Digging Dirt

Friends celebrate Winston's moment

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, February 28, 2014
Former University of Arkansas football player Dennis Winston at the Washington County Historical Society in 2012. Winston and other former Razorbacks spoke about their experiences being among the first black players to play at the University of Arkansas.
Photo by Michael Woods
Former University of Arkansas football player Dennis Winston at the Washington County Historical Society in 2012. Winston and other former Razorbacks spoke about their experiences being among the first black players to play at the University of Arkansas.

FAYETTEVILLE - Dennis Winston has traveled all across North America as a football player and coach, but there is no place like home for the former hard-hitting linebacker who is possibly the most famous man nicknamed “Dirt” in the United States

When he eventually hangs up his coach’s whistle, Winston plans to settle not far from where he’ll be inducted tonight into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.


Dennis Winston was a trailblazer at Arkansas. + Enlarge

“I’m going to do it until my body says different,” said Winston, 58, a standout linebacker at Arkansas and a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers during his 11-year NFL career. “Then I’m going to let it go and I’m going to go fishing every day.


Dennis Winston At a Glance

AGE 58 (born Oct. 25, 1955)

FAMILY Son Dennis Jr. (40) and daughter Bianca (32)

POSITION Defensive line coach, Eastern Illinois

HOMETOWN Forrest City


COLLEGE Arkansas (1973-1976)

PRO CAREER Pittsburgh Steelers (1977-1981, 1985-1987), New Orleans Saints (1982-1984)

COACHING RESUME Grove City (Pa.) College 1988-1989, Arkansas State 1990-1991, Grambling State 1992-1994, Norfolk State 1995, Grambling State 1995-1996, Arkansas 1997, Port Arthur (Texas) Lincoln High 1998-1999, Kentucky State 2000, Toledo 2001-2004, Edmonton Eskimos (CFL) 2005-2007, Mississippi Valley State 2008-2009, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 2010-2012, Grambling State, 2013

NOTEWORTHY Nicknamed “Dirty Dennis” at Arkansas and it soon evolved into “Dirt.” … Selected to Arkansas’ All-Century team in 1994. … Part of 1975 Southwest Conference champion and Cotton Bowl champion Razorbacks. … Taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round of the 1977 draft. … Won two Super Bowl titles with Pittsburgh.

“I’m going to put my sign out that says ‘Gone Fishing.’ I want to retire there in Hot Springs, where I can relax and go fishing, go watch the horse races, go hang out with my friend William Watkins there and all my other teammates and friends around Dallas and Fayetteville and have some fun.”

Winston, a native of Forrest City who played at Marianna High, has spent five of his 25 years in coaching in his home state, with stints at Arkansas State ( 1990-1991), Arkansas (1997) and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2010-2012). He has worked on the small-college level at Grove City (Pa.) College, in the high school ranks in Port Arthur, Texas, and in professional ball during a three-year stint with the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos that produced a Grey Cup Championship in 2005.

Winston coordinated the defense for the legendary Eddie Robinson at Grambling State from 1992-1994, returned to the Tigers for three more seasons (1995-1997) and was in a third stint at Grambling last year as defensive coordinator under Doug Williams until things went haywire.

Williams’ was dismissed Sept. 11 with the Tigers at 0-2, then the players walked out on interim head coach George Ragsdale in mid-October, refusing to travel to a game against Jackson State. Order was finally restored when Winston was appointed interim coach Oct. 18. He led the Tigers to a 1-3 record to finish the season 1-11.

Winston called last year the most interesting season he’s had in coaching.

“I’m going to be honest with you, it was hell, but it gave me an opportunity to be a head coach,” said Winston, who was not retained following the season. “It gave me an opportunity to see football in a totally different light. I really think that was a situation that I had to be in. I think that God put me in that situation to work things out the way that they did work out.”

Winston’s election into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame came while he was still conducting a job search that eventually led to Winston being hired by former Razorback Kim Dameron as part of his first staff at Eastern Illinois.

“I was thinking, what an interesting situation, going into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and I don’t have a job,” Winston said. “I didn’t know how to handle that at first, but it all works out.”

Dameron, who played receiver and defensive back at Arkansas from 1979-1982, coordinated the defense at Louisiana Tech last season, about five miles away from Winston at Grambling.

“We hooked up once or twice at the [Ruston, La.] Waffle House,” Winston said with a laugh.

Dameron said he and Winston had a long friendship that was rekindled by living so close to each other last year.

“I know what kind of player he was, I know what kind of coach he’s been, and I know what kind of character he has,” Dameron said. “He’s everything that I was looking for in a coach, and he’s a guy that I think is solid as a rock.

“He’s exactly the kind of person I would want a son of mine to play for. That was my criteria as far as looking for coaches.”

Winston’s long-time friend Rodney Slater, a Marianna native and the former secretary of transportation in President Bill Clinton’s administration, spoke at his home church Sunday and said the entire town is elated about Winston’s induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“Dennis is a special person,” said Slater, who co-captained the football team with Winston at Anna Strong Junior High years ago. “One of the more interesting aspects with Dennis and his going to the University of Arkansas was that class of 1973 was probably the first class where you had significant numbers of African-Americans who were recruited by Coach [Frank] Broyles and went on to play very important roles with the team.”

Slater recalled Winston’s performance as a freshman against No. 5 Southern California and running back Anthony Davis in the 1974 season opener, which the Razorbacks won 22-7.

“Arkansas was all over them, and Dennis was all over Anthony Davis,” Slater said. “It was almost as if he had been told, ‘This is your player.’ Wherever he goes, that’s where we want him to meet you. It was just a wonderful game.”

Former Arkansas baseball coach Norm DeBriyn hosted Winston at his house a few times when Winston played with the Steelers and used to take care of Winston’s car in the summers when Winston would fly to Steelers’ training camps.

“He was a tremendous player,” DeBriyn said. “He didn’t really tackle people. He just ran through them and knocked them down. He was outstanding.”

In his second year with the Steelers, Winston took the injured Jack Ham’s spot at left outside linebacker and helped Pittsburgh win its third of four Super Bowls in the 1970s.

As a member of the New Orleans Saints in 1984, Winston intercepted a pass and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown to help lead the Saints to their first primetime victory on Monday Night Football.

Winston picked up his gritty nickname soon after his arrival in Fayetteville as part of a class of 13 black players, the largest signed by the Razorbacks to that point.

“I got the nickname from Bruce Mitchell,” Winston said. “It started out ‘Dirty Dennis’ and then he changed it to just ‘Dirt.’ I really didn’t think about it at all, but when I got to the pros that’s when it really came in and it just kind of stuck.

“Now a lot of people don’t even know me as Dennis. They just know me as Dirt.”

Winston has plenty of extended family members still living in West Helena and around the state, and he’s expecting a strong family presence at tonight’s induction ceremony.

Winston recalls with fondness his playing days at Arkansas.

“I had a great time there,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to further my career. It also gave me an opportunity to see the world, something that I really wanted to do. It gave me an opportunity to really make great friends all over the country.”

Winston estimates he’s lived in about 20 cities, but he has Hot Springs in his sights.

“It’s just a place I’ve always wanted to retire at, plus it’s not far from my daughter, Bianca, and my family,” Winston said. “That’s the main thing, family and people that care about me and I care about. My daughter can get over there and I’m going to have a relaxed place in Hot Springs where I can breathe fresh air.

“I think I deserve it after all those years coaching and beating my body up, so I want to enjoy life.”

Sports, Pages 19 on 02/28/2014