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The Rise and Fall of the Bowden Empire, Part 1: The Rise

The first clue that the Terry Bowden era at Auburn would be a bumpy one was right there for everyone to see, right at the beginning, but we either missed it or didn’t grasp its larger cosmic significance at the time:  The first poster distributed to fans after his hiring, laying out the 1993 schedule on top of a color photo of a hunkered down Bowden in sweats, revealed that a pencil had been jammed squarely into one of his eyes.

Of course, there wasn’t actually a pencil in his eye, but it certainly looked that way.  Bowden was shown in profile, with said pencil in all likelihood tucked behind his other ear.  All we could see in the photo, however, was his face—and that pencil, lined up squarely with his eye.  It was pretty disturbing, once you “saw” it.

And indeed his tenure was a bumpy one—one that at first took Auburn fans to new heights, and one that later made us feel as if someone had just jammed a pencil right into the our collective eye.

The year was 1992 and, for a variety of reasons—choose whichever you prefer, or come up with your own—the glorious Pat Dye era at Auburn had just ended.  Probation, poor health, a downturn in fortunes on the field in his last three seasons, various allegations of wrongdoing—all were being talked about at the time.  In any case, however, Dye stepped down after the 1992 Iron Bowl, and Auburn needed a new head coach.  Someone with the stature to continue Auburn’s decade-long resurgence and prominence in college football, and perhaps even to finally get to that mountaintop—the one place Pat Dye, for all of his accomplishments, was never quite able to get us—and win another national championship.

The president, athletic director, and trustees needed to make the right hire.  They’d certainly done so the last time, in 1980, after the firing of Doug Barfield, when (after a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with Vince Dooley) they’d gone all the way out to Wyoming and brought back a former Bear Bryant assistant who’d been an All-America lineman at Georgia.  This time, after the obligatory mentions of then-vogue names like Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry, they looked to another famous coaching family tree, and word came down that Auburn had hired a Bowden.

What?  Bobby Bowden was leaving Florida State to coach at Auburn?  Really??

Um, no.

Well then, you mean his eldest son, Tommy, who had been an offensive assistant for Dye at Auburn as well as coaching for Bill Curry at Alabama and Kentucky. (He had also coached James Brooks during a one-year stop as running backs coach at Auburn, back in 1980.)

Um, no.

The Bowden we had hired was one Terry Bowden, the youngest son of Bobby and little brother of Tommy.  The head coach at Samford.

Oookay…

By all accounts (and by “all accounts,” we mean Terry himself said so later—and Terry did indeed love to say things, especially about himself), the youngest Coach Bowden gave “the interview of a lifetime” before being selected to be Auburn’s new coach.  He stressed his law degree and his abilities as a public speaker (again, he did indeed love to speak.  And speak.)  In terms of coaching, he promised to combine a “Bobby Bowden offense” with a “Pat Dye defense”—certainly an approach that had great appeal to Auburn officials and fans, and particularly those who had regularly derided Pat Dye’s offensive philosophy as “up the middle, up the middle, up the middle, punt.”  In order to provide the “defense” half of this equation, he retained Wayne Hall as defensive coordinator—a move that would yield dividends early on, but would later result in severe friction within the coaching staff.  He also retained longtime Auburn linebackers coach Joe Whitt, about whom one might possibly be reminded of the old line, “Knows where the bodies are buried.”

Terry Bowden arrived on campus at the end of the 1992 season, and was immediately known to all and sundry as “Terry” rather than “Coach Bowden.”  (One tries and fails to imagine the general Auburn Family regularly referring to Coach Dye as “Pat.”)  He’d known success at Samford in lower-division football, and his infectious enthusiasm and energy provided a strong contrast to Dye’s more laid back approach.  Clearly the players responded to this—at least, at first.

Scarcely had Bowden and his staff settled in before the NCAA announced the penalties Auburn would be saddled with as a result of infractions committed during Dye’s final years.  The severity of the sanctions was shocking and quite surprising to Bowden, as much as to anyone: Auburn would suffer scholarship reductions—a punishment that generally hurts any team’s competitiveness severely, over time—as well as a one-year ban from television appearances.  Worst of all, as it would turn out, the Tigers would be ineligible for postseason play for the next two seasons, 1993 and 1994.  Because the new SEC Championship Game was considered a post-season event, the Tigers would not be allowed to participate in it.  Of course, at the time, few considered this much of a penalty; how could a team that had won a combined ten games over the previous two seasons, under the illustrious Pat Dye and some of the same assistant coaches, possibly turn around and actually win the SEC West the following year—particularly with the psychological ramifications of “nothing to play for” hanging over everyone’s heads?

Of course, if you’re reading this, you probably already know what happened next:  Buoyed by Bowden’s relentless optimism and “AttitUde” slogan, Auburn went 11-0, winning every regular-season game on their schedule and becoming the only major college program that year to still be undefeated at the end of the season.

