Surely, a win is a win no matter how it is forged.
That said, certain wins are more deeply satisfying than others. The win that comes despite poor team play — egregious errors, boneheaded play calls, slop-bucket tackling and defensive angles — is nothing more than a relief at a narrow escape. Everyone breathes easy once the final whistle sounds, but that feeling of victory? Hollow. And what’s even worse than winning in spite of yourself is beating a team determined to beat itself. For one, there’s no joy in merely helping another team along the path of self-destruction. For two, the essential questions go unanswered: did the defense step up? Did our halftime adjustments make a difference? Has the offense figured out how to force the defense’s hand? Unknowns. Truly, who is the better team?
And in contrast, there are games in which the Tigers lose but lose so damn well, it’s nearly as good as winning. Last year’s Iron Bowl could not have been a better example of this phenomenon. We lost. But we lost in such a way that displayed potential and character and an inerrantly upward trajectory. A loss… but a loss in which the Plainsmen gave every last ounce, then dug in for more. It may seem trite, but just as a victory over a self-destructive opponent rings hollow, there is no shame in defeat if you leave it all on the field.
This season, Auburn has gotten every opponent’s best. They’ve taken it on the chin just about every week… but they’ve hit back. Harder. And harder. January 10, 2011, was no exception, as the Ducks put up one of the most complete games the Tigers have seen all year — and one of the most astonishing. Chip Kelly came to Glendale to win and his boys came to play. There was the brilliantly-devised fake punt play, with one of the back protectors scooting into the flats. The out-of-nowhere speed option on that first — first of two! — two-point conversions. The HB-crazy option on the goal line that gave the Ducks their second touchdown. The ballsy play action from their own five. The across-the-grain from-the-bootleg pass to Maehl for their second two-pointer. Chip Kelly may have called himself a great game, but most importantly his players truly believed in the game he called and they executed. Nothing can be taken from this Oregon team, who went out in a neon blaze of carbon-fiber glory, who deserve to hold their heads high.
Nothing from Kelly, but at the very end of the game I questioned his clock management, thinking the Ducks would have wanted to call time out. Maybe, at first, he’d thought that keeping the Tigers out of scoring range (and forcing overtime) was best done by limiting the number of plays Auburn could run. Why stop the clock? Then came Dyer’s two game-cinching runs… and it still doesn’t make sense to call time, to prolong the inevitable, to force his players to run another meaningless play. And then during his postgame interview, though very obviously overcome, Chip Kelly conducted himself with class. His Ducks wanted it bad, and he wanted it bad for them. They are a team whose time is achingly close to their first championship, a team I’d like Auburn to play again. And a team it would be worth losing to.
Honestly, given the level at which the Oregon Ducks and Auburn Tigers played, even a loss would have been meaningful. Would it still have been disappointing? It would have been gut-wrenching (and my heart goes out to the Oregon). But this would still have been a game of which the Tigers could be proud — of which the Ducks should be proud. This truly is what makes the victory worthwhile.
It must be acknowledged that this game continues the SEC’s stunning domination of the national title game. Five straight wins from any single conference, even the mighty SEC, is incredible — to say nothing of six wins in eight years and seven wins out of all fifteen. None of these champions had it easy, none emerged from the meat grinder of SEC divisional play without bruises and scars. They all had to fight, every tilt of the season — and the Tigers are no different. Auburn won this championship having played a host of close games, games in which they fought back from overwhelming deficits, games which required a whole lot of stick-to-it-iveness. games that demonstrated an unstoppable will to live, a spirit that is not afraid, a true well of character. This pattern to their gameday successes — taking early body blows, adjusting, rising, destroying — was leveled at the Auburn Tigers as damning by no few commentators. The debate raged: Is it better to win close games, or unblinkingly obliterate every opponent?
What should we expect of our champions? Looking at Oregon’s season, there were only two games in which they seemed to meet a challenge, Stanford and Cal. All other comers were flattened by a top-flight defense and a superb offense, the likes of which are rarely seen — you’ll not find me doubting Oregon’s deserved place versus Auburn. But which requires more of a football player, coach or team: to continue to score points on an overmatched opponent, or to rise from your back to your knees to your feet with fists ready? Which obstacle, when overcome, more effectively develops and demonstrates character: the temptation to give less effort when it is clear you have already won, or the temptation to give less effort because it is clear that you may almost certainly lose?
Ask Coach Yox how it works. Ask him how he builds strength in his boys, ask him about the heat and the puking exhaustion. Ask him if young men learn to trust themselves and their teammates by taking it easy, by always feeling good, by never being pushed to do more than they ever believed they could.
And how can we ignore… the contrast between the two fanbases could not have been more drastic. The Duck fans were hopelessly outnumbered in Glendale — not just in the stadium, but outnumbered at the tailgate, outnumbered among non-ticket-holding fans who made the trip anyway, outnumbered in their own bars. One particular bar was designated (somehow) as “Oregon Duck fan headquarters,” and not long after the announcement was made, the place was swarmed by Tiger fans in orange and navy. The stadium roared with “IT’S GREAT… TO BE… AN AUBURN TIGER” over and over again. Nick Saban had to shout over 70,000 voices to be heard in his mike. The kickoffs, just like in Jordan-Hare, “WAR EAGLE! HEY!” We made that dome ours — Jordan-Hare West ours. We have photographic evidence that the Oregonians couldn’t even manage a decent tailgate.
Is it any wonder, given how strongly the Ducks are associated not just with their university, but with a multinational clothing giant? People don’t throng by land and air 1,700 miles to the middle of the desert out of curiosity as to the fashionable socks their players are sporting, even if — I just can’t resist, a buddy of mine said it best — even if the Ducks were dressed perfectly to ambush the Tigers from within the confines of a lemon meringue pie. You just can’t buy a fanbase like the Auburn Family. We believe in Auburn and we love it and we teach our children to love it.
A win is a win, and this is a win like no other. But it matters how the victory is forged. It matters that Auburn — the players, the coaches and trainers, the AD, the students, the most distant alums crying War Eagle — is not a system, not an audience, but a family. The sacrifices they make they make for each other, be it a last-ditch road trip through the heart of the country to be with their team, be it the sacrifice of personal goals for the good of others, be it the willingness to accept public derision for decisions in which you truly believe. It matters that Auburn has fought through adversity: through coaching entropy and staff dissolution, through uncertainty and injury, humiliating defeats and high-piling deficits, through bitterly-fought victories without just reward.
It matters. This championship is not the success of a programmatic system, not the work or dream of one man or woman, not merely the perfect confluence of favorable events. This championship does not belong to a single player or coach — but to Auburn. This championship represents a success of Auburn, a success of the principles of character that George Petrie put to paper in 1945 and ever since have rung like eight hammers on white-hot metal.
We believe in character, not in miracles. 2010 was no miracle — it was a success of grit and character, a triumph by the Auburn man, of which we may all be justifiably proud.
War Damn Eagle.
* The Auburn Eyefuls of 1952
* I Survived the Kopper Kettle Explosion and all I got was this t-shirt
* Erin Andrews at Toomer’s Corner
* Was Walt Disney an Auburn fan?
* Against Me! bassist pulls for the Tigers
* Player on 1972 ‘Amazin’s’ squad battling Lou Gehrig’s Disease
* Montgomery Business that de-toilet papers Toomer’s busier than ever
* Auburn’s Miss Universe contestant, Audrey Moore
* Auburn amputee has tiger-striped prosthetic legs
* Model Molly Sims spotted at the Iron Bowl in an Auburn jersey