily Joe Lee Dunn, the iconic, well traveled defensive coordinator, dies at age 75


It was mid-October, in 1999, when the undefeated Mississippi State University football team traveled to Auburn, Alabama, to square off with Tommy Tuberville’s Auburn Tigers.

The Bulldogs were getting no respect, or so they thought, and they were trailing the Tigers throughout the rainy Saturday afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Tuberville had mentioned that Mississippi State’s early season schedule was a little on the soft side, and the Bulldogs never had much use for him, anyway, as he spent four years as the Ole Miss head coach from 1995 until the 1998 Egg Bowl loss to State.

(More on that later.)

It wasn’t the CBS game, or even an ESPN night game. It was one of those tried-and-true 11:37 a.m. Jefferson-Pilot specials, with Dave Neal handling play-by-play, former Oakland Raider Dave Rowe providing color and erstwhile University of Kentucky courtside reporter Dave Baker handling the assignments on the field.

Yeah, the Three Daves.

The Bulldogs were getting nothing done, but Joe Lee Dunn’s defense was keeping them in the game. They lost their sophomore quarterback, Wayne Madkin, to a finger injury late in the first half. The MSU offense was getting manhandled, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t go away.

And then, poof, it happened.

Backup quarterback Matt Wyatt fired a 16-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Sirmones with 2:28 left in the game, trimming the Auburn lead to 16-10. Instead of trying for an onside kick, State coach Jackie Sherrill had confidence that his defense could force a 3-and-out, and get the ball back with enough time to take the lead.

That’s when Tuberville outsmarted himself, taking an intentional safety instead of punting from his own end zone. MSU outside linebacker Cornell Menafee remembers that moment like it was yesterday, making eye contact with fellow MSU defenders like Robert Bean, Kevin Sluder and Ashley Cooper.

“We looked at each other,” Menafee said, “and we said, ‘We’re about to win this game.'”

They did.

Edward “Pig” Prather returned the free kick 41 yards, and Wyatt fired an 11-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Butler with 19 seconds showing on the clock. I was on the field, covering the game for the Biloxi-Gulfport newspaper, and I wasn’t sure it really happened. The last three minutes were nothing more than a blur, at least at field level.

Mississippi State was unbeaten in six games for the first time since World War II. The Bulldogs would win two more games before falling to a familar nemesis, the Alabama Crimson Tide, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. They’d go on to win a couple more games in dramatic fashion, first at home, a 17-16 victory over LSU, and then an ESPN Thursday night broadcast, a 23-22 triumph over the Tim Couch and the Kentucky Wildcats, also at MSU’s Scott Field.

State went 10-2 that year, manhandling Clemson 17-7 in the Peach Bowl. (Trust me, it wasn’t that close.)

Sherrill was never known for his media skills or his warm persona, but he had reason to be beaming when this one was over. He trusted Joe Lee Dunn, the best defensive coordinator Mississippi State ever had, to get his defense off the field, and for backup quarterback Matt Wyatt, a program guy bound for a media career in TV/radio, to deliver with the game on the line.

In the madness of the postgame environment, I couldn’t find Joe Lee Dunn. The locker room, the interview room, anywhere. A couple of State’s players pointed me in the direction of a team bus, idling in the parking lot.

Dunn gave me five, maybe 10 minutes, really, whatever I needed, and explained that with future NFL corners Robert Bean and Fred Smoot in the lineup,, and a two-deep approach on the line, you could take some chances on defense. Blitz on every down if you like. Send the house. Zone blitzes, combo blitzes. Drop linemen into coverage, on the rare times you did play some zone.

Delayed blitzes. Oh man, Joe Lee Dunn loved delayed blitzes.

Mr. Dunn died on Tuesday, at the age of 75, and he will be remembered as a colorful coach, an innovative defensive mind, a grinder who often burned the midnight oil, to spend just a little time with his wife and young children at home. He made college football a lot of fun.

Mississippi State never matched that magic of the 1999 squad again under Sherrill, and after a dismal 3-9 season, the veteran MSU coach canned Dunn and offensive coordinator Sparky Woods. Sherrill retired under pressure the next season, after the Bulldogs lost 15 of 16 SEC games over his final two years on the job. But Dunn quickly bounced back on his feet, becoming Tommy West’s defensive coordinator, at the University of Memphis.

Joe Lee kept taking chances there, too.

