The Auburn AUghts: The Stories

This is the Auburn AUghts, the WBE series looking back at the decade that was in Auburn Tiger football. Today: the 10 biggest off-field stories of the last 10 years. Previously: the Plays and the Players. Enjoy.

For better, for worse, this is the guy who defined Auburn's decade.

FOREWORD

It’s hardly any great insight to tell you that what happens to a football program away from the field is every bit as important–more so, in the case of seismic decisions like the choice of a head coach–as what happens on it. So when trying to recap the decade in Auburn football, it seems like a good idea to look at the news stories and hiring decisions that defined the past 10 years as well as the players, games, etc.

In picking out the following top 10, I focused on how big a story was (and is) along two different lines:

1. Headline-size, shock-value, “wow” factor–how big a piece of news it was at the time, basically;

2. how much of an impact it proved to make on Auburn’s football future–how big a piece of news it seems to be now, basically.

As always, please correct any omissions/errors in the comments.

THE LIST

1. Jetgate (2003).

Still can't believe he got on that plane.

A “football story” so big it doubles as the biggest story of the decade for Auburn University itself and the entire Auburn community; on this list, No. 1 is an easy choice.

Six years later, the level of fallout remains staggering:

– SACS investigates and places Auburn on probation, threatening to remove its accreditation and putting Auburn University’s very existence in jeopardy*

– The departure of disgraced University president William Walker, Jr.

– The departure of disgraced athletic director and lifelong Auburn man David Housel

– A major blow to Bobby Lowder’s power and influence over the Auburn athletic department

– A gut punch to Auburn’s 2004 recruiting class–one from which you could make an argument that Tommy Tuberville’s later classes never really recovered from

– The total fracturing of the relationship between Tuberville and the Auburn A.D., one that would continue until the day of Tuberville’s departure.

On the face of it, it still seems near-impossible that a coach with as much success as Tuberville had at a school with expectations as (relatively) low as Auburn could end up out the door after a single losing season. The reason that outcome became possible? Jetgate. The wheels it set in motion never stopped turning.

*This may have been more of a warning shot on SACS’ part rather than a genuine threat to yank the accreditation, which they’ve never done for a school of Auburn’s size (as far as I know). But however serious SACS may or may not have been, that’s as black as black eyes get for the University.

2a. Tuberville fired (sort of); 2b. Gene Chizik hired (2008).

The end of one era; the beginning of another.

There’s not too much more to add at this juncture–the memories in this case are still awful fresh–except to remember how utterly jaw-dropping both of these events were. Even if there were a decent number of Auburn fans who believed Tubby should have been finished at the end of the 2008 season, I don’t know if you’d have found any outside of the serious fringe who believed he was finished. As for the Chizik hire, well, you’re reading the very guy who got national media coverage for opting for a drunken stupor over trying to make sense of it.

In the year since, both halves of the equation have come to make a lot more sense–the energy and enthusiasm of Chizik’s staff have made it more clear than ever how badly Tubby and his staff were lacking that same drive by the end–but that doesn’t change the shock of the defining direction-shift of Auburn football’s last 10 years.

4. The Snub (2004).

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Every year, I begin the season with the same hope: that if Auburn doesn’t go undefeated, that three BCS conference teams will. (Well, three that don’t include Cincinnati.) We’ve had 12 years’ worth of the BCS, and the number of seasons in which three of the SEC’s, Big 10′s ACC’s, Pac-10′s, and Big 12′s champions ran the table still stands at one. One day, someone’s going to join us in misery (please an SEC team please please please) and maybe then, finally, we’ll get some kind of playoff and know this won’t ever happen again.

Until then, there’s nothing to do but celebrate the fact that those Tigers conquered every opportunity they were offered and grit our orange-and-blue teeth until the day we die.

(Seriously, Auburn’s timing is unbelievable: three perfect seasons in the past 60 years, and two of them come on probation and the third in the one-and-only year out of the last 12 it wouldn’t have resulted in a title shot. What are the odds?)

(The single most aggravating piece of fallout from the snub: rivals claiming Auburn didn’t get a title shot because “you’re Auburn.” Guess where Alabama would have finished if they’d gone undefeated that year: third. Guess where USC or Texas–the bluest of college football’s bluebloods–would have finished if the Trojans had run the table this year: third. Shut up, fools.)

5. Campbell, Cadillac sign with Auburn (2000-2001).

Recruiting back at the start of this decade wasn’t quite like recruiting is now–midseason commitments didn’t prompt a separate story or blog post from the Auburn beat writers (and not just because there was no such thing as a blog), only a select few diehards followed Rivals’ or Tom Lemming’s team rankings, and I would argue the majority of college football fans only had the vaguest idea that recruits were being graded and ranked at all.

So when it was news back in 2000 that Auburn had signed one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country and the best player in the state of Mississippi, you knew it was a big deal–otherwise, why would we even be hearing about it? When I waited for WSFA’s 6 0′clock news broadcast for a report from the living room of that Attalla running back who’d chosen Auburn and who everyone seemed to be calling “Cadillac,” I knew he had to be good–otherwise, why would anyone be talking about him? (That was the first time, incidentally, I can remember there being such a thing as “Signing Day.”)

And sure enough, those two players would come together just a few years later to lead Auburn to its greatest season since ’57. Beyond the obvious historical impact of landing two greats like Campbell and Cadillac, though, there’s the statement their signings made in those heady early days of Tubby’s tenure: that despite the crater left behind by Terry Bowden, despite the 5-6 record in 1999, despite Alabama and Florida and Tennessee and LSU, that Auburn was going to have a say in how things went in the SEC under Tuberville. If the ’99 Georgia game was the first on-field evidence of what was to come under Tubby, Campbell and Cadillac’s coming aboard were the off-field equivalent.

