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The Rise and Fall of the Bowden Empire, Part 2: The Fall


Terry Bowden in 1997. You are what you eat?

With Auburn’s miraculous victory over No.1-ranked Florida in Gainesville in 1994, the Streak stood at a preposterous eighteen wins in a row.  It seemed there was no stopping it—that it would never, ever end.

And then, three games later, it ended—and in unexpected and improbable fashion.

With two games remaining in the ’94 season, Auburn faced the Georgia Bulldogs in Jordan-Hare Stadium.  Prior to the game, Dawg coach Ray Goff said, “You don’t just win all the time.”  Sooner or later, he was implying, the odds catch up to everyone.  Sure enough, the odds caught up to Auburn that night against Georgia.

With the game tied at 23, the Tigers had one last opportunity to salvage the win.  At every other moment over the past two seasons, when this sort of occasion arose, the Tigers always—always—closed the deal.

Not this time.  Matt Hawkins shanked the field goal.  Terry Bowden and the rest of the Auburn Family looked on in disbelief.  The game was over and Georgia had, as they said, “won a 23-23 tie.”  Auburn still hadn’t lost, it was true—but this more than felt like a loss, and the win streak had ended at 20.

The Iron Bowl in Birmingham a week later, against fourth-ranked and undefeated Alabama, felt like an anticlimax.  Everyone knew the outside shot at a national title for “running the table twice” was now gone.  At least three other teams were undefeated at that moment in time, including Nebraska and Penn State, and the one point in Auburn’s favor in an argument with any of them—nothing but wins over two full seasons—was now out the window.

Alabama employed an option-based, grind-it-out attack that took advantage of Auburn’s relative defensive weaknesses by simply avoiding the Tigers secondary and attacking at the line of scrimmage.  This approach also kept Auburn’s potent offense off the field for long stretches of the game.

The Tide roared out to a 21-0 lead before halftime and the situation looked dire.  Auburn fought back in the second half with two drives that culminated with short quarterback sneaks for touchdowns.  Now trailing only 21-14 and getting the ball back one last time, deep in their own territory, the Tigers began what could be at least a game-tying drive.  They moved the ball to near midfield and faced a fourth down situation, and they turned to what had worked so well for two seasons: throwing it to Frank Sanders.

Sanders caught the pass in the middle of the field but was immediately knocked backwards and down.  The initial contact appeared to have come across the first down line—it should have been a successful conversion.  However, the referees marked the ball further back toward the original line of scrimmage, and the measurement showed the play to have come up inches short.  Alabama was given the ball and ran the clock out.  The season was over at 9-1-1, and Auburn had suffered its first loss in football since Pat Dye’s final Iron Bowl in that same stadium two years earlier.

Terry Bowden’s record at that point was a sparkling, stunning 20-1-1.  However, his record over the most recent two games was 0-1-1, and some fans and supporters who had always been a bit “iffy” on him were already sharpening their knives.

The 1995 and 1996 seasons would do little to placate those individuals.

Over those two seasons, and despite now actually being able to challenge for post-season play, Auburn settled into the more expected role of also-ran in the SEC.

Picked to finish second in the country by Sports Illustrated and led by senior quarterback Patrick Nix and senior running back Stephen Davis, Auburn’s 1995 squad looked good on paper, and rang up big wins against outmanned early foes, but then fell in tough contests to LSU, Florida, and Arkansas. Wins over Georgia and Alabama at the end of the season offered some degree of solace, but then a 43-14 shellacking by Penn State in the Outback Bowl brought emotions crashing down again.  An 8-4 record was disappointing after fans had experienced the Streak over the past two seasons—and Bowden’s post-Streak record now stood at a remarkably average 8-5-1.

Things only got worse in 1996.  New starting quarterback Dameyune Craig offered a jolt of electricity to the offense, and the replacement of seemingly disinterested defensive coordinator Wayne Hall with legendary Bill “Brother” Oliver promised a renewed emphasis on strong defense.  Unfortunately, the running game dropped off a cliff with the departure of guys like Stephen Davis, Joe Frazier, and Fred Beasley.  A one-dimensional offense and a so-so defense yielded exactly what one might expect: another 8-win season with losses to the big boys from Florida, LSU, Georgia and Alabama, and the narrowest of wins over Army (!!) in the dreaded Independence (or, as fans derided it, Weedeater) Bowl in Shreveport.

