2013 Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame: Joe Lee Dunn turns the table on offenses

Columbus High School quarterback becomes highly successful college defensive coordinator

abrenner@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 1, 2013 

He stapled his name right here by racking up record-setting masses of yards and points as a dual-threat Columbus High quarterback.

His legend grew across the nation the rest of his life, ironically, for muzzling such offensive dynamos.

Joe Lee Dunn might not roll off the tongue on College Football Live every day -- after all, he's presently a defensive coordinator for a Division II program in Texas.

Odds are, though, every college coach worth the chair he sits in has heard of this man, and probably taken a Tums or two due to Dunn's creation.

The quarterback matured into a well-traveled defensive coordinator, finding success spanning a five-decade career rightfully earning Dunn's induction to the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame tonight at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. He will be inducted along with Willie Bowman, Charles Ragsdale, Lewis Colbert and Eugene White.

Movement, disguise, aggressiveness and speed are common adjectives labeled to Dunn's 3-3-5 defense.

They also serve nicely as characteristics of the mastermind behind this sneaky formation.

Little QB, big results

Joseph Levi Dunn was born July 14, 1946, in rural Ozark, Ala., spending his infancy on a cotton mill in southeast Alabama.

When the mill shut down, Joe and Mildred Dunn moved their son and two daughters to Columbus, where Joe found a job building houses and eventually settled his family in to a three-bedroom brick home.

Joe Lee had an eventful childhood; his parents were always looking out for him. At the age of 4, he was hit by a car and knocked back "20 feet or so," but was immediately treated at a local hospital with no major injuries.

Then at nine, he went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico on a family trip to Destin, Fla. Joe never took his eyes off his son, who got swept under the water and promptly, safely retrieved by Dad.

Columbus High football needed its own rescue mission after the 1961 season: 10 games, 10 losses, one head coach given the boot for his troubles.

New boss Jim Pyburn was "the meanest guy in the world," as Dunn recalled, but the Blue Devils needed a kick in the trousers after going 6-24 the previous three years.

Never growing taller than 5-foot-9, Dunn was an unlikely hero; a shrimpy 145-pounder daring to play high school quarterback.

However, the runt could run. He was pint-sized, but he could pass.

After guiding Columbus back to respectability his junior year (4-4-2), Dunn shattered school records with 1,596 total yards and 23 touchdowns in 1963, being named to the all-Southern and Georgia state AAA all-star teams.

Following an 0-2-1 start that year, Columbus won the next seven games and advanced to the region final -- the school's first playoff berth in six seasons. That tear included a 52-19 romp over Valdosta, the three-time reigning undefeated state champions.

Dunn's final high school game for Columbus was the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. The playoff game went on as scheduled, and the Blue Devils lost 7-6 on the road at Moultrie.

The diminutive yet dynamic Dunn earned a grant-in-aid to the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he played quarterback, defensive back, tailback and flanker from 1965-67. Later an assistant coach at his alma mater throughout the 1970s, he was tabbed for the UT-Chattanooga Hall of Fame in 1992.

UTC was the first of 10 different schools employing Dunn, including head-coaching stints at New Mexico and Ole Miss. Dunn served 12 years as defensive coordinator at four different SEC institutions -- South Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Mississippi State.

The particular locales listed on Dunn's resume aren't nearly as notable as what he's contributed in several corners of the college football universe.

'I had to do something'

Twelve years apart, two separate SEC squads -- South Carolina in 1987, Mississippi State in 1999 -- could thank Dunn for producing a top-10 national defense.

Sandwiched in the middle, Dunn spent three years at Memphis, where he wrestled a chronic setback: not enough beef along the defensive line, setting up the 5-3 alignment for failure.

The Tigers opened the 1991 campaign with a trip to the west coast to face No. 16 Southern California. The year before, Dunn went out for a game to scout the mighty Trojans, just two years removed from consecutive Rose Bowl victories.

At halftime, Dunn got up, left Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and went to the racetrack for personal amusement. He'd seen enough of USC.

"I got a feeling that we didn't really have a chance," Dunn recalled. "Them guys, you're talking about good looking? Gee whiz, they were huge.

"I had to do something."

Dunn was already known as a whimsical mind -- chuckling, Dunn remembered one time at New Mexico, he ran out of players and summoned a male cheerleader to play free safety. He had precedent using a 5-foot-9, 180-pound nose tackle.

So, Dunn pulled two defensive ends off the field, adding two extra defensive backs to roam the backfield. This was a spread defense before there even existed spread offense.

USC was completely befuddled. Memphis -- helped by free safety Jeremy Williams, a Greenville (Ga.) product -- came away with a 24-10 victory. The 3-3-5 was born.

"It's a trick defense, because you can move people around," Dunn said. "You can give them so many multiple looks."

Said Dunn's wife, Susie, who can talk X's and O's with the best of them: "He's the mastermind behind it. That really was the epitome of his career.

