AUBURN, Ala. — Joined by his father, Cecil, and older brother, Cam Newton set about finding a new school last December.
The Blinn (Texas) Community College standout, who left Florida the previous year, had his choices narrowed to Oklahoma, Mississippi State and Auburn, with the latter two emerging as favorites.
The Bulldogs seemed like a logical choice. They were an SEC school, had no entrenched starting quarterback and, most importantly, had head coach Dan Mullen, who recruited Cam to Florida as an offensive coordinator three years earlier.
“Some people thought we were just totally outright married to Mississippi State,” Cecil said.
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In the end, the Newton clan chose Auburn.
“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my recent life,” Cam said. “Not just telling him because we had a good relationship, but telling his wife, Miss Megan, was even harder. … We had such a close relationship.”
It will be a reunion of sorts for Newton and Mullen in an ESPN Thursday night game in Starkville, Miss., where the pupil competes against his former teacher.
“I think our relationship is a long one, far beyond football,” Newton said.
It was a pairing fostered four years ago. Mullen recalled being immediately impressed with Newton in one of Florida’s football camps during the recruiting process.
“Obviously, his size and his athleticism when he walks in the door wows you,” Mullen said. “He’s got an arm. He can probably throw the ball 80 or 90 yards in the air. The ball jumps out of his hand. He has all of those things. But you know what, his demeanor, he’s a very intelligent quarterback and really understands the game of football.”
Mullen and head coach Urban Meyer convinced Newton, a star at Westlake High outside of Atlanta, to come to Florida — the “Hollywood of the South,” Cecil said — where they hoped he’d someday succeed Tim Tebow.
It didn’t turn out that way. An ankle injury cost him nearly all of the 2008 season. After the much-publicized stolen laptop fiasco, Newton left the Gators, seeking a fresh start at Blinn.
Years later, he better understands what Mullen was preaching.
“I had a lot of mature things that I needed to step up on, and Coach Mullen always told me about that,” Newton said. “I was too young and naive to notice that, but, now that I look back at the things that I’ve done, I just laugh and am really somewhat embarrassed.
“I had a good leader that I could look up to in Tim Tebow. I look at the stuff he did now, and I’m trying to do the stuff that he did.”
Newton’s re-recruitment last year almost led him back to Mullen at MSU, but Auburn’s situation was a better fit. Cecil, in his research, came away with a high opinion of Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
“What he was doing at Tulsa was commensurate to what Dan and Urban were doing at Florida,” he said.
After assessing everything about the programs, from schedules to returning players to overall momentum, the Newtons picked Auburn.
“This decision wasn’t just merely my decision,” Newton said. “I had to clear it with the whole nine yards. Not just with how I feel.”
Newton wasted no time showing off his talents, accounting for 357 yards and five touchdowns in the Tigers’ season-opening win against Arkansas State. He became the first Auburn player to win SEC Offensive Player of the Week in more than four years.
Mullen has seen the tape, although he doesn’t know how much his knowledge of the quarterback will help his Bulldogs in preparing for Thursday’s game.
“I don’t know the weaknesses,” Mullen said. “I think he’s got a lot of strengths. He has been around some big games before, so I don’t think any of that stuff gets to him. He has a great demeanor, obviously.”