The season started fairly slow, with a narrow win over Ole Miss and a mere 35-7 victory over Bowden’s old team, Samford.  Then the Tigers traveled to Baton Rouge to clash with LSU, and we got our first hints that this team could be very special.  In this game, senior quarterback (and Auburn’s first four-year starter at that position) Stan White looked perhaps sharper than he had in his previous three seasons in leading the (good) Tigers to victory, and in the process broke Pat Sullivan’s career passing record.  (Eventually Stan would compile over 8,000 yards passing.)  Auburn won the game, 34-10, but of course with no television coverage, nobody saw it outside of Tiger Stadium itself.   (Van was there that night and still remembers being impressed with the efficiency and creativity of the offense.)

A come-from-behind win at home against Southern Miss and a very, very narrow escape at Vanderbilt (including a goal-line stand by the defense) had the Tigers at 5-0, and a win over Miss State the following week put the Tigers at an impressive and improbable 6-0, just past the midpoint of the season.  The AP had taken notice and ranked Auburn 19th in the country, but of course everyone knew the streak, or “The Streak,” with capital letters, as it was soon to be called, was about to end.  After all, Week Seven’s opponent was the University of Florida, coached by Steve Spurrier.  And in three tries, the mighty Coach Dye himself had never been able to get a win over the Ball Coach (and had suffered a massive 48-7 humiliation in their very first encounter in the Swamp in 1990).  What hope did a mere “Terry” have?

That, as they say, is why they play the game—for the 1993 Auburn-Florida contest turned out to be one of the greatest, most exciting games in Auburn history.

Florida rocketed out to a 10-0 lead and was threatening to go up, 17-0, when Auburn’s Calvin Jackson intercepted a pass from Danny Wuerffel and returned it almost a hundred yards for a touchdown.

The score was suddenly 10-7 instead of 17-0, and this seemed to wake the Auburn players up.  They went on to outscore the Gators the rest of the way, despite Wuerffel accounting for almost 400 yards passing and running back Errict Rhett adding nearly another 200 on the ground for Florida.

Four sacks (one by rarely-used future superstar crime novelist Ace Atkins, who made the cover of Sports Illustrated for it) and another interception of Wuerffel later, Auburn kicker Scott Etheridge nailed a 41-yard kick to give the Tigers the huge, staggering, totally unexpected 38-35 win.  Jordan-Hare Stadium was a madhouse.  A clearly shell-shocked Terry Bowden blurted to reporters, “I wouldn’t have thought we could get into a scoring contest with Florida and win.”  But they had.  Auburn was 7-0.  The Streak was officially born. Talk began to turn to the idea of a national championship while unable to play in the post-season.

Four teams remained on the schedule, though—four and no more.  No opponent in Birmingham (this was the year before the SEC moved the title game to Atlanta) and no bowl game.  But one of those remaining teams was the defending national champion, Alabama—and if all Auburn could look forward to in “bowl” terms was the Iron Bowl, that would have to do.

The rest of that season was just as memorable, and for a variety of reasons.  After a week off, the Tigers traveled to Little Rock and played the Razorbacks in the aftermath of a huge snowstorm.  Auburn equipment managers were scouring every available source in the hours before kickoff to secure as much appropriately-colored warm-weather gear as could be had in a hurry.  On the sidelines, a bundled-up Terry Bowden resembled nothing so much as an orange and blue snowman. Snowplows scraped incredibly thick layers of ice and snow off the field just before kickoff.  Tiger fullback Reid McMillon, who had never enjoyed tremendous success before, had a big game; word afterward was that he normally tended to “overheat” during games, but playing in the icebox of a still-frozen War Memorial Stadium suited him just perfectly.  Now a top ten team in the AP, Auburn won by ten, 31-21. (Some say we wouldn’t have without strong safety Otis Mounds’, ahem, motivational speaking skills.)

New Mexico State players the following week claimed that Auburn was running “a high school offense,” but the Tigers didn’t let that hinder them—they crushed the Aggies, 55-14.  Two games remained now—two more opportunities to lose and end The Streak, or to achieve immortality.  Two old friends—our two most bitter rivals:  Georgia and Alabama.

Auburn fans were feeling the excitement of glory just around the corner as they traveled to Athens on November 13.  Van had T-shirts printed up that read “10-0 AND ONE TO GO,” but kept them hidden in a sack until the outcome was assured.  The game was another exciting one, with lots of fireworks.  Georgia was not a bad team but had managed to lose enough games that there would be no postseason for them, either—this game represented a sort of bowl for them, too.

Auburn pulled away at the end, winning 42-28. Van passed the shirts out to the crowd of friends around him, much to the consternation of Bulldog Nation. The Tigers headed home with “one to go,” but what a “one” it was: Alabama, the defending champs, in Auburn for only the second time ever.

I twas another instant classic.

All of the tickets to see the game in person at Jordan-Hare were long gone, of course—but the NCAA allowed it to be broadcast via closed circuit on the big screen in Tuscaloosa (here are some photos)—and the entire ticket allotment for that stadium was sold out, as well, making it the first game in history to sell out two entire stadiums at once.  Additionally, a service was set up to allow fans to call in to a special number on their phones and listen to the audio play-by-play—but so many attempted to call in that the telephone interchange actually melted.  (John was one of many victims of this situation, as he sat frustrated in his apartment in northern Virginia, getting nothing but static on the line.)

