Something strange happened this week: I couldn’t get to sleep.
It’s Tuesday night, I’m lying in bed, awake, and imagining various ways Onterio McCalebb might get free around the edge. I can hear the call: McCalebb … finds some room … McCalebb! Will anyone catch him? No! Touchdown Tigers! Then the passing game gets one: Todd, drops back, pump fakes … he’s got Zachery! Breaks a tackle and he’s gone! Touchdown! Everybody gets a turn: Coleman sacks Crompton and Ricks runs the fumble back for six. Thorpe picks off an out and he’s gone. Adams, dragging a foot in the back of the end zone. And I do mean everybody: the clock is tickticktickticking on towards morning, and I’m busy seeing Ikeem Means recover a fumbled Tennessee kickoff and sprinting the other way, towards glory.
It’s not the football fantasizin’ that’s strange, of course–it’s typical of Friday nights before any big Auburn game, typical of any given day of Iron Bowl week. (As I am 100 percent absolutely sure it is for a lot of you.) But Tennessee? On a Tuesday? (And then, yeah, Wednesday and Thursday, too.) For me, at least, that’s not entirely normal.
Principally because I’ve never wanted to beat the Volunteers the way I have certain other (multiple other) teams. Yeah, I remember when Auburn and Tennessee played every year and it never seemed like Auburn could both lose to Tennessee and have a good season, I have vague memories of the Tennessee Waltz game, and of course it’s always nice to take any of the SEC’s “Big Six” down a peg. But the two teams play so rarely these days, there’s no way to keep hate alive. They’re just another good SEC team on the schedule.
Or at least, they had been. But something’s changed–maybe it’s still not the kind of game it is, for, say, Ben, but I wanted this one all week in a way I don’t remember wanting one from the Vols in, I don’t know, maybe forever … and I don’t think I’ve been alone. The chatter in Auburnland has had a flinty, focused edge all week. It’s a game Auburn doesn’t really have all that much riding on, and somehow it’s still grown into something colossal, something necessary.
Why? Why the hell did I end up having to burn through a whole potful of coffee every morning this week? Some of it, I think, is the insult of the polls, some of it is leftover hate from the annual-rivalry days, but after thinking on it for a while, I’ve decided that for me it’s mostly this:
Or rather, not this, but the contrast between this and Gene Chizik.
I can’t claim to have greeted the Chiznick’s hiring with open arms. We all know that. (Hell, the whole country knows that.) I wish I could, but I can’t. But even before Chizik hired Malzahn and Luper and Taylor and Rocker and showed that he understood exactly how smart Auburn was going to have to be about recruiting and then started winning games–before any of that–even I knew it wasn’t fair for Lane Kiffin and his all-but-identical resume to be hailed as a bold, visionary hire and Chizik to be hailed as national laughingstock.
When Chizik started showing why he was hired and proving he knew what he was doing while Kiffin baited the Gators and racked up a string embarrassments, I thought that attitude might change. It did, but not much. When Chizik won his big nonconference test and Kiffin’s team gained, like, 27 yards and lost, I thought that attitude would change. It did, but not as much as it should have. And when Kiffin successfully kept his team vaguely competitive at Florida–nevermind that no one who watched that game ever thought the Vols had a prayer of actually winning, or that Kiffin essentially threw in the towel at game’s end–he got a more extensive round of media applause than Chizik got for, you know, beating a team like West Virginia. Just ask Vol fans: just because Chizik is 4-0 and Kiffin is 2-2 doesn’t mean one’s done a better job than the other.
I am tired of all of this. Even though my sense is that Gene Chizik genuinely couldn’t care lass about all of it, I am tired on his behalf. Because whatever I thought at the time of his hire, I could not be more in his corner today. He has not been what I would call perfect, but he has been smart and he has been creative and he has won and most important of all he has treated Auburn like Auburn. He is Auburn’s coach and an Auburn coach, if that makes sense, and I could not be prouder to have him as my football team’s head coach.
He doesn’t care about beating Lane Kiffin. He cares about beating Tennessee, and of course I do too. But I also care about Gene Chizik beating Lane Kiffin. I want it so badly I can taste it, a dry tang in the mouth. I want it so badly I couldn’t sleep this week.
Let’s go, Coach Chizik. Let’s go, Auburn.