Thus the pressure was on, and in a big way, when the 1997 season dawned for the Tigers.  Terry Bowden had gone from 20-0 in his first twenty games to 16-9-1 in all contests since then, and Auburn had only managed a 9-7 mark in the conference over those past two seasons.  Dameuyne Craig, however, was now a senior, and he had a nice squadron of receivers to throw to.  If any sort of running game could be generated at all, the Tigers had a shot at big things in 1997.  Everyone was watching.

As it turned out, 1997 was not a bad year at all for the Auburn Tigers—good enough to provide Bowden a small measure of job security, at least for another year, but coming up just short of real glory.  A come-from-behind win on the road against LSU proved that the team possessed real grit, and a big road win at Virginia to start the season looked great on television.  Victories over Alabama and Georgia are always welcome, and the Tigers accomplished those two things in ’97; unfortunately, the win at home in the Iron Bowl was seen by many as being far closer than it should have been—another perceived negative for Bowden.  That Tide team would end the year with only four wins, yet it took a near-miraculous Alabama fumble and last-second field goal for Auburn to pull out the 17-15 victory.

Despite a competitive loss to Florida and an ugly shutout by Mississippi State—both in Jordan-Hare—the Tigers managed a 6-2 mark in the conference—a better record than they had achieved since 1994, and enough to get them into the SEC Championship Game for the first time.

There they faced the Tennessee Volunteers and their senior quarterback, Peyton Manning.

The Tigers and Vols had not met on the field since the year before the SEC split into two divisions, the annual AU-UT rivalry being one of the first victims of that new arrangement, as it placed Auburn in the West and Tennessee in the East.  Auburn’s last win over the Vols had been a 38-6 blowout back in 1988, with UT winning two subsequent match-ups in Knoxville and the 1990 clash in Jordan-Hare ending in a tie.

Tennessee, ranked third, was favored over an Auburn team that had not resided in the upper echelons of the AP poll since the loss to Florida back in October.  Without a running game to speak of, it seemed unlikely that the Tigers could keep the game competitive.  Somehow, they did.

Auburn actually led for much of the game.  Capitalizing on key Tennessee mistakes and turnovers, the Tigers led 13-7 after one quarter and 20-10 at the half, with key plays including a 51-yard strike from Dameyune Craig to Tyrone Goodson and a 24-yard fumble return by Tigers DB Brad Ware.  Jaret Holmes was accurate in field goals from 30 and 48 yards, as well.

In the second half, however, the Tigers missed out on numerous opportunities to put the game out of reach, and Manning rallied the Vols to the comeback win.  Well into the fourth quarter, with Auburn clinging to a 29-23 lead, Manning connected with Marcus Nash for a 73-yard catch-and-run.  The extra point put the Vols up for good, 30-29.  Auburn was unable to mount a final scoring drive and the game ended with Tennessee running out the clock.

Auburn had lost in the conference title game—but at least we’d finally made it there.  The consolation prize was a return visit to the Georgia Dome a few weeks later, where Craig finished his dazzling Auburn career with a 27-17 win over Clemson in the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl.  The 1997 squad ended up with a record of 10-3, giving Terry Bowden his second and last double-digit-win season.

It was his last because he would no longer be Auburn’s coach after six games of the 1998 season.

Story on Bowden in the Oct. 2, 1997 issue of The Auburn Plainsman. Click to enlarge.

Trouble had been brewing almost from the time he was hired.  Many Auburn fans and alumni hadn’t liked Bowden at the time of his hire and hadn’t much warmed to him after that, despite that gaudy, twenty-win streak to start his tenure. He did a remarkable job coaching the existing Auburn team in 1993-94, but his recruiting efforts were never able to match that performance.  The Tigers lost out on many of the more desirable high school players and began to settle for individuals of questionable character, several of whom went on to get themselves in serious trouble because of their behavior.