The game was just as bizarre.  Gene Stallings’ Alabama led early, scoring two touchdowns and shocking the Tiger faithful.  Auburn fought and scratched and clawed their way back into it, by way of a field goal and a safety to make the score an odd 14-5, Alabama’s way.

Then came one of those plays that will never be forgotten by any who witnessed it.

Auburn’s stalwart QB, Stan White, playing in his final college game, went down with a leg injury—with Auburn facing fourth down deep in Alabama territory.  On came sophomore backup Patrick Nix, who proceeded to loft a pass to the great Tiger receiver, Frank Sanders.  Sanders beat his man (Alabama’s All-American DB, Antonio Langham, had mysteriously crossed to the other side of the field just before the snap, leaving Sanders in single coverage), grabbed the ball out of the air, spun around, and dived into the end zone for the touchdown—as Jim Fyffe went nuts in the play-by-play booth.

After the PAT, the Tigers were “right back in the thick of it,” trailing by only two—but momentum now was clearly with them.

A field goal a short time later put Auburn ahead for the first time, and then a totally unexpected blast up the middle by running back James Bostic—never what you’d have called a “speed threat”—that went seventy yards for a touchdown pretty much sealed the deal.  Auburn had won, 22-14.  The house was defended again.  (Say what you will of Terry Bowden, but he never lost to Alabama in Jordan-Hare in three games there.)  The Tigers were 11-0, best in the SEC, and had done everything possible to stake their claim to a national title.

There would be no national championship for the Tigers, of course.  While several ranking services and organizations did name Auburn the national champions, the major ones turned elsewhere.  The Tigers ended up fourth in the AP, who selected Terry’s father’s team, one-loss Florida State, as its champion.  Auburn was not even eligible to be ranked by the Coaches’ Poll.  Bowden did win the “Bear Bryant” Award as coach of the year, ironically enough—a distinction shared by every Auburn head coach to have led the Tigers since the Bear’s death.

The second-ever SEC Championship Game, which would have featured Auburn, instead saw two teams the Tigers had already beaten play one another: Alabama and Florida, in a rematch of the previous year’s game.  The Tigers had to sit at home, with only their “11-0 Best in the SEC” rings to console them.

Despite all of this, the 1993 season remains one of the greatest achievements in Auburn football history, and the accomplishments of that team and those coaches in those very particular circumstances—coaching change, turmoil, probation, and “nothing to play for”—should never, ever be overlooked.  They did everything asked of them that year—everything they could do—and they shocked the world.

Searching for some way of motivating the team to play hard again the next season, when in all likelihood they faced the same scenario over again, Auburn coaches and fans latched onto the speculation of a few journalists who had been sufficiently impressed with Auburn’s 1993 achievements to make the following pronouncement:  “If they (Auburn) run the table again in 1994, you have to give it (a national championship) to them.”  In other words, while 11-0 in one season was not deemed sufficient to deserve a national title, going 22-0 across two full seasons, while on probation, just might be enough to swing some AP votes Auburn’s way.  Terry called this “AUdacity,” and another t-shirt slogan was born.

With that in mind, the Tigers launched into the 1994 campaign right where they had left off in December of the previous year—by beating everyone in front of them, often in wildly improbable fashion, and slowly but steadily closing in on another undefeated season.

There were two key moments in the 1994 season that signaled the Tigers were legitimate threats to actually “run the table” twice-over:  the LSU game on September 17 and the Florida game on October 15.

The events that transpired when the two Tiger teams clashed in Jordan-Hare—and when the space-time continuum itself seemingly warped beyond recognition—have been discussed often and at length before, including by your two intrepid Wishbone columnists.  In brief:  Auburn’s offense was utterly inept against a ferocious LSU defense.  Neither starting quarterback Patrick Nix nor super sub Dameyune Craig could get anything going.  The defense, however, managed to keep the orange and blue Tigers in the game, running back an early fumble and then—staggeringly—returning three fourth-quarter interceptions for touchdowns.  Even in the bizarre history of Auburn-LSU football, this game stands out as extra-super-bizarre.  But hey, the Streak was alive, and the Tigers moved on.

Bowden billed the Florida game of 1994 as Auburn’s “Super Bowl,” and the Tiger players responded to the hype by coming out firing on all cylinders.  Florida was ranked #1 in the country in the polls, the game was being played at the Swamp in Gainesville, and the Gators were out for revenge after the upset of the previous year.  Oh, and Florida was a 17-point favorite.  None of that mattered.  Auburn went toe-to-toe with the Gators for sixty minutes and, with the game on the line, found victory.  Patrick Nix engineered a quick and efficient drive in the closing moments that culminated with a fade pass to his favorite target, Frank Sanders, in the end zone.  Auburn 36, Florida 33.  The Streak had reached eighteen games and it rolled on, apparently unstoppable.

Three games later, however, it would stop—and not with a bang, but with a whimper.  And the Fall of the Bowden Empire would begin.

Part Two: The Fall.

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.

Previous Wishbone columns are waiting for you here.

Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.

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