I think what bothers a lot of Auburn fans about Auburn possibly claiming more national championships than it currently claims (whatever “claims” actually 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 still let him tag you?
Whatever, 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 a la 2010.
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 en vogue Anti-Claim mentalities that Van and John addressed (and repudiated). 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, Never-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 that official AU committee’s consideration (and whose tortured cries for vindication were ultimately denied) 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.
Good ol’ 2004 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—until they’re not. In the seasons that followed, teams were leapfrogging unbeatens every week, or at least LSU was, the 12-2 team that won it all (you know, except those games against Arkansas and KENTUCKY). 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 where it didn’t really matter. The coaches poll wouldn’t even consider Auburn, and what little chance we had 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 freaking probation. No TV. Heard, but not seen. Good times.
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 decisively—after the final polls were released. It wasn’t just the football coach speaking out—it was the Athletics 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 after beating world-beaters Nebraska 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 beforehand?
It was basic math: No. 1 Nebraska Loses + No. 2 Texas Loses + No.3 Auburn Wins = Auburn’s “Second” National Championship. Auburn had played one of the toughest schedules in the history of schedules; they played Boomer Esiason’s No. 7 Maryland team for homecoming. But even if they hadn’t, discussion of other contenders would be all but academic.
In fact, half of the articles on possible national championship scenarios leading up to the bowls didn’t even mention fourth-ranked Miami. Wait, wait—make that fifth-ranked Miami. For the Hurricanes to win it all, it wouldn’t take three post-season upsets, it would (in a world that made sense) take four.
Every Auburn fan 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 on Jan. 2, 1984, Auburn fans weren’t just celebrating a 9-7 win over a Michigan, they were celebrating a win over everyone. Even at Toomer’s Corner. Here’s Auburn grad Tim Martin talking about it.
“Most every student assumed that a win over the Wolverines would make Auburn No. 2 and national champs if No. 5 Miami could somehow squeak out a win over No. 1 Nebraska. As soon as Del Greco kicked the game-winner, you could hear students erupting all over campus. And after the Orange Bowl, we came pouring out of dorm rooms and apartments to storm Toomer’s. I watched the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl in an apartment on Magnolia, and Toomer’s was nearby. We chanted ‘We’re Number One!’ and rolled the corner well after the Huskers lost—probably the best rolling of Toomer’s to date at the time.”
That Auburn would be No. 1 was, as Pat Dye described 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.”
Dye’s argument resonated with Keith Jackson, who at the start of ABC’s Sugar Bowl broadcast hinted that in light of Texas’ Cotton Bowl loss, and in the event of a Nebraska loss in the Orange Bowl, AP voters should “draw some conclusions from [Auburn and Miami’s] respective schedules.”
Jackson was one of those voters. The conclusion he would likely draw wasn’t hard to figure out.
“Auburn played eight bowl teams and they beat seven of them. They lost just one—they lost to (No. 2) Texas. Miami on the other hand opened against Florida and was trounced by the Gators.”
(Trounced, in this case, was 28-3. No team that had lost a game by more than three touchdowns at any point in the season had ever won a national championship.)
“Auburn,” Jackson continued, “defeated Florida.”
(Since we’re talking comparative scores against common opponents, Miami beat Florida State by one point on a last-second field goal. Auburn beat the Seminoles by three.)
As the night wore on, the pieces began falling perfectly into place, exactly as Jackson had imagined.
Auburn’s defense shut Michigan down in the second half, allowing the Wolverines just one first down (until the desperate final 20 seconds). Auburn’s Wishbone eventually kicked into gear.
Miami and Nebraska were tied at 17.
Auburn’s final drive ate up nearly seven minutes. Bo Jackson and Tommy Agee brutalized Michigan defenders for 60 yards. Almost every Michigan defender who tried tackling Bo was either injured or slow to get up.
On 4th and goal with 27 seconds left, Al Del Greco walked on the field one last time as an Auburn Tiger. He was two for three on the night. He’d never had a game come down to his foot. It was a chip shot.
As he lined up, Miami scored it go-ahead touchdown.
Snap. Kick. He raised his index finger in the air. So did other Auburn players. So did Auburn fans.
Keith Jackson raised his eyebrows.
“You know what?” Jackson asked. “Miami has just scored to take the lead over Nebraska.”
There was silence. Color man Frank Broyles didn’t respond. There were 23 seconds left in the game. The implication hung in the air: Auburn may have not only just won the Sugar Bowl, they may have just won the National Championship.
After the kickoff, the stadium announcer read the new Orange Bowl score. The Superdome erupted. Folks on the Auburn sideline raised their hands in triumph. ABC’s cameras cut to a sign held high by a mustachioed Auburn fan: WE HAVE THAT SPECIAL FEELING….. ABC & AUBURN = NO. 1.
With 10 seconds left, Keith Jackson was almost at a loss for words. The ones he found were pro-Auburn.
