By GUERRY CLEGG
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
ATLANTA -- Jay Jacobs stood on the platform on the Georgia Dome floor Saturday night, soaking in a steady rain of confetti and paper streamers. He smiled contentedly, savoring every blessed moment of his first SEC football championship as Auburn’s athletic director. Jacobs watched the Auburn players and coaches celebrate their 56-17 drubbing of South Carolina, satisfied to stay in the background.
A more vengeful man might have allowed himself a moment of personal privilege and, yes, even vindication. That would seem justifiable for one who was, at best, questioned and, at worst, vilified for turning over the football program to a coach, Gene Chizik, who had won five games in the previous two seasons.
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But Jacobs, the epitome of class and a Southern gentleman, shook his head at that notion of even a twinge of exoneration.
“No. Not at all,” Jacobs said. “It’s not about who is right. It’s about getting it right. I’m just so happy for this team, these players and coaches, and our fans.”
Jacobs got it right two years ago, when he hired Chizik despite his 5-19 record at Iowa State. That was evident even before this crowning moment that gave the Tigers their first SEC championship in six years and put them in their first BCS championship game.
Skeptics noted Chizik’s record and the fact that Turner Gill had just won a conference championship at Buffalo, of all places. Even former basketball star Charles Barkley, one of Auburn’s greatest sports figures, publicly questioned the hire.
Chizik’s hiring was written off to Jacobs taking the convenient path of selecting someone with Auburn ties. Chizik was the defensive coordinator for three years under Tommy Tuberville, including the last time the Tigers won the SEC championship. At the time, Jacobs was an associate athletic director.
“I saw his character and his integrity and how smart he is,” Jacobs said. “I knew he was one of the best coaches I had ever been around and one of the best teachers I’ve ever known, not just in football but in life. He’s just good people.
“Whenever you hire good people who have integrity and character and who are smart, you’ve got a good chance to be successful. And that’s true whether you’re running an athletic department with an $80 million budget or a major corporation.”
Just two years ago, Auburn had finished a season of frustration that saw the midseason firing of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and Tuberville’s own ouster after a 5-7 finish.
The foundation was laid in Chizik’s first season with an 8-5 finish, which included an Outback Bowl win over Northwestern. Actually, the foundation was laid when Chizik assembled a strong coaching staff, a blend of Auburn ties in Tracy Rocker, a bright offensive mind in Gus Malzahn and Chizik’s own step in faith in defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who had been fired as Duke’s head coach.
“It’s been a long road, but it’s been a very rewarding road,” said senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba. “I’ve learned so much along the way. How to be a man, how to endure adversity. Two years ago today, I was walking on crutches, too. It’s just been amazing to see the growth of this team and the maturity.”
The Tigers’ growth this season has been nothing short of amazing. It’s safe to say no one at Jordan-Hare Stadium back in September expected the Tigers to play for the national championship when Clemson nearly ran them out of the stadium in the first quarter. Even as Auburn somehow prevailed, the Tigers found themselves right back in the same position the next week against South Carolina. Yet, they won again.
This affinity for the dramatics would become their personality, but never as much as in their last game of the regular season. They trailed Alabama 24-0 on the road and were fortunate it wasn’t 41-0. Yet, they staged the most stunning comeback in Iron Bowl history and made believers nationwide that this team is for real.
“This team is unbelievable,” Chizik said. “I told them before the game that this would be the best game they ever played.”
Unbelievable would be the only way to describe quarterback Cam Newton. His performance Saturday had to cinch winning the Heisman Trophy. He tacked on another 408 yards of total offense and accounted for six more touchdowns. That left him 2 yards short of 4,000 for the season. Chizik was asked whether he has seen a better college player.
“Uh, no,” he said. “It’s that simple. If you look over a 13-game span, I’ve never seen anything like it, to be honest with you. … And I can say this -- well, we have one game left, so he can’t get too big of a head with one game left, but I can say he’s probably the best football player I’ve ever seen.”
With that, Newton’s jaw dropped open.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him ar firstname.lastname@example.org