With his talkative nature and animated personality, Bowden was the antithesis of what Tigers fans had grown used to in their previous coach, Pat Dye: a slow-talkin’ good ole boy who espoused the virtues of the running game and a “hard-nosed defense.”  In short, “Buster Brown” Bowden (as his future defensive coordinator, Bill “Brother” Oliver, had dubbed him years earlier) simply rubbed much of the Auburn Family the wrong way, and by this point some of the actions he’d taken during his tenure—things the fans could overlook in a big winner—began to irk them all the more.  There was the changing of the block letters “AUBURN” and “TIGERS” in the end zone to a sort of baseball jersey scripting; there were the orange drop shadows behind the white numbers on the home jerseys; there were the black-and-white murals added to the stadium exterior that year, no fewer than three of which featured Bowden himself prominently.  Even the moment when Georgia’s mascot, Uga, famously attacked receiver Robert Baker on the sidelines seemed somehow attributable to Bowden’s mismanagement.  Knives were being sharpened, Bowden’s days on the Plains were numbered, and the disastrous start of the 1998 season provided the opportunity and the justification to jettison him.

A horrific 19-0 shutout at the hands of Virginia in Jordan-Hare started the season off with a thud.  The situation improved momentarily when the Tigers returned the favor to Ole Miss in Oxford the next week, winning 17-0.  This would be Terry Bowden’s last win as Auburn coach, however—and ironically, coming against the man who would have his job a year later, Tommy Tuberville.

Things then spiraled out of control.  Four straight losses—to LSU and Tennessee at home, and then to Mississippi State and Florida on the road—left the Tigers sitting at 1-5, with Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama still ahead on the schedule.  To make matters worse, the offense in particular seemed not only inept but unconcerned at times, with new starting quarterback Ben Leard laughing on the sidelines after throwing yet another pick-six (something that happened with shocking regularity during this woeful stretch of games).  The Tennessee game was actually winnable right down to the very last moment for Auburn; a startling fact, given that the very powerful ’98 Vols team would go on to finish the season undefeated and would be crowned national champs.  The Tigers, however, could not get out of their own way against UT, throwing (yet another) interception that was returned for a score (this one a shovel pass, no less!) and then failing to complete a pass into the end zone at the end of the fourth quarter that could have sent the game into overtime.

After a 24-3 drubbing by Florida at the Swamp, Bowden had a meeting with the higher-ups.  Some later claimed he chose that occasion to quit.  He claimed he was fired.  The composite picture that emerged was that Bowden asked if he could save his job at the end of the season and, being told “no,” replied that he would just as soon end his tenure now.

One way or another, Bowden was out and Brother Oliver was the interim head coach.   The Tigers under his guidance would win that weekend against Louisiana Tech and (narrowly!) on November 7 against Daunte Culpepper’s Central Florida, but lose everything else and finish at 3-8—the worst record in modern Auburn history.  At the end of the season, Oliver was cut loose as well (despite his vigorous protests).

While supposedly prohibited by the agreement he signed with Auburn from discussing the program with the media, Bowden could never keep his mouth shut for long, and eventually rumor and innuendo emerged, allegedly from him, indicating that various money-related improprieties had been happening in the AU Athletic Department for years.  Bowden, so the story went, had disliked the bad things he saw happening and had ordered them stopped for the future, but perhaps had not done as much as he could have in the present.  These sorts of questions would linger on into the regime of the coach that followed him, Tommy Tuberville (particularly as they related to super-trustee Bobby Lowder), clouding his tenure with the Tigers as well.

As of December 1998, the Terry Bowden era had officially ended, barely six years after it had begun with so many victories and such promise.  Bowden’s final record as Auburn’s head coach was remarkably good: 47-17-1 in sixty-five games.  When setting aside those first twenty wins during “the Streak,” however, Bowden’s final forty-five games resulted in a record of just 27-17-1.

It wasn’t all bad, though.  Despite the ugliness of his final season on the Plains, Terry Bowden’s tenure as head coach left Auburn fans plenty to look back on with fondness and excitement.  An SEC Western Division title—Auburn’s first official one—and the Tigers’ first berth in the SEC Championship Game, as well as a 2-1 record in bowl games, are all positives.  Two shocking wins over Florida, the entire career of Dameyune Craig, and that miraculous win against LSU in 1994—who could ever forget those?  And the home field successfully defended three times in a row in the Iron Bowl—that’s an accomplishment any Auburn coach could be more than proud of.

Above all else, there was the Streak—that epic, two-year ride—during which Bowden motivated the players, revamped the offense, and forged twenty straight wins even as the program suffered the sanctions of probation.

The Terry Bowden era was not in retrospect a truly great one, but it was a very, very good one in a number of ways.  We didn’t exactly climb to the mountaintop, and we did sort of end up stuck deep in the valley, but along the way, Bowden gave us all one heck of a ride.

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.

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