Paul Dietzel, who in the first of three head coaching jobs in college football led Louisiana State to its first national championship, in 1958, using a platoon system famous for a scrappy defensive unit known as the Chinese Bandits, died on Tuesday at his home in Baton Rouge, La. He was 89.
His family announced the death on its Web site.
"I once told Dietzel he was too soft to make a successful head coach," the renowned coach Bear Bryant once said. Dietzel proved him wrong. He coached L.S.U. for seven years (1955-61), Army for four (1962-65) and South Carolina for nine (1966-74), compiling an overall head coaching record of 109-95-5.
He was 29 when Louisiana State hired him, but despite having the services of Jim Taylor, a running back who went on to star for the Green Bay Packers, the Tigers finished with a 3-5-2 record. They went 3-7 in 1956 and 5-5 the next year, despite a backfield with Taylor and a new star, Billy Cannon. Dietzel's job seemed in danger.
Everything changed in 1958, however, when he found a way to deal with a new collegiate rule that allowed players to return to the field only once each quarter. He created three units. His 11 best players became the White team (their practice jerseys were white) and played both offense and defense. His next 11 best offensive players became the Gold (later shortened to Go) team and played only offense. His next 11 best defensive players became the Chinese Bandits and played only defense.
Dietzel gave them that name, at a time when ethnic caricatures were common in popular culture. "I was an avid reader of ‘Terry and the Pirates,' the comic strip," he said, "and it seemed to me the meanest, most vicious people in the world were the Chinese bandits in the funny papers."
The Bandits were essentially a third-string unit, substitutes who played only 10 or 15 minutes a game. But playing with confidence, tenacity and abandon, they became cult heroes to L.S.U. fans. A song about them became a local hit in the Baton Rouge area, and Sports Illustrated published an article about them.
The attention seemed to have inflated their sense of importance, Dietzel acknowledged. "The Bandits were not a sensational team," he said, "but they didn't know it."
The 1958 team went 10-0 in the regular season — the final game a 62-0 drubbing of Tulane — and was voted the unofficial national champion. Then it beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. At 34, Dietzel became the youngest national coach of the year, and Cannon won the Heisman Trophy.
When he left Louisiana for Army after the 1961 season, Dietzel became the first nongraduate of West Point to coach the team since 1911. He was soon popular on campus. Sports Illustrated described him in 1962 as "a witty speaker, a chart man, an organizer, an inveterate coiner and borrower of aphorisms" who was given to posting signs in the locker room carrying slogans, exhortations and epigrams with artwork that he did himself.
He also held weekly question-and-answer sessions open to Army fans and supporters, holding forth from a stage with charm and matinee-idol looks. The college football columnist and historian Fred Russell wrote, "Tall and trim, with blue-gray eyes, thick blond hair and boyish smile, he is an engaging conversationalist among men and has a courtly way with the ladies."
Paul Franklin Dietzel was born on Sept. 5, 1924, in Fremont, Ohio, near Toledo. After his sophomore football season at Duke, he left to become an Army Air Forces bomber pilot during World War II and flew 12 combat missions over Japan. He married his high school sweetheart, Anne Wilson, in 1944.
After the war, he moved on to Miami University of Ohio, where he became a Little all-American center and earned a bachelor's degree in education. From 1948 to 1954, he was an assistant at Army under Red Blaik, at Cincinnati under Sid Gillman and at Kentucky under Bryant.
After his coaching career ended, Dietzel was the commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference in 1975, the athletic director at Indiana University from 1976 to 1978 and, returning to Baton Rouge, the athletic director at Louisiana State from 1978 to 1982.
The L.S.U. job ended after an audit found an athletic department deficit of more than $1.4 million. The auditors reported mismanagement and false expense reports but found no criminal wrongdoing.
Still, Dietzel was reassigned, named an assistant to the university president, though he kept his $66,000 salary. He resigned five months later and filed a $3.5 million suit against James Wharton, the university's chancellor, saying Wharton had defamed him in public statements concerning the audit. The suit was later dropped, and Dietzel said, "All the allegations have been disproved."
He came out of retirement in 1985 to establish an athletic department at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. He retired again two years later, at 62.
He was also the president of the American Football Coaches Association and of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Dietzel died the day before his 69th wedding anniversary. His wife survives him, along with a daughter, Kathie DuTremble; a son, Steve; and two grandchildren.
Dietzel was modest about his achievements. In 1998, at his championship team's 40th-anniversary reunion, he gave all the credit to his players.
"Every time I had mediocre athletes, I was a mediocre coach," he said. "Every time I had good athletes, I was a pretty good coach. And when I had great athletes, just overnight, I became a great coach."