AUBURN, Ala. -- They lined up down the block more than two hours beforehand, bundled up on a sunny, cool January afternoon, eager to fill even the upper reaches of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
By the end, an estimated crowd of 78,000 packed the stadium Saturday, wanting to celebrate Auburn’s 2010 national championship in style.
“I will say it again, and it’s not kind of, sort of, almost -- you are the best fans in the United States of America,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. “And you have helped us and been a huge part of being the best football team in the United States of America.
“War ... Damn ... Eagle!”
Auburn pulled out all the stops to celebrate its first national title since 1957, putting on an hourlong program of player introductions, video highlights and speeches that concluded with a well-attended reverse Tiger Walk from the stadium to the athletics complex.
Jordan-Hare’s HD video boards showed the BCS title game in its entirety beforehand, with fans cheering the Tigers’ big plays as though they were happening live.
The stadium scoreboard read the BCS title game’s final tally -- Auburn 22, Oregon 19 -- and a large national championship logo was painted on the field, a popular photo opportunity for those who had field access.
Once the program started, school President Jay Gouge, newly inaugurated Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, Auburn mayor Bill Ham and former Auburn athletic director David Housel addressed the crowd.
But the day belonged to the players, most of whom were able to attend. The Tigers were announced one-by-one as they came out of the tunnel, starting with the underclassmen before moving to the seniors and finishing with the stars.
The loudest ovations were saved for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton and Lombardi Award-winning defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who soaked up their final moments in college by bouncing past rows of Auburn fans and doling out high fives. Auburn was presented with all of the trophies it won this season -- the Heisman, the Lombardi, the crystal football -- as several departing players said their goodbyes.
“I told (defensive line) coach (Tracy) Rocker one day I’m going to have my picture on this stadium just like him,” Fairley said to loud cheers.
When it was Newton’s turn to speak, Fairley got up and gave him a bear hug from behind before he could start his speech. “You never lost faith in me, and that means more to me than words could ever say,” Newton told the crowd. “You will be in my heart forever. I believe in Auburn and I love it.”
Senior wide receiver Kodi Burns, a fan favorite, got one of the loudest ovations of the afternoon. After Fairley was presented with the Lombardi and Newton the Heisman, Burns waited for some hardware from athletic director Jay Jacobs. “Jay Jacobs, where’s my award?” Burns joked before talking about his time on the Plains.
“People ask me all the time, why did you come to Auburn?” Burns said. “One, because of this awesome Auburn family. And two, to win a national championship. It’s been an unbelievable year, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” Near the end, Jacobs introduced Chizik, the man he was roundly criticized for hiring to turn around the stagnating program in December 2008.
On stage, Chizik hearkened back to an early discussion he had with Jacobs. “I said, I don’t know how long it’s going to take, I’m not going to put a time limit on it, but we will win a championship,” Chizik said. “You can bank that.”
The celebration hadn’t been over long before talk turned to the future. With Auburn losing a large senior class in addition to early NFL draft entries Newton, Fairley and receiver Darvin Adams, the Tigers figure to take a step back next year. But it won’t take long to get back to the top, departing senior left tackle Lee Ziemba said.
“With the coaching staff we have here and the administration, the fire they have recruiting, the talent that’s still on this team that continues to work hard and improve every day, the sky’s the limit for any Auburn team,” he said. “That fight isn’t just something that lasts for one season. That’s something that’s embedded in the Auburn spirit.”