This is the Auburn AUghts, the WBE series looking back at the decade that was in Auburn Tiger football. Today: the 10 biggest off-field stories of the last 10 years. Previously: the Plays and the Players. Enjoy.
It’s hardly any great insight to tell you that what happens to a football program away from the field is every bit as important–more so, in the case of seismic decisions like the choice of a head coach–as what happens on it. So when trying to recap the decade in Auburn football, it seems like a good idea to look at the news stories and hiring decisions that defined the past 10 years as well as the players, games, etc.
In picking out the following top 10, I focused on how big a story was (and is) along two different lines:
1. Headline-size, shock-value, “wow” factor–how big a piece of news it was at the time, basically;
2. how much of an impact it proved to make on Auburn’s football future–how big a piece of news it seems to be now, basically.
As always, please correct any omissions/errors in the comments.
1. Jetgate (2003).
A “football story” so big it doubles as the biggest story of the decade for Auburn University itself and the entire Auburn community; on this list, No. 1 is an easy choice.
Six years later, the level of fallout remains staggering:
— SACS investigates and places Auburn on probation, threatening to remove its accreditation and putting Auburn University’s very existence in jeopardy*
— The departure of disgraced University president William Walker, Jr.
— The departure of disgraced athletic director and lifelong Auburn man David Housel
— A major blow to Bobby Lowder’s power and influence over the Auburn athletic department
— A gut punch to Auburn’s 2004 recruiting class–one from which you could make an argument that Tommy Tuberville’s later classes never really recovered from
— The total fracturing of the relationship between Tuberville and the Auburn A.D., one that would continue until the day of Tuberville’s departure.
On the face of it, it still seems near-impossible that a coach with as much success as Tuberville had at a school with expectations as (relatively) low as Auburn could end up out the door after a single losing season. The reason that outcome became possible? Jetgate. The wheels it set in motion never stopped turning.
*This may have been more of a warning shot on SACS’ part rather than a genuine threat to yank the accreditation, which they’ve never done for a school of Auburn’s size (as far as I know). But however serious SACS may or may not have been, that’s as black as black eyes get for the University.
2a. Tuberville fired (sort of); 2b. Gene Chizik hired (2008).
The end of one era; the beginning of another.
There’s not too much more to add at this juncture–the memories in this case are still awful fresh–except to remember how utterly jaw-dropping both of these events were. Even if there were a decent number of Auburn fans who believed Tubby should have been finished at the end of the 2008 season, I don’t know if you’d have found any outside of the serious fringe who believed he was finished. As for the Chizik hire, well, you’re reading the very guy who got national media coverage for opting for a drunken stupor over trying to make sense of it.
In the year since, both halves of the equation have come to make a lot more sense–the energy and enthusiasm of Chizik’s staff have made it more clear than ever how badly Tubby and his staff were lacking that same drive by the end–but that doesn’t change the shock of the defining direction-shift of Auburn football’s last 10 years.
4. The Snub (2004).
Every year, I begin the season with the same hope: that if Auburn doesn’t go undefeated, that three BCS conference teams will. (Well, three that don’t include Cincinnati.) We’ve had 12 years’ worth of the BCS, and the number of seasons in which three of the SEC’s, Big 10’s ACC’s, Pac-10’s, and Big 12’s champions ran the table still stands at one. One day, someone’s going to join us in misery (please an SEC team please please please) and maybe then, finally, we’ll get some kind of playoff and know this won’t ever happen again.
Until then, there’s nothing to do but celebrate the fact that those Tigers conquered every opportunity they were offered and grit our orange-and-blue teeth until the day we die.
(Seriously, Auburn’s timing is unbelievable: three perfect seasons in the past 60 years, and two of them come on probation and the third in the one-and-only year out of the last 12 it wouldn’t have resulted in a title shot. What are the odds?)
(The single most aggravating piece of fallout from the snub: rivals claiming Auburn didn’t get a title shot because “you’re Auburn.” Guess where Alabama would have finished if they’d gone undefeated that year: third. Guess where USC or Texas–the bluest of college football’s bluebloods–would have finished if the Trojans had run the table this year: third. Shut up, fools.)
5. Campbell, Cadillac sign with Auburn (2000-2001).
Recruiting back at the start of this decade wasn’t quite like recruiting is now–midseason commitments didn’t prompt a separate story or blog post from the Auburn beat writers (and not just because there was no such thing as a blog), only a select few diehards followed Rivals’ or Tom Lemming’s team rankings, and I would argue the majority of college football fans only had the vaguest idea that recruits were being graded and ranked at all.