“I’ve been searching through my memorabilia here, Frank, trying to find the appropriate cliche for the moment,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve got one that’s quite suitable. Auburn leading 9-7, 10 seconds left to play in the football game. Miami leads Nebraska 24-17. Auburn leads by two points over a gutty, tough, determined Michigan football team.”
When Jackson tossed it down to sideline reporter Tim Brant, Brant was ready to tell Al Del Greco the good news.
“We pulled it out and that’s all that matters,” Del Greco said. “Now we’re just going to wait and see what else happens down in Miami.”
“Right now, I will tell you, Miami leads Nebraska,” Brant said.
“That’s good, that’s good,” Del Greco smiled. “We still have to wait to see what happens, though.”
What happened in Miami was a rankings coup.
As Auburn partied on Bourbon Street and at Toomer’s Corner like it was 1957, Auburn coaches quickly became aware that their low-scoring win was getting much less attention than Miami’s Orange Bowl upset of the team some were calling the greatest ever. 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 1983 opponents had won 69.5 percent of their football games.
Miami’s opponents? 51 percent.
“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 said.
Dye wasn’t the only one ready for the crown.
“Right now we should be the No. 1 team in the nation,” Sugar Bowl MVP Bo Jackson 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?”
The other Bo knew, too.
“I don’t get a vote,” Michigan coach Bo Schembechler said after the Sugar Bowl. “But if it’s Auburn, so be it.”
It wasn’t Auburn.
Somehow it was Miami.
The voters (named here just for kicks) didn’t even have the decency to vote Auburn the No. 2 team in the nation. That (somehow) went to Nebraska, a team whose opponents had won only 52 percent of their games… and, you know, a team that had just lost their bowl game.
To Pat Dye, the injustice was easy to explain: “Miami put on a campaign,” one the media was more than willing to embrace following the thrilling end to the Orange Bowl, which by the time it ended was the only game left on TV.
“I will never forget returning to the apartment to hear commentators already speculating that Miami would simply leapfrog Auburn and Nebraska in the polls,” Tim Martin says.
Del Greco’s was ABC’s only post-game interview. “What was going through your mind?” Short and sweet.
NBC, on the other hand, went live inside the ecstatic Miami locker room for several minutes with Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar and head coach Howard Schnellenberger. It was great television.
“You know that Auburn won, but in your mind is there any question who’s No.1?” sideline reporter Bill Macatee asked Kosar.
Kosar actually seemed almost resigned to the inevitability of Auburn being named national champs.
“Well, I guess it’s up to the polls,” Kosar said. “But I tell you in my heart we’re No. 1.”
Schnellenberger, however, went for the throat.
“The Miami Hurricanes are the No. 1 team.”
Of course he’d say that. He’s their coach. It’s natural. But Pat Dye wasn’t just going to let the guy who used to bum rides off of him (they were neighbors) during their Dark Side days together in Tuscaloosa get away with it.
“Who did Miami beat that’s anybody,” he asked reporters the next day. It wasn’t a rhetorical question.
Notre Dame, one said. The response was classic Dye.
“Notre Dame? Lord, have mercy,” Dye said. “East Carolina was probably the best one.”
Sure, East Carolina happened to be Dye’s old team, which 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 he wasn’t 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 blew out two SEC opponents (the ones in Mississippi).
Other than the Irish and Florida State, 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.”
It sounds crazy today, but one of the most valuable things in Auburn’s satchel was actually 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 No. 1 after the Sugar Bowl, they had Auburn at No. 1 before the Sugar Bowl.
The New York Times thing is of course the big thing we throw around in the debates and use to asterisk the media guides. It’s the thing everybody says we could use to claim a national championship for 1983 if we wanted to.
Richard Billingsley, whose Billingsley Report is recognized as a national championship selector by the NCAA, says we should. A few years back, when I asked him about his No. 1 ranking for Auburn’s 1913 team, he kept wanting to talk about the 1983 Tigers.
“Honestly, Auburn was hands down the best team in 1983,” Billingsley said. “My system awarded them a national championship in that year. So in my records book, Auburn has won four national championships: 1913, 1957, 1983, and 2010. The Auburn Athletic sports information people should be claiming them.”
What everyone—you, me, Never-Claimers, maybe even Pat Dye himself—seems to have forgotten is that Auburn did claim the 1983 national championship.
Pat Dye claimed it.
He didn’t claim it with a punchline at some quarterback club speech a few months later, or decades later on his current radio show, or in a recent Dye-Gest column. He claimed it on Jan. 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?”
So whether you’re for claiming additional national championships or against it, it’s time to take 1983 out of the debate and put it on the stadium. Because it has been claimed—by an Auburn Athletics Director (who at the time was coaching Auburn’s current Athletic Director).
When he got back to Auburn, Dye sat down with reporters. The polls had just come out.
“Really and truly our football team deserves a little something more than being third in the nation when you look at the dang schedule in play.”
They weren’t bitter, he said.
“But I’m going to tell you something else. In their heart, deep down, they feel like they can beat anybody in the country. And I’m not so sure that they couldn’t, too.”
Man, if only there had been a way to find out…
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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