Aug. 24, 2007
By:Michael N. Graff
Staff writer for The Fayetteville Observer
The light blue coaching shirt clung to Dick Portee's body, showing no flab around the mid-section, no slouching in the shoulders -- no signs that he's 65 years old.
The wind kicked up dust on the Fayetteville State practice field, and the players struggled through the final round of wind sprints. Portee walked toward the middle of the field, putting his tight but tiny body in danger of being trampled.
One player even jokingly acted like he would hit Portee. But Portee, at 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, hardly shivered.
"Boy, you'd bounce off me like a damn pinball!" Portee shouted, flashing a glare. "Don't even try it."
Even in his 43rd season of coaching, Portee still has it.
A year after being fired from N.C. State along with the rest of Chuck Amato's staff, Portee now is the assistant head coach at Fayetteville State working under Kenny Phillips, another former Wolfpack assistant.
He's the first full-time coach to join Phillips' staff in four years, filling a position that unexpectedly became open when beloved assistant Larry McClain died of a heart attack in March.
It's his first job at a Division II school, or at a historically black college. But, he says, he's not treating it much differently than his stops at N.C. State, Maryland, or with the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
"I'll go out there and carry bags and pick up balls," Portee said. "I promised myself that I wasn't going to display any ego. Because you get put in your place real quick."
Portee has several family photos on his office desk. Whether he's standing next to his wife of 41 years, Dottie, or anybody else, Portee's stance and pose is usually the same.
Chest out, chin up, arm to the side. Everything proud.
But that pride took a hit in November, when he was fired for the first time in his career.
"After the East Carolina game, we had a meeting on Sunday. I don't think it was a big surprise," Portee said. "We'd been coaching long enough to know they weren't going to have a meeting to give us a new contract."
While other members of the Wolfpack staff went and immediately found jobs, Portee went home. People assumed he'd retired.
Actually, though, he was working out, hoping to continue a career that began in 1965 at his alma mater, Eisenhower High School in Decatur, Ill.
He lost 28 pounds from December to April. He answered a few calls and considered some jobs, but passed.
Then, shortly after McClain's funeral and a half-hearted spring practice, Phillips called Portee.
The two had a unique bond. They were the only two black coaches on Mike O'Cain's staff at N.C. State when they coached together for three seasons in the 1990s. Their last year together was 1998, when Portee jumped to become the running backs coach in Cleveland.
When Portee returned to Raleigh to work for Amato a year later, Phillips had already left for Fayetteville.
Seven years later, Portee was looking at going into the insurance business. Then Phillips called.
The two have been commuting to work together -- both live near Raleigh -- almost every day since.
"Perfection is something we preach every day, and that's how he coaches," Phillips said. "Coming from where he's coming from, he brings something a little different to the table. He's definitely going to be a positive for us."
The program from McClain's funeral is taped to at least five players' lockers. They're wearing T-shirts printed with one of McClain's favorite sayings: "Let's find a way to get it done."
As the organizer of the offseason workout program, McClain had more year-round contact with the players than any other coach on staff.
He was one of Phillips' first hires at Fayetteville State.
Slowly, though, the Broncos are moving forward. The first major step was filling McClain's office with Portee.
They couldn't be more different in physical stature. McClain was huge, a former defensive lineman who could bench-press 480 pounds in his playing days. Portee was a defensive back, never scratching 5-foot-7. McClain coached defense, Portee offense.
Their differences are so drastic, it's ridiculous to try to compare them.
The Broncos haven't.
"I didn't know coach McClain at all, I just know the football staff here and the players here held him in high regard," Portee said. "But nobody's made any comparisons. They've accepted me for who I am."
Portee's resume and experiences give him immediate credibility.
He was the first black head coach of his alma mater's team in Decatur. Other stops include Illinois State and Cornell.
Now back and in even better shape, he says he feels no signs of slowing.
"Coach Portee, he's the type that, when he gets up in the morning to stretch, he stretches excellence. He puts on his underwear -- excellence. He drinks his coffee -- excellence," Fayetteville State wide receiver Darryl Barnett said. "I wouldn't say he's perfect. But he strives for everything to be perfect."
Staff writer Michael N. Graff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3591.
Aged to perfection
Fayetteville State assistant head coach Dick Portee is 65 years old and entering his 43rd year of coaching. This is his first at Fayetteville State.
1965-69 -- Eisenhower (Ill.) High School, football, basketball and tennis coach
1969-71 -- Illinois State, freshman coach
1972-76 -- Illinois State, offensive backs coach
1977-81 -- Cornell, defensive backs coach
1982-86 -- Maryland, linebackers coach
1987-89 -- Maryland, receivers coach
1990-98 -- N.C. State, running backs
1999 -- Cleveland Browns, running backs
2000-2006 -- N.C. State, running backs
2007-present -- Fayetteville State, assistant head coach/running backs