I think what bothers a lot of Auburn fans about Auburn possibly claiming more national championships than it currently claims (whatever that means) is that it’s like trying to process and finally appreciate that you, according to an old friend you haven’t seen in 20 years who just friended you on Facebook, were the life of an amazing, amazing, party once upon a time that you just don’t remember. The guy posted pictures. You’re in them. You’re definitely looking good. But you’re just not that person anymore. Do you let him tag you in the pictures?
OK, maybe it’s not like at all, but look, take 2004. We celebrated 2004. God knows we did. There was even that planned Perfect Season celebration downtown. But no scheduled rolling of Toomer’s or Jason Campbell quote or vacated USC title can replace that instant Drunk At The Corner—or in my case, sobbing in the corner—collective, cathartic hallelujah that comes from a last second field goal, the instantly printed Tiger Rags shirts, the hundreds of next-day front pages that say it’s you, you, only and forever you.
So if the prospect of trying to own our awesomeness ten or 20 or 30 years later just seems weird to you, or illegitimate or just plain lame or whatever, that’s understandable. And you’re not alone. That’s actually one of the in vogue Anti-Claim mentalities that Van and John address (and repudiate) in the latest Wishbone Podcast. Claiming ancient seasons like 1913 that recent-ish research has vindicated from the vaults and that no one now alive was around to not celebrate? Maybe. But modern-era seasons? 2004, 1993, 1983? Why claim it now, Anti-Claimers ask, if we didn’t claim it then?
OR DID WE?
(At least once.)
Each of the seasons that appear to have made the cut for committee consideration exude their own unique sense of injustice.
We now know about 1913, when a lowly southern team like Auburn was still a few years from even being allowed to think themselves eligible for a national championship, let alone win it.
Two-thousand and four was its own special hell, waiting in line for a roller coaster we were told we were too small to ride. You can’t jump No. 1 or No. 2 if they don’t lose—at least if No. 1 and No. 2 are Traditional Powers with a standing reservation at the national championship table. Rules are rules, after all, at least until they’re not. In the seasons that followed, teams were leapfrogging unbeatens every week, or at least the 12-2 LSU team that won it all (you know, except those games against Arkansas and KENTUCKY) in 2007 was. And of course, in 2012, the BCS stripped Southern Cal of its title, and stripped Auburn fans of their scab. Ha, there!—there just won’t be a BCS national champion for 2004. Suck it, Auburn!
The obstacles for the 1993 Tigers were even more insurmountable. Though the Dungeons & Champions rule book doesn’t explicitly prohibit bad boys from playing (see 1957), probation poisoned the well of public opinion for Auburn’s 1993 team to the point it didn’t really matter. The coaches poll wouldn’t even consider Auburn and what little chance we did have to win the theoretically unbiased hearts and minds of AP voters (who expected so little of Auburn in the first place) was mostly gutted by the fact that 90 percent of them couldn’t even watch us play, i.e. win. Again—the probation. No TV. Heard, but not seen.
We made T-shirts—joke T-shirts. But unlike 2004, no one was creating new polls, no Tiny Tribunes or Hometown Heralds were heralding us national champs to sell papers. The mentality of the majority of Auburn fans, if not at the time then definitely today, was that we may have earned the right to call ourselves national champs, we just didn’t deserve to. (Terry Bowden says we did and do.)
But what stands out about 1983 isn’t just how immediate or even how palpable (or profitable) the sense of injustice was, but Auburn’s immediate response to it, which unlike 2004 was anything but demure. Unlike Auburn’s first dalliance with the BCS, when the ultimate what’s the point? perception was that Auburn’s destiny was simply slave to a broken system that couldn’t recognize one the 21st century’s greatest football teams, Auburn cried foul, loudly and officially, after the final polls were released. It wasn’t just the football coach speaking out—it was the athletic director. Sure, they happened to both be named Pat Dye, but still, the Pat Dyes were pissed.
A couple of columns on the controversy over Miami not just jumping, but bounding, flying, defying the gravity of any sort of conventional college football wisdom to land ahead of Auburn at No. 1 in the final AP and UPI polls, actually suggested that it was the result of some sort of soft-sell slip up on Dye’s part, that he only went full court with the press after the Sugar Bowl. But why would he have thought he had to? It was basic math: Nebraska Loss + Texas Loss + Michigan Loss = Auburn’s Second National Championship. Even if Auburn hadn’t played one of the toughest schedules in the history of schedules, it was science, logic, borderline a priori.
In fact, in half the articles on possible national championship scenarios leading up to the bowls, fourth ranked Miami wasn’t even mentioned. Wait, wait, wait—make that fifth ranked Miami. Illinois was ranked fourth in the AP poll going into the Rose Bowl. For the Hurricanes to win it all, it wouldn’t take three post-season upsets, it’d take four.
Everyone waiting in line for the bathroom after the 2004 SEC Championship game knew there wasn’t really any hope. USC and Oklahoma had won. Barely. Against not good teams. But they had won. Despite the notebooks I filled with stat comparisons and strength of schedules, Auburn wouldn’t be national champions because they couldn’t play for the BCS National Championship.
But according to folks who were there, every Auburn fan who walked out of the Superdome on Jan. 2, 1984 walked out a national champion. Done deal. Fait accompli. People were celebrating not just a win over a Michigan, they were celebrating a win over everyone. Even at Toomer’s Corner, at least a little.
It was, as Pat Dye called it, “cut and dry.”
“Our team has fought through what has to be considered one of the toughest schedules ever played,” Dye said before the Sugar Bowl. “Michigan will be the ninth bowl team we will have played this year.”
