As the Tigers march into Atlanta for their fourth appearance in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday (moving us into a tie with LSU for fourth-most appearances), the Wishbone takes the opportunity to gaze back over the events of the past two years, taking a hard look at ten key moments, situations, and decisions that got us to where we are now.
1. Cutting Tubs Loose.
Two years ago, Auburn was wrapping up a 5-7 season with a horrendous loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Despite the bleakness of that season, however, then-Head Coach Tommy Tuberville had just the year before led the Tigers to their six straight win over the Tide, and within four years had taken Auburn to an undefeated season (and the SEC title), an eleven-win season, and two nine-win seasons. Nevertheless, the powers-that-be at Auburn decided to cut Tubby loose and move in a different direction. Auburn suffered a bit of negative press and some negative reaction from fans over this move, but could anyone reasonably argue that Tuberville and the staff he had in place two years ago could have gotten Auburn to the position it occupies today—and this quickly? Auburn was willing to make the bold move and AD Jay Jacobs acted decisively. One has only to gaze a short distance to the east to see what can happen when a program instead hesitates and second-guesses and dithers itself into a slow decay and decline. We’re looking at you, Mark Richt.
2. Hiring Gene Chizik.
This was the gutsy move of all gutsy moves. Jacobs knew he had the right man after interviewing Chizik, but a lot of ADs nonetheless would have been afraid to roll the dice on a coach with Chizik’s two-year resume at Iowa State. His even temperament and calm but confident demeanor has been a huge—probably critical—element in this team’s run to 12-0, as well as the steady hand guiding the ship through the shoals of the Cam controversy.
Of course—and we’ve heard this a million times if we’ve heard it once—nobody wanted Chizik at Auburn. Nobody was mentioning his name. Nobody ever could have thought that Chizik would—hey, wait a minute! What’s this? A trio of emails that Van sent to John, the week before Chizik’s name even appeared in the conversation? Hmm! Let’s see what Van said:
12/4/08: John, what has Will Muschamp ever proven that would make him a great head coach? If we go that route, why not hire Gene Chizik from Iowa State??
12/5/08: And why does anyone think Jimbo Fisher would be a great head coach? Because he called plays for Saban’s ‘03 team? Same question for Muschamp. Why is everyone so convinced he’s great HC material? Why not hire Gene Chizik? He did just as well as Muschamp and has head coaching experience.
12/8/08: What about Chizik?? Why is no one mentioning him? He was such a hot property when he went from AU to Texas and won like 30 games in a row, from 2003-2006!
Clearly Van is a genius. Unlike this guy—a beat writer from ISU, who wrote the following on December 13, after Auburn announced the hire:
“When Chizik was hired [at ISU], I told some media colleagues in confidence that his stay at Iowa State would be three years maximum. Either he would fail miserably and be fired or he would have a little success and jump on the very first opportunity that came along to move back south. Now I must admit, even I am surprised at the bizarre turn of events whereby he failed miserably at Iowa State and still got to jump on the very first opportunity that came along to move back south. What the hell Auburn is thinking is anybody’s guess. And who cares. Because it just unburdened Iowa State of its most unprepared, overmatched and incompetent head coach of the modern era.”
To which we reply, “You’re welcome.”
(John points out that he was holding out for Gary Patterson of TCU or Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech, both of which would have been good fits on the Plains, Van admits.)
3. Bringing in a Top-Notch Staff.
Excellent recruiters, excellent position coaches, and the Mad Dr. Gustav as the cherry on top. This staff exudes confidence and energy and optimism, and they are extremely effective at everything they do.
4. Kodi Burns Showing his Class.
We all remember it. The speech before the whole team prior to the 2009 season. Wounds healed—and wounds that hadn’t happened yet, pre-empted. And now every Auburn fan exults a little bit harder every time Kodi catches a pass or throws a terrific block. After he graduates, he should never have to buy his own drinks in Auburn again. He is an Auburn Man.