“The secret, to Joe Lee Dunn’s success, to me, was he never changed his standards,” Menafee said in a telephone interview on Wednesday from suburban Atlanta, where he is a computer systems analyst. “He knew what he wanted out of you, and he wasn’t shy about it, either. You’d have to perform at a certain level, or he’d try to find someone else who could.

“If Joe Lee believed in you, he believed in you. He’d spell it out, what he expected. He didn’t leave it to your imagination. He just loved football. He really did.”

Joe Lee Dunn grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee and played his college football at the hometown college division powerhouse, Tennessee-Chattanooga. (They insist on just ‘Chattanooga’ these days.) He was a little All-American for the Mocs, and in one season, led the team in both rushing (555 yards) and interceptions (5). I’m guessin’ he mighta led the Southern Conference in colorful quotes, too, but I was in grade school my own self in those days.

Joe Lee Dunn was a good guy. His players loved him. The student body loved him. Reporters, too. In 1994, the late Billy “Dog” Brewer was fired at Ole Miss a month or so before two-a-days started. A couple weeks before SEC Media Days in Birmingham. Ole Miss was about to get hit with severe NCAA sanctions, including a TV ban for the 1995 season. Multiple years of scholarship reductions. It seems some Ole Miss boosters were using the notorious Memphis strip joints as recruiting way stations, and, well, you can figure out the rest.

Former Ole Miss chancellor Gerald Turner needed stability. He needed Joe Lee Dunn.

Dunn’s Rebels defense had led all of NCAA Division I football in total defense that year, a feat that he’d match with the 1999 Mississippi State squad. After a rousing 34-21 victory over LSU at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, in Oxford, on October 29, 1994, you thought Dunn might have a shot at the head coaching job on a permanent basis. But Ole Miss went for the fast-walking, fast-talking Tommy Tuberville, who left Ole Miss for Auburn after the 1998 season. Now Mr. Tuberville, somehow, is in the United States Senate, and the less I say about that, probably the better …

The Rebels went 4-7 in 1994, Dunn’s one season as the interim head coach. He spent the 1995 season as Danny Ford’s defensive coordinator, at the University of Arkansas, and the Razorbacks went 8-5 that year, reaching the SEC championship game for the first time in school history.

Derek Jones was a 175-pound Ole Miss cornerback in those days, and he was a track and field star under venerable Ole Miss coach Joe Walker, too. Now Jones is the assistant head coach and secondary coach at Texas Tech, and he remains one of Joe Lee Dunn’s biggest fans.

“Joe Lee was gonna get five defensive backs on the field before anybody else did,” Jones said. “He was really good at finding favorable matchups. He was probably as big a reason as any for me winding up at Ole Miss. I was just a kid from a small town in South Carolina. Joe Lee was always totally prepared. In reality, though, Joe Lee was like one of us. He identified with the players. He could communicate with us.”

Cornell Menafee laughs when he thinks about Dunn’s defensive approach at Mississippi State. Joe Lee is considered the father of sorts, of the 3-3-5 defensive scheme, in which big, strong linemen and fast, hard-hitting defensive backs could make it happen.

“Joe Lee would say, ‘We’re gonna blitz ya, we’re gonna blitz ya gettin’ off the bus.’ And he meant it,” Menafee said with a laugh. “He just loved football. Later in his career, he coached with (former Kentucky head coach) Hal Mumme, at McMurray, a Division III team in West Texas. He coached some high school ball for a while. He always had his hand in the game.”

Dunn was demure, however, when Sherrill lauded his high-risk, high-reward defensive approach upon Dunn’s arrival at Mississippi State in 1996. In an interview with the Daily Journal of Tupelo, Mississippi, Dunn was asked about his innovative defensive concepts.

“I don’t even know if I know what the definition of that word is,” Dunn said. “I’ve been doing, what I’ve been doing, for about 20 years … If it was innovative, it was probably innovative a long time ago.”

Joe Lee Dunn didn’t like wearing socks, and you seldom caught him in a coat and tie. He was tough minded, but with a big heart. He only had one other shot as a college head coach, again replacing a fired coach at New Mexico in the mid- 1980s. He was at home in the film room, on the practice field, maybe the corner diner, and certainly his home with his wife and three children.

Joe Lee Dunn is really going to be missed. Here’s hoping Ole Miss AND Mississippi State find a way to pay tribute to their former defensive mastermind for the rest of the 2021 season.

Here’s to ya, Joe Lee. God bless.