As Auburn fans partied like it was 1957 on Bourbon Street after beating the Wolverines 9-7, Auburn players and coaches were quickly becoming aware that their less than glamorous win was getting far less attention than Miami’s impending upset of No. 1 Nebraska, which some were calling one of the greatest teams ever, in the Orange Bowl. So in his post-game press conference, Dye turned up the heat.
“I don’t know what you’ve got to do to win a national championship,” he said. “But there’s nobody that’s ever played a tougher schedule than Auburn.”
He backed the claim up with the numbers: Auburn’s opponents had won 69.5 percent of their football games in 1983.
Miami’s opponents? 51 percent.
“It’s cut and dried,” Dye said. “If they are going to have a No. 1 football team in America, and it’s going to have any credibility at all—if there is any credibility in scheduling—there’s no way Auburn shouldn’t be No. 1”
Dye wasn’t the only one who was ready for his ring.
“Right now we should be the No. 1 team in the nation,” the Sugar Bowl MVP told reporters the next day. “Coming in, we were the No. 3 team and the top two teams lost. What else is there to say?”
“I don’t get a vote (for the national championship),” Michigan’s coach said after the Sugar Bowl. “But if it’s Auburn, so be it.”
It wasn’t Auburn. According to those who did get a vote, Auburn was not the No. 1 team in the nation. Miami was. Those who did get a vote didn’t even have the decency to vote Auburn the No. 2 team in the nation. That went to Nebraska, a team whose opponents had won only 52 percent of their games, and you know, the team that had just lost the Orange Bowl.
To Pat Dye, the reasons were clear: “Miami put on a campaign.”
The only post-game interview ABC broadcast after the Sugar Bowl was with Auburn kicker Al Del Greco. Had he heard about that all the excitement at the Orange Bowl, they asked.
NBC, on the other hand, the only network with a game on at the time, went live inside the Miami locker room with Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar and Coach Howard Schnellenberger.
“You know that Auburn won, but in your mind is there any question who’s No.1?” sideline reporter Bill Macatee asked Kosar.
“Well I guess it’s up to the polls,” Kosar said. “But I tell you in my heart, we’re No. 1.”
Schnellenberger, who used to bum rides off a Dye—his across the street neighbor—to get to work during their Dark Side days in Tuscaloosa, didn’t beat around the bush.
“The Miami Hurricanes are the number one team.”
Of course he’d say that. But Dye wasn’t just going to let him get away with it.
“Who did Miami beat that’s anybody,” Dye asked at a press conference the next day. It wasn’t a rhetorical question.
Notre Dame, a reporter said. The response was classic Dye.
“Notre Dame? Lord, have mercy,” Dye said. “East Carolina was probably the best one.”
Yes, East Carolina was Dye’s old team, one that he had turned into someone their annual opponents did not want to play (Dye’s 1975 East Carolina team beat Virginia 61-10 in Charlottesville), but I don’t think he was joking around.
The ’83 Pirates went 9-3. They lost their season opener to Florida State in Tallahassee by just one point. They lost to Florida, the team that crushed mighty Miami, by just a touchdown in Gainesville. They lost to Miami in Miami by just five points. They beat Missouri, North Carolina State, and a good Southern Miss team that wasn’t just beating but blowing out SEC opponents (at least the ones in Mississippi).
Other than the Irish, Miami was beating teams like Duke, Houston, Purdue, and West Virginia.
“If you want to compare notes, we’ll compare notes,” Dye said. “We’ve got a satchel full of them.”
As wacky as it was, Dye felt that one of the most valuable things in that satchel was, of all things, the New York Times.
The New York Times poll, which was computer-based and predicated heavily on strength of schedule, not only had Auburn at number one after the Sugar Bowl, they had Auburn at number one before the Sugar Bowl. Now, the New York Times thing is the big thing we throw around in the debates and asterisk the media guides with. That’s the thing everybody says we could use to claim a national championship for 1983 if we wanted to.
“I really want to extend that conversation to 1983 because, honestly, Auburn was hands down the best team in 1983,” Richard Billingsley, he of the NCAA-recognized national championship selector the Billingsley Report told me when I interviewed him about Auburn’s 1913 national championship team. “My system awarded them a national championship in that year. So in my records book, Auburn was won four national championships. 1913, 1957, 1983, and 2010. The Auburn Athletic sports information people should be claiming them.”
Well, what everyone—you, me, Anti-Claimers, maybe even Pat Dye himself—seems to have forgotten is that Dye—Auburn’s head coach, Auburn’s Athletic Director—did claim the 1983 national championship. Not in some sneak-recorded conversation at a quarterback club meeting a few months, or on his new radio show, or in a recent Dye-Gest column. He claimed it on January 4, 1984. He claimed it in front of the press. Into microphones. He claimed it with rings. Or at least the promise of rings.
“We’ve got so many polls, why can’t we claim to be No. 1 with the New York Times poll,” Dye asked reporters. “I heard that Joe Paterno bought his players championship rings one year when they went undefeated but weren’t named national champions. We are going to buy rings anyway. Why not stick ‘national champions’ on them?”
Why not indeed…
So yeah, the point of all this is that, whether you’re for claiming or against, it looks like it’s time to take 1983 out of the debate.
It’s already been claimed.
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More Claim Game:
* Bama wins its first national championship four years after Auburn won its first national championship
* Terry Bowden tells TWER Auburn has right to claim 1993 national championship
* Auburn fan tells the AP to kiss his grits
* ‘My national championship for Auburn in 1913 is a very valid national championship,’ Richard Billingsley tells TWER
* Rational Champions
* Auburn media guides have been ‘acknowledging’ national championships for 1913, 1983, 1993, 2004 teams for years