Ex-Lobos coach Dunn, defensive innovator, dies at 75 - Albuquerque Journal

Ex-Lobos coach Dunn, defensive innovator, dies at 75

Joe Lee Dunn, shown in his home debut as head football coach at the University of New Mexico in 1983, has died in Columbus, Ga., at age 75. (Journal file)

As a college football defensive coordinator, Joe Lee Dunn was all about tendencies.

He didn’t have any.

That, at least, was his goal – to confuse and panic opposing offenses with the controlled chaos of his blitz-happy 3-3-5 alignment.

And, yes, there was a tendency for an offense to panic against a defense that might rush seven on one play and drop nine into coverage the next.

Dunn, who came to the University of New Mexico as a defensive coordinator in 1980 and was the Lobos’ head coach from 1983-86, died on Tuesday at his home in Columbus, Georgia. He was 75.

“It was truly an honor to play for one of the best defensive coordinators college (football) has ever seen,” Texas Tech defensive coordinator and associate head coach Derek Jones wrote on Twitter. Jones played for Dunn at Mississippi in the 1990s.

“Coach Joe Lee Dunn demanded that you play hard,” Jones wrote, “and if you weren’t mentally and physically tough you couldn’t play for him. His mentality helped to mold many men.”

With little room for debate, Dunn ranks among the most influential defensive minds in the college game of the past four decades. His schemes have been copied, or at least used as a point of departure, by many programs.

Notable among them: New Mexico.

When Dunn came to UNM in 1980, brought to Albuquerque by new head coach Joe Morrison, former Lobo quarterback Rocky Long was on staff as a defensive backs coach. Long, whose own version of the 3-3-5 has made him among the game’s most influential defensive coaches, has said it was Dunn’s scheme that initially inspired him.

Long left UNM for Wyoming after the 1980 season, but he and Dunn kept in touch. In 1992, when Dunn was the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss and Long held the same position at Oregon State, Long brought his entire staff to Oxford, Mississippi, for a refresher course.

Long was UNM’s head coach from 1998-2008 and now is the Lobos’ defensive coordinator under coach Danny Gonzales – another 3-3-5 convert.

Joe Lee Dunn is shown on April 26, 2008 at a spring scrimmage preceding the season at New Mexico State. (AP Photo/New Mexico State University, Tim Barnett-Queen)

Call it the Rocky Long coaching tree, or perhaps it can be extended to include Dunn. Former La Cueva and UNM player Zach Arnett, a former assistant of Long’s at San Diego State, now is using the 3-3-5 to great effect as head coach Mike Leach’s defensive coordinator at Mississippi State.

Dunn, born in Ozark, Alabama, grew up in Columbus, where he was a star high school quarterback. He played college football at Chattanooga, where he earned Little All-America (NCAA Division II-A) honors as a defensive back.

He began his coaching career at his alma mater in 1971 and remained there through 1979 when Morrison, the Mocs head coach, took the job at UNM.

Dunn’s first game at New Mexico was a sensation. The Lobos sacked BYU quarterback and future Super Bowl champion Jim McMahon seven times en route to a 25-21 upset victory.

But, when you gamble, sometimes you lose. Later that season, Dunn’s defense gave up 72 points in an embarrassing loss to UNLV.

So it went throughout Dunn’s four decades on the sidelines. His defenses weren’t always good, but when they were, they were really good.

Dunn resigned as UNM head coach after the 1986 season, having gone 17-30 in four seasons. Along the way, he’d irritated athletic director John Bridgers with his, uh, tendency to speak openly about the obstacles he faced in building the program.

In fact, upon his resignation, he sent Bridgers a letter – published in the Albuquerque Journal – listing 10 items that needed improvement if UNM was to win consistently in football.

“My only concern is that nothing has been done since I have been here,” he wrote, “and I am looking forward to seeing something happen that will help UNM become more competative (sic).”

Of course, Dunn knew he had the defensive coordinator’s job waiting at South Carolina, where Morrison was the head coach.

From there, other than one season as interim head coach at Ole Miss and another at Ridgeway High School in Memphis, Dunn was a career defensive coordinator.

Among the highlights:

• At South Carolina in 1987, his first year there, the Gamecocks ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense at 11.8 points per game.

• In 1992 at Ole Miss, Dunn’s D ranked third nationally in rush defense and sixth in total defense. The following year, the Rebels were third nationally in scoring defense.

• In 1999 at Mississippi State, his defense ranked third in points allowed en route to a 10-2 record and a victory over Clemson in the Peach Bowl.

Morrison’s 1982 Lobos, meanwhile, went 10-1, ranking them among the best teams in program history. Front and center was the offense, which under the guidance of offensive coordinator Frank Sadler ranked third in the nation in scoring per game (34.0).

Based on raw defensive numbers, the ’82 team wasn’t among Dunn’s best. The Lobos gave up 20.5 points a game, ranking them just 55th nationally. Yet, they allowed just 104 yards per game on the ground, intercepted 16 passes and took five of those picks back for touchdowns.

All told, Dunn’s career took him to Chattanooga, New Mexico, South Carolina, Memphis, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ridgeway High School.

Then, in 2008, New Mexico State coach Hal Mumme brought Dunn back to the Land of Enchantment.

“Joe Lee’s going to make New Mexico State a much better football team because he’s such a good coach and he understands his defense so well,” Long said at the time. “Just the idea that it’s an attacking defense, in that Joe Lee will teach effort.”

We all know, though, that Jimmys and Joes beat X’s and O’s every time – well, except maybe for that first game for Dunn’s Lobo defense against BYU. Mumme was fired by New Mexico State after the 2008 season, then hired at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas and took Dunn with him.

Joe Lee Dunn, left, is shown with UNM athletic director John Bridgers in this undated file photo. Dunn expressed his frustration with Bridgers and UNM in a very public way when fired as football coach following the 1986 season. (Journal file)

Dunn finished his career at McMurry in 2012.

There was more to Dunn, his brother-in-law told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, than the tough, plain-talking coach who walked the sidelines with no headphones and, typically, no socks.

“He was a funny, loving person,” Jay Sparks said. “He kidded around. He would break out in a dance with his children.

“He was so polar opposite when he didn’t have the burden of competition.”


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