AUBURN, Ala. — Team chemistry isn’t universal. It’s not automatic or easily forged. As Auburn quarterback Cam Newton insists, it’s not something you can buy at Walmart.
But ask around the Auburn athletics complex. and they’the Tigers this is one of their closer teams in recent memory.
“I’ve been on some really good teams that had really outstanding chemistry,” head coach Gene Chizik said, “and this is one of the ones that has to be right up there.”
Bringing a team together is the goal of any football coach. It’s why players meet at midfield before games for a prayer and coaches trot out T-shirt-worthy slogans such as “Good to Great” and “All In” on a monthly basis.
After winning at Mississippi State earlier this year, Auburn’s players sang a rendition of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” in the locker room, proving spontaneous outbursts aren’t reserved for Disney movies such as “Remember the Titans.”
Chizik thinks it all helps.
“I don’t think you can play the game any other way,” Chizik said. “I’m not saying every team has it. I’m saying usually the ones that end up being really good football teams, they have that chemistry in there somewhere that you really don’t understand how and why it became what it was.”
Several players took stabs at trying to explain the bond that has grown on Auburn’s sideline. Nobody is sure he has the answer.
“I think it’s because of the seniority of the team,” linebacker Craig Stevens said, referring to the 24 seniors. “We have a lot of it, and a lot of us have been here four or five years, so we know each other real well.”
“Maybe it’s Coach Chizik having us do different stuff together outside of football — bowling or going to the water park,” left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “I have no idea why that is, but it’s just that way.”
Stevens admitted it could be another important variable, a panacea for any team.
“It’s easier to stick together when you’re winning than when you’re losing,” he said.
True, Auburn’s chemistry was never worse than 2008, when infighting among the coaches, a quarterback controversy and a 5-7 record made life miserable around the athletics complex for most players.
The bond was never stronger than in 2004, when the Tigers finished 13-0.
“They’re just two different teams and two different chemistries,” said Chizik, who was a defensive coordinator that year.
“It’s a different mixture of guys.
“(This year’s) a big senior class with a great mixture of young guys in there that are pulling their weight that these older guys didn’t know who they were when they came in. I think that the chemistry of the team is still unfolding.”
Newton, one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy, has ingratiated himself quickly since joining the team last December, despite being in the spotlight more than his teammates.
“He knows it isn’t just him,” Chizik said. “We have a lot of good players on the team right now, and I think he understands that they play a huge role.”
Newton has made an effort to be just one of the guys. He started a Friday night tradition of eating meals with his offensive linemen at the team hotel.
“We had an extra seat and he kind of smells bad, so nobody else would let him sit with them,” Ziemba joked. “We smell bad, too, so we let him sit with us.”
“It’s just sometimes our ritual,” Newton said. “We eat together at the hotel and just catch up on a lot of things. It’s just the little things that count.”
Chizik warned not to understate the value that comes with a close team.
“I think that might be one of the biggest parts of the puzzle when you’re on a journey and you’re trying to win a championship,” he said.