6. Al Borges hired (2004).

As the struggles of 2003 so pathetically demonstrated, though, even having talents like Campbell and Cadillac isn’t enough if the coaches guiding them aren’t competent.

Enter Al Borges, and enter the most explosive two-year stretch of Auburn offense since the days of Bo. Perhaps the greatest testament to Borges’ mastery in 2004 and 2005 is that Auburn had its entire backfield drafted in the first round … and increased its scoring the following season. (Not much–32.1 to 32.2–but still.)

Over his final two seasons even Gorgeous Al couldn’t overcome the vagaries of Evil Brandon, various running back injuries, and the most generally non-threatening corps of wideouts Auburn had fielded in years (not to mention a crop of position coaches who may or not have offered him their full support), but by then his place at Auburn was plenty secure. It’s a shame that anything had to be turned around in the first place–but there’s no arguing that Borges was the guy who managed it.

7. Gene Chizik goes Hank Aaron with his staff (2008-2009).

Back back back back ... gone!

OK, so it’s possible Auburn falls on its face these next couple of seasons and it won’t seem like it’ll have mattered so much who Chizik hired … but where we stand today, with Chizik and Co.’s first season having resulted in a three-game improvement over the ’08 disaster and their first full recruiting class bordering on the mind-boggling, I think it’s fair to project a bit.

And what that projection suggests is that the staff Chizik hired–Gus Malzahn and Curtis Luper in quick succession, followed by Trooper Taylor, Tracy Rocker, Ted Roof, Tommy Thigpen, Jeff Grimes, Phillip Lolley, and Jay Boulware–is going to make those decisions as defining a moment for Chizik’s tenure as the decision to hire Al Borges (and Tony Franklin) was for Tuberville.

At the very least, we can already say this about Chizik’s hires: they represent the collective moment at which the bafflement over his hiring gave way to optimism over what he could accomplish. Without the “and Co.,” Chizik was just 5-19 Gene; with them, he’s the guy at the head of one of the most dynamic and innovative staffs in the country. Pretty big difference, and one that I expect will seem even more meaningful in a couple of years.

8. The 2008 recruiting class busts (2008).

We’ll be able to debate all day whether this story or No. 9 was really the bigger story, but even if that one generated the bigger headlines, I think it’s this one that wins the “impact” comparison in a walk.

“This one” meaning Auburn’s 2008 recruiting class, a class that seems more likely by the day to mark the true beginning of the end of the Tuberville era. Why? Let us count the ways:

Zero consensus four-star players according to Rivals/Scout. None.

– The usual Tuberville bevy of academic casualties resulted in Rivals dropping the class all the way to 33rd in their fall re-rank … and that’s including five-star Raven Gray and four-star Deron Furr, both of whom made it to campus but never played a down for Auburn. Remove them, and we’re talking about a C-USA-grade ranking here.

Zero enrolled offensive linemen.

Zero members of Rivals’ top 12 players from Alabama.

Don’t buy the recruitniks’ evaluations? Consider this: two seasons on, that class of 29 players has produced just three starters (and just two for 2010, since Todd was one of those three), only six players who even qualify as contributors, and all of 13 players on the roster, period.

All of that is bad. But what makes the 2008 failure so significant is what was happening across the state at the same time–while Tubby was busy putting together the worst class of his Auburn tenure, Saban was putting together the No. 2 class in the country. While Auburn’s last-minute signees included a long snapper (who couldn’t even win the starting long snapping job) and a two-star linebacker whose only other D-I offer was Duke*, Alabama was grabbing Jerrell Harris, a nationally sought-after four-star LB who had grown up an Auburn fan.

36-0 made it official, but it was Signing Day where the balance of power in the state truly shifted, and it was that shift that ultimately led to Tuberville’s demise. Of course, other things didn’t help …

9. Tony Franklin hired; Tony Franklin fired (2007-2008)

I feel like enough has been said and written about Franklin’s reign of error at Auburn that I don’t have to add anything to the above picture. If you want more, I suggest you give Franklin a call; he’ll be happy to talk to you, particularly if you represent a newspaper.

10. Fingers of Fear (2002-2008).

Something as silly and ultimately meaningless as Tubby’s “how many fingers do you see?” routine after another knockout of Alabama really shouldn’t have a place on this list.

But it does, because it drove Alabama fans just so damn batty the thing took on a life of its own–as the unbelievable flap over Tubby’s seven-finger-flashing in Iraq proved in the spring of ’08. Neither Tubby nor Auburn fans would have ever made a tradition out of it if it hadn’t gotten so snugly under the Tide’s skin; if it had been ignored, it would have gone away. But it wasn’t, and so our side took as much glee as humanly possible in making it the symbol of Auburn’s mid-decade dominance over the rivalry.

It was classic bully behavior, and only appropriate given the way Auburn played the bully over those six years. No story from the past 10 years proved so decisively how much Tiger fans enjoyed being in that role, or how badly that status tormented the fans on the other side of the rivalry.

HONORABLE MENTION

Chizik hired … as Auburn’s defensive coordinator (2001); Big Cat Weekend and the Limo Gambit usher in a new, bolder, more rules-ambiguous recruiting approach … and usher out the Tubby era for good (2009); Dennis Franchione deserts Alabama, setting off a series of events and fiascoes that leave the Tide helpless to prevent Tubby and Auburn from taking total control of the Iron Bowl (2002); Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas appear on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, eventually coming to symbolize the runaway hype train that would help Hugh Nall and Steve Ensminger derail the 2003 season (2003).

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