5. The Emergence of this Crop of Receivers.
During the ten-year Tuberville Era, Auburn had exactly one group of receivers that stood out—that actually looked like they knew how to run routes and catch passes and block. Obomanu and Aromashodu and Taylor and Mix: they all came to Auburn together, at the start of the 2002 season. They went on to form one of the key ingredients in the 2004 juggernaut, and were pretty much the backbone of the offense (along with Kenny Irons) as seniors. Want to know how good they were, and how important a competent WR corps can be? Compare Brandon Cox’s junior year, throwing to that squad, to his senior year, when most of them were gone. Yeesh.
Now look at what we thought we had at receiver in 2008, and compare it to last year and this year. Darvin, T-Zac, Kodi, Blake, and the Swede Killa… Yeah. You see the point.
6. A Senior-Laden Offensive Line.
And the results when they are challenged.
7. The Experiences of 2009.
Last season was enjoyable and satisfying in its own right in so many ways, exceeding most fans’ expectations for Chizik’s first year on the job. It also served to lay solid foundations for this year’s squad, enabling it to reach higher and to achieve loftier goals than nearly anyone could have imagined. From important road-game experience in places like Knoxville and Fayetteville and Baton Rouge to a close Iron Bowl and a New Year’s Day bowl win, the team gelled. With the coaching staff coming back entirely intact and the addition of a few new pieces (one of them called “Cam Newton,” another called “Mike Dyer”), not to mention the shocking emergence of a piece we already had (Mr. Fairley!), the 2009 team was the springboard, reminding us of the reverential tones with which Pat Dye used to talk about his 1981 premier squad: it gave us “something we can live on a long time around here.”
8. The Emergence of Mike Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb on Offense; Nick Fairley and Josh Bynes on Defense.
And let’s not forget Wes Byrum: the guy who, as a freshman, went into the Swamp and kicked the last-second, game-winning field goal over Urban Meyer’s Gators—twice!
From bringing him into the Auburn Family late in 2009, to watching him develop as a simply astonishing player on the field and a great leader and inspiration off the field, to suffering through the controversy these past few weeks surrounding his dad’s actions, to finally seeing him achieve exoneration and be cleared to play—it has been a wild ride. Quite possibly the wildest ride in Auburn history, and one we will never forget. In only a short time a third Heisman Trophy will be carted into the Athletic Complex, placing Cam up there with Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson. He will have completed his War Eagle Apotheosis.
10. The 2010 Schedule.
The way our schedule stacked up for us this year was nothing short of remarkable. Considering that everybody in the SEC plays pretty much the same teams, it’s always seemed sort of goofy to us to talk about one team having a much “harder” or “easier” schedule than anyone else (one slight exception being the way Arkansas over the last decade always managed to avoid playing Florida or Georgia or Tennessee and somehow ended up a half-game ahead of us for the Championship Game).
If ever a schedule could be viewed as especially favorable for an SEC team, however, this might have been the year. Everyone has mentioned that, Iron Bowl aside, Auburn got its toughest games (LSU, Arkansas, Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia) at home. Beyond that, however, there were several other elements that really helped as the weeks went by.
It started soft and built slowly, allowing the team to come together week by week. The first road game was at MSU, before they really got going. The La-Monroe game allowed Cam a good early opportunity to air the ball out (on nearly every play!) prior to hitting the meat of the center of the schedule. Being able to rack up the points against a good Arkansas defense gave the players and coaches more confidence going into the very next week, against a great LSU defense. Chattanooga’s placement between that hard center of the season and Amen Corner allowed a breather. Georgia’s 3-4 defense gave the offense an early look at what they might expect from Alabama. Then the bye week between the Saturday of Georgia and the Friday of Alabama came at just the right time. And playing the Tide on a Friday gave the Tigers an extra day before their clash at the Georgia Dome. This schedule could scarcely have been drawn up more favorably for Auburn, and the Tigers took advantage to full effect.
There you go—ten things that got us here, to the threshold of history. Are there other things that could be mentioned? Certainly. Lots. (And that’s partly what the Comments section down below here is for!) But those are the big ones that stand out to us. They’ve shaped and forged this team into hard steel and brought it to the brink of greatness.
Now—on to Atlanta!
Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.
John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.