"Everybody thinks he uses it exclusively now, but the game has changed. If he doesn't have the right personnel that week, the 3-3-5 might not see action. You have to be able to stop the other team by whatever you need to do."

Lasting legacy

Interestingly, Dunn abandoned the 3-3-5 for the rest of the year, concluding it would only work against certain offenses. Years later, when defensive line depth was again depleted at Mississippi State, Dunn dusted off the scheme and made it his base package, pioneering the Bulldogs to new heights on defense.

"It's an oddity. It's something that they had to prepare for that was different," said Melvin Smith, Dunn's defensive backs coach at MSU from 1996-01 who now coaches cornerbacks at Auburn. "Coach Dunn was a really innovative thinker and kind of ahead of his time."

Because the system was so unique, Smith happily admitted, "It made me a lot of money."

Suddenly, coaches everywhere wanted a piece of the action. Famous descendants of the 3-3-5 include Charlie Strong, who used it at South Carolina and Florida before becoming head coach at Louisville, and Rich Rodriguez, employing the configuration at West Virginia and Arizona.

The DVD teaching tool "Joe Lee Dunn: The 3-3-5 Defense: Basic Schemes" was released in 2010.

Asked why his brainchild succeeded, Dunn shrugs his shoulders. The quarterback's view of this defense was complicated, but its basic principles were not.

"On my part, we've got to make sure we can tackle," Dunn said. "That's the No. 1 thing that's lost in college and pro football, is they don't tackle very good anymore."

While elements of the 3-3-5 linger today -- take the popular nickel defense, used to match up with any multiple-WR set -- the actual genesis has pared away, a fad lost in football history.

Chris Brown writes in "The Essential Smart Football" of Dunn's 3-3-5: "While at their best, his defenses were suffocating and hard to plan for; when the talent dropped off, the aggressiveness once viewed as a virtue seemed to bleed over into a lack of discipline and a penchant for giving up the big play."

Concludes Brown in his book, "His legacy is nevertheless secure."

Settling in away from SEC

One of those offensive coaches who lost sleep trying to crack Dunn's code was Hal Mumme, the father of the Air Raid offense. As Kentucky's head coach, Mumme lost three of four matchups to Dunn's Bulldogs from 1997-2000.

Dunn spent two troubling years as head coach at Ridgeway, an inner-city high school in Memphis riddled with violence. When Mumme needed a defensive coordinator at New Mexico State in 2008, he asked Dunn to join forces. A rough 2008 led to Mumme's ouster, and a few months later he became the head coach at McMurry, a D-III program in Abilene, Texas.

Mumme took Joe Lee with him. It was a new challenge for the Dunn family, now in its 10th different coaching city.

"It's different every week, every year. You get to see the country," Susie said. "It's not necessarily easy, but you handle whatever's thrown at you. It's a blessing, in a different way than people that stay in the same town all the time."

Susie calls Abilene "a little big town," three hours west of Dallas. With a population of 100,000, Abilene provides the hustle and bustle of hosting three universities, along with the heritage of many longtime residents growing elderly.

Dunn's work ethic has not changed as he enters his 43rd season of coaching, all continuous.

"When I started out coaching in college, I got up at 3:30 in the morning and went to work," Dunn said. "I got all my work done before anybody came into the office. I studied the game quite a bit."

This past season was McMurry's first as a Division II independent. After an 0-2 start, the War Hawks finished 8-3 capitalized by a six-game winning streak and their first bowl game appearance in 63 years.

True to form, there were ups and downs: Dunn's defense allowed 50-plus three times, but also allowed just 7.0 points per game during a four-game homestand to end the regular season.

Home sweet home

Married for 23 years to the daughter of former Columbus High coach Joe Sparks, Dunn has three children with Susie.

Their oldest daughter, Kacey, lives in Memphis with two young children. Ashley's a senior gymnast at Cooper High School in Abilene, and Joseph is a freshman at Cooper, where he plays football, basketball and track.

Meanwhile, the parents of Joe Lee and Susie still live in Columbus. Joe and Mildred Dunn remain in the same house, 56 years after moving in.

"It was the place that it all started for both of us," Susie said. "Our families have been there our entire lives."

Busy as any and all college coaches, Dunn tries to come back to his hometown twice a year. He'll be here to be acknowledged for his accomplishments tonight, both near and far.

"It's fantastic to me. Anything I can get, that's OK to me," Dunn said. "My hometown, it couldn't be better, because I've known some people for a long time there. Columbus, Georgia's a really good place."

Smith, one of the SEC's best-regarded assistants, said "it's been a blessing to be a part of his tree," taking time during an intensely busy recruiting week to sing Dunn's praises.

"He's, like, one of the tall trees in a tall forest," Smith said.

Not bad for a guy standing 5-foot-9.

CLOSER LOOK

Age: 66

High school: Columbus

College: UT-Chattanooga

Local tie: Won two Bi-City championships at quarterback for Columbus

You need to know: Coached at 10 different schools, famous for inventing 3-3-5 defense

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