So when it was news back in 2000 that Auburn had signed one of the best high school quarterbacks in the country and the best player in the state of Mississippi, you knew it was a big deal–otherwise, why would we even be hearing about it? When I waited for WSFA’s 6 0’clock news broadcast for a report from the living room of that Attalla running back who’d chosen Auburn and who everyone seemed to be calling “Cadillac,” I knew he had to be good–otherwise, why would anyone be talking about him? (That was the first time, incidentally, I can remember there being such a thing as “Signing Day.”)
And sure enough, those two players would come together just a few years later to lead Auburn to its greatest season since ’57. Beyond the obvious historical impact of landing two greats like Campbell and Cadillac, though, there’s the statement their signings made in those heady early days of Tubby’s tenure: that despite the crater left behind by Terry Bowden, despite the 5-6 record in 1999, despite Alabama and Florida and Tennessee and LSU, that Auburn was going to have a say in how things went in the SEC under Tuberville. If the ’99 Georgia game was the first on-field evidence of what was to come under Tubby, Campbell and Cadillac’s coming aboard were the off-field equivalent.
6. Al Borges hired (2004).
As the struggles of 2003 so pathetically demonstrated, though, even having talents like Campbell and Cadillac isn’t enough if the coaches guiding them aren’t competent.
Enter Al Borges, and enter the most explosive two-year stretch of Auburn offense since the days of Bo. Perhaps the greatest testament to Borges’ mastery in 2004 and 2005 is that Auburn had its entire backfield drafted in the first round … and increased its scoring the following season. (Not much–32.1 to 32.2–but still.)
Over his final two seasons even Gorgeous Al couldn’t overcome the vagaries of Evil Brandon, various running back injuries, and the most generally non-threatening corps of wideouts Auburn had fielded in years (not to mention a crop of position coaches who may or not have offered him their full support), but by then his place at Auburn was plenty secure. It’s a shame that anything had to be turned around in the first place–but there’s no arguing that Borges was the guy who managed it.
7. Gene Chizik goes Hank Aaron with his staff (2008-2009).
OK, so it’s possible Auburn falls on its face these next couple of seasons and it won’t seem like it’ll have mattered so much who Chizik hired … but where we stand today, with Chizik and Co.’s first season having resulted in a three-game improvement over the ’08 disaster and their first full recruiting class bordering on the mind-boggling, I think it’s fair to project a bit.
And what that projection suggests is that the staff Chizik hired–Gus Malzahn and Curtis Luper in quick succession, followed by Trooper Taylor, Tracy Rocker, Ted Roof, Tommy Thigpen, Jeff Grimes, Phillip Lolley, and Jay Boulware–is going to make those decisions as defining a moment for Chizik’s tenure as the decision to hire Al Borges (and Tony Franklin) was for Tuberville.
At the very least, we can already say this about Chizik’s hires: they represent the collective moment at which the bafflement over his hiring gave way to optimism over what he could accomplish. Without the “and Co.,” Chizik was just 5-19 Gene; with them, he’s the guy at the head of one of the most dynamic and innovative staffs in the country. Pretty big difference, and one that I expect will seem even more meaningful in a couple of years.
8. The 2008 recruiting class busts (2008).
We’ll be able to debate all day whether this story or No. 9 was really the bigger story, but even if that one generated the bigger headlines, I think it’s this one that wins the “impact” comparison in a walk.
“This one” meaning Auburn’s 2008 recruiting class, a class that seems more likely by the day to mark the true beginning of the end of the Tuberville era. Why? Let us count the ways:
— Zero consensus four-star players according to Rivals/Scout. None.
— The usual Tuberville bevy of academic casualties resulted in Rivals dropping the class all the way to 33rd in their fall re-rank … and that’s including five-star Raven Gray and four-star Deron Furr, both of whom made it to campus but never played a down for Auburn. Remove them, and we’re talking about a C-USA-grade ranking here.
— Zero enrolled offensive linemen.
— Zero members of Rivals’ top 12 players from Alabama.
Don’t buy the recruitniks’ evaluations? Consider this: two seasons on, that class of 29 players has produced just three starters (and just two for 2010, since Todd was one of those three), only six players who even qualify as contributors, and all of 13 players on the roster, period.
