Cole Bennett, a sophomore tight end on Auburn’s perfect 2004 football team, never wore it, so he doesn’t really remember. “We got a ring, but all it said was Undefeated Season if I’m not mistaken.”
The ring says “National Champions.”
“I guess you’re correct,” Bennett replied after I emailed him a photo of one of the rings that made the rounds on sports blogs after popping up on an internet auction site in 2008. “That looks like the one I got.”
“As far as I know, it was the athletic department buying us the traditional post-season ring to celebrate the SEC championship, Sugar Bowl win, and undefeated season”—and it was.
But 10 years later, in light of the great To Claim or Not To Claim debate regarding past Auburn football teams awarded national championships by various organizations (including some with the NCAA’s stamp of approval), it seems like a bit more. Because according to the ring, Auburn already has claimed the 2004 national championship, or at least someone has, at least kind of.
Auburn Sports Information Director Kirk Sampson doesn’t remember specifics about the rings’ provenance, but thinks ordering them “was a Coach Tuberville decision,” as opposed to a consensus of the Athletic Department constituting an official claim to the college football throne.
Jeremy Ingle remembers it the same way.
“It was the coaches’ decision,” says Ingle, who started for Auburn at center in 2004. “It came about after the SEC (Championship) game when we realized we were not selected (to play in the BCS National Championship Game) by the voters. It wasn’t something we really concerned ourselves with… we were concentrating on winning the Sugar Bowl and completing a perfect season as that’s all we could control. Everything else was a beauty contest voted on by people who had their own agendas.”
Of course, turns out the star player on the team that ultimately won that beauty contest was being rewarded with more than just trophies. The revelation that Reggie Bush was receiving $280,000 worth of limo rides and hotel rooms and cars and suits and stuff while playing for USC, and the BCS subsequently stripping the Trojans of their national championship has only made Tommy Tuberville more vocal in his disappointment that his players weren’t given a chance to play for the national championship—and presumably even more satisfied with his decision to reward them as if they’d not only played for it, but won it.
“Why in the world would you not name a national champion when we were undefeated after it was taken away from them?” Tuberville said in appearance on Birmingham’s WJOX-FM earlier this week. Even if the BCS won’t recognize the 2004 Tigers as national champions, he thinks Auburn should—after all, they already have the rings for it.
“I’ve got a subscription to Golf Digest. I’m going to call them and ask them if they’ll vote us No. 1,” Tuberville told ESPN in 2005 for a story that mentions the coach’s intent on buying his team national championship rings. “It means as much as the other ones. I’m telling you, when you went 13-0, you should be national champion. There’s no doubt about it.”
Like Bennett, Bret Eddins, a defensive end on the 2004 Auburn team, says he didn’t remember the exact inscription on Tuberville’s rings until I reminded him. He says he appreciated the gesture, but that it didn’t affect his feelings toward 2004. Nor will a new sign on Jordan-Hare Stadium this fall.
“I don’t think (not being retroactively named the BCS National Champions) will ever tarnish the way the guys on the team remember the season,” he says.
For Eddins and Ingle, perfection is enough. However, despite being fine with or Yea or Nea from Auburn’s committee, Eddins, who says Auburn “would have killed” USC in the BCS National Championship game, understands the desire among at least some Auburn fans to finally, after 10 years, right a wrong so egregious Tuberville says it directly led to the decision to establish the College Football Playoff.
“Obviously I think you want to be recognized as a champion,” Eddins says. “When you have a season like that, you don’t want to feel like a second-class citizen, especially when you’ve done everything you can do. What else could you have done? We did everything we were asked.
“They may not call us national champions, but teams out there with two or three losses claim those years as national championships, and we go undefeated and we can’t claim it? If the school claims it, that’s great. It’d be great if the school did claim it. I think that’s definitely something Auburn fans could get behind, but as far as players, I don’t think there’s as much of a sour taste in their mouth.”
“At the end of the day we dominated the best conference in the country,” he says, “and what a ring says on it will make no difference to me and many of my teammates.”
But to Tuberville, the desk drawers and keepsake boxes in the tops of closets (and the internet auctions) of the 2004 Auburn Tigers cry out.
“If I had a vote in that deal (Auburn’s review of its position on claiming additional national championships), which I don’t, I’d say, hey, recognize it.”
Technically, he already has.
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More on Auburn’s unclaimed national championships:
* Pat Dye claimed the national title for Auburn in 1983, said his team would wear New York Times national championship rings
* Bret Eddins on 2004 USC: ‘We would have killed them.’
* Players from 2004 Auburn team say they beat Cam and Co. by 1 point
* Georgia company was selling actual manure for fans to send to AP and UPI voters who didn’t rank the Tigers No. 1 for 1983
* 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