He picked up his plate and with deference to the others said, “I’m going to eat with my friend.”
The mostly white-haired men at his table nodded and said, “Thanks for coming, Coach. Good to see you.”
All eyes followed him across the room as he sat down in the seat next to me. It was somewhere in the late 1980’s. We were at a restaurant on Camelback Road in Phoenix and at an intra Kiwanis club luncheon. The room settled after the President of my club tapped his spoon lightly on a water glass. “The invocation please,” he said to the designated person.
Some club news followed, then the President said, “We’d like to especially welcome a special guest, one of the winningest college football coaches in the country - Dan Devine.”
The man next to me rose in an unassuming way to the clapping. He smiled, then sat.
I had, without a second thought, gone up to him as he arrived, being swarmed by fellow Kiwanians, not knowing him personally. But being from Columbia Missouri and being raised in the neighborhood he had lived in when he was coach at the university there, I felt compelled to just say hi.
Whether he was in need of talking about days gone by, or, something else I don’t know. But for that meal we had a natural interchange of talking and listening to one another, reminiscing about the University of Missouri greats that once were.
He came to Mizzou in 1958 after a 10-0 season at Arizona State the previous year. And through the next decade, brought that same success to the football program at our campus, with an overall 93-37 and 7 record.
Names like Gus Otto, Vince Tobin, Johnny Roland, Mel West and Roger Wehrli became household names throughout Missouri during his stay; as was the Orange Bowl.
I asked him about Danny LaRose, the 1960 All American End. As a nine-year old I told him I got to know Danny through a family friend.
“You know,” I said, “Danny got me the autographs of all the 1960 team, even yours. And he sent me a postcard after he got drafted by the Lions and said I could be his guest at a game if I came to Detroit. It was a real special thing for a nine-year old boy.”
“Those were very good years. Danny was a real nice kid. I used to hear from him,” he said.
In a fatherly way he related what he knew about other players he had kept up with. His tone was soft, sincere and caring as he related updates.
I told him after Missouri home games we boys would play football in the leaves across the street from his home on Stewart road in Granny Miller’s empty lot. “We’d wait to get a glimpse of you coming home. Once we did see you. We all yelled, "Coach!”
He smiled and said, “Yes. Those days.”
Had I remembered that day, I would have told him that despite all the acclaim he earned by bringing a winning program to Mizzou, he made football games an event all people could feel comfortable attending. When he arrived on campus back in the late 1950's, Dixie was sung at the games and the Confederate flag was flown. And although the song Dixie and the Confederate flag have their place in history, had it not been for him, that song and that flag might still be a part of Missouri games. Being a Catholic, he'd asked for those traditions to be done away with at games.
Our time together ended when he was asked to speak. Afterwards we said our goodbyes. In subsequent lunches at my club, I felt a new respect from my brother Kiwanians. I always guessed it was because they thought I was close to the coach, who had called me friend.
I didn’t see Coach Devine again until 2000. He was promoting his book, Simply Devine at the Brady Commons Bookstore on the Mizzou campus. I'd moved back to Columbia MO and went up to him with three books for him to sign. I reminded him about that day back in the mid 1980’s. He gave me a kindly smile and said, “Oh yes, Phoenix.” I asked him about his daughter, Dede, who was a year ahead of me in school.
When he died in May of 2002, I stopped at the tribute candle burning for him under the Memorial Union Arc at Mizzou. I paid my quiet respect, just a moment longer than most; appreciative of the man who had such an impact on this campus, and who had called me friend that day long ago.