All of that is bad. But what makes the 2008 failure so significant is what was happening across the state at the same time–while Tubby was busy putting together the worst class of his Auburn tenure, Saban was putting together the No. 2 class in the country. While Auburn’s last-minute signees included a long snapper (who couldn’t even win the starting long snapping job) and a two-star linebacker whose only other D-I offer was Duke*, Alabama was grabbing Jerrell Harris, a nationally sought-after four-star LB who had grown up an Auburn fan.
36-0 made it official, but it was Signing Day where the balance of power in the state truly shifted, and it was that shift that ultimately led to Tuberville’s demise. Of course, other things didn’t help …
9. Tony Franklin hired; Tony Franklin fired (2007-2008)
I feel like enough has been said and written about Franklin’s reign of error at Auburn that I don’t have to add anything to the above picture. If you want more, I suggest you give Franklin a call; he’ll be happy to talk to you, particularly if you represent a newspaper.
10. Fingers of Fear (2002-2008).
Something as silly and ultimately meaningless as Tubby’s “how many fingers do you see?” routine after another knockout of Alabama really shouldn’t have a place on this list.
But it does, because it drove Alabama fans just so damn batty the thing took on a life of its own–as the unbelievable flap over Tubby’s seven-finger-flashing in Iraq proved in the spring of ’08. Neither Tubby nor Auburn fans would have ever made a tradition out of it if it hadn’t gotten so snugly under the Tide’s skin; if it had been ignored, it would have gone away. But it wasn’t, and so our side took as much glee as humanly possible in making it the symbol of Auburn’s mid-decade dominance over the rivalry.
It was classic bully behavior, and only appropriate given the way Auburn played the bully over those six years. No story from the past 10 years proved so decisively how much Tiger fans enjoyed being in that role, or how badly that status tormented the fans on the other side of the rivalry.
Chizik hired … as Auburn’s defensive coordinator (2001); Big Cat Weekend and the Limo Gambit usher in a new, bolder, more rules-ambiguous recruiting approach … and usher out the Tubby era for good (2009); Dennis Franchione deserts Alabama, setting off a series of events and fiascoes that leave the Tide helpless to prevent Tubby and Auburn from taking total control of the Iron Bowl (2002); Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas appear on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, eventually coming to symbolize the runaway hype train that would help Hugh Nall and Steve Ensminger derail the 2003 season (2003).
Really makes you realize how psycho this school is that the snub is only the 4th biggest story of the decade behind our goofy coaching drama.
Still sticks in my craw and maybe my memory is flawed but wasn’t it Bobby Bowdens snit canceling FSU off our schedule due to T. Bowdens firing to be replaced by “the Citadel” the created the strength of schedule debacle. If T had been a man he would have had “daddy” try to whip our ass for him.
I somehow don’t buy the “same would have happened to Bama angle.” Maybe so, just don’t buy it.
And I gotta say, I’m amazed at the re-surgence of Bammer gear on bumpers and heads of the locals in the ATL. A lot less G’s lots more A’s.
Maybe it was on sale at WMT.
He didn’t get on that plane. And if you’re still hearing that then the history is mid-revision.
Give it time.
Jay Coulter says
Awesome story Jerry. I agree 100% with your list. You nailed it!
Kenny: Housel? Didn’t get on the plane? He admitted it and called it a mistake publicly many times, from what I recall. (One such link: http://www.fanblogs.com/sec/004542.php). Why would he admit to a mistake he never made? I’m seriously confused.
For some reason, I could see Malzahn wearing shutter shades and enjoying a cigar at a press conference. That picture had me cracking up for a good few minutes
And yet, the story that had me laughing every time it showed in the news was the utterly bizarre and captivating unraveling of the Mike Price era of Alabama Football. From the passing around of sugar packets at his first press conference (oblivious to the fact that they were on probation) to the wacky comments at Spring Training to the Gulf Shores golf tournament.
It was all so enjoyable. If only it could have continued for the entire season.
I would probably rate “the Snub” number one, because without a doubt that will still be a relevant story that people will talk about 10-20 years down the roade. I understand what Jerry was talking about as far as “Jetgate” being the greatest schock value, but it is not going to stay with the conscience of Auburn fans like not having an opportunity to play for the national championship game.
Honestly, outside of potentially playing and winning a national championship game I am not sure how this would ever dissipate as one of the biggest stories of all-time for Auburn.
Joe Blow says
Good list. One that should at least be an honorable mention was Tray Blackmon committing. That was a huge.
Kenny: I agree with you that it won’t stay with Auburn fans. But as long as Finebaum is still on the radio/in print, and there are Bama fans out there to listen/read, that story will be brought up on a monthly basis.
Joe Blow says
JBoggs: I remember it being Bowling Green that cancelled on Auburn that year…so they could honor their contract with Oklahoma. Jerry, correct me if I’m wrong on that.
I agree that it wouldn’t have happened to Bama. You know why? Because if they were in the same situation, they would have started the season ranked in the top 10, and not at 17.
And as for the gear? You should see the gas stations in Birmingham. Every other one has some toothless redneck in a pickup truck out front selling Bama flags and whatnot.
Xavier Garanzuay says
I totally agree. 2004 snub should be #1. I’ll be hurttin’ over that snub long after I’ll even remember any of the other stories. I love me some Jason and Caddy but nothing compares to the gut-renching kick to the huevos we took in 2004.
Think about the 1984 snub. Its still fresh in our memory and that was 25 years ago…
Great list, Jerry. But does the Iron Bowl streak not merit its own spot?
Alex P in Smyrna G says
It would have absolutely happened to Bama just like it did to Auburn. Preseason #1 and #2 ran the table. Many voters explicitly said they wouldn’t drop them if they don’t lose. It couldn’t have worked out any other way.
And the OOC schedule argument pisses me off every time, because it requires two assumptions:
1) that an ELITE team has any more meaningful chance of losing to #50 than they do to #90, which they don’t.
2) that all conference schedules are created equal, which we all know is false. Just look at the ACC this year and how bad their two conference championship reps looked like this bowl season. Clemson was damn lucky to hold on against 7-5 B-ball school Kentucky and GTech got road graded by Iowa.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
Wow CD! How did we ALL miss that one?
Good point on the Iron Bowl streak. Huge. I only wish that we had hung a 36-0 or 41-0 on them at some point. All of those games were somewhat close. I’m being greedy but you could sort of fault Tubby for not “nuking Bama back to the stone age” when we had our boot on their throat.
Joe Blow, you’re likely correct on that (at my age I’m sort of lucky to remember what I had for breakfast) so I guess I owe all the Bowdens an apology. Sorry to all Bowdens.
Re: the Snub, I’ll agree you could easily make an argument for putting it No. 2. We’re going to be taking it to our collective grave, no question.
But in the end, I just don’t think it had as much practical impact as the coaching changes. Remember that we’re not talking about a national championship–we’re talking about a _shot_ at it. I don’t think a loss does anything more for the program going forward than the perfect season did, and even if we get that world’s best cherry-on-top of the SEC title and undefeated season, does it change the relationship between Tubby and the admin? Does it change recruiting all THAT much? What does it really DO for the team besides put a trophy on its shelf?
I’m aware that all those things are incredibly important … but I think the difference between 14-0 SEC/Sugar Bowl champs and 14-0 national champs isn’t so great as to outweight the combination of the shock-and-awe AND seismic practical direction-change in the program caused by the coaching changes. Just to illustrate my thought process here.
And Jetgate has to be No. 1. I mean, the university president had to resign. That’s as big as football stories can get.
Oh, re: The Streak, I filed it as an on-field thing and didn’t consider it for inclusion. Maybe I should have.
And Alex P makes my argument for me regarding ‘Bama in 2004. Remember: the media were talking up a USC-Oklahoma title game before the season even started.
Ah. Top 10 off-field stories. OK.
In my opinion, the Tony Franklin debacle was bigger news than Chizik’s staff hires. It was the first cog in Tubby’s demise.
You made a slight mention to one of the biggest stories of the decade, but it’s not listed otherwise. CTT decision to not replace Petrino and to give the offense over to Nallsminger was the dumbest move anyone making over a million dollars a year has ever made. Remember the discusions about how Rod B. would handle the call of the first touchdown in tribute to Jim Fyffe. It came in the 2nd half of the 3rd game against Vandy. QB was Jason C. had Cadilac and Ronnie B. in the backfield. I think this debacle hurt us badly.
Dammit, JT, I totally intended to mention that as its own thing in the Honorable Mention section. Guess I got distracted filing it under the ESPN cover. Oh well.
I would have put “the snub” at #2 as well. 2003-2007 was a hell of a time to be a student at Auburn. First semester there, they threaten our accreditation. Next fall, we run the table. 2005, we field a team almost as good. 2006 we (somehow) win 11 games.