Legend has it that when Pat Dye interviewed for the head coaching job at Auburn, he was asked how long it would take to beat Alabama. The administration was thinking in terms of years.
Eight straight losses to the Crimson Tide had created a sense of hopelessness. Dye, the story goes, looked the interviewer square in the eye.
“Sixty minutes,” he answered.
On a day devoted to remembering perhaps Dye’s finest hour — the 20th anniversary of Alabama’s first visit to Auburn — Dye’s assessment of almost 30 years ago seems strangely prophetic.
A similar sense of hopelessness among Auburn faithful pervaded. No, it had not been nearly a decade since they had won the Iron Bowl. In fact, they had won six in a row until last year’s 36-0 drubbing.
For all of the pleasant moments in Gene Chizik’s first season as Auburn’s coach — that rousing comeback against West Virginia, the big road win at Tennessee, the stunning domination of Ole Miss — knocking off the nation’s No. 2 seemed more than a tall order. It seemed virtually impossible.
That is, except to the Auburn players and coaches.
Believe? They never thought otherwise.
“This is a team,” said quarterback Chris Todd, “that has held together real close all year. It’s really been a lot different than anything I’ve ever been a part of. It’s really hard to explain. We’re just so close.”
In years to come, the final score — Alabama 26, Auburn 21 — will not adequately tell the story for Tiger fans, either those among the 87,451 who witnessed it live at Jordan-Hare Stadium or the hundreds of thousands more who saw it on television.
For 58 minutes and 31 seconds, the No. 2 team in the country wasn’t even the best team in this state. As precarious as the Tigers’ 21-20 lead was — with Alabama facing third-and-3 at the Auburn 4 yard-line — hope lived. Fifty-eight and a half minutes of defying the odds came down to making two more stops or maybe a turnover.
When Greg McElroy found Roy Upchurch uncovered in the end zone, Alabama suddenly had its first lead of the day.
The Tigers’ last possession was marked with disorganization. Still, on the 148th and final play of the game, the Tigers still had a chance to win.
Not until Alabama defensive back Justin Woodall batted down Todd’s final pass of the game was the outcome certain. Even so, the Tigers refused to let the outcome diminish their outlook.
“We are a family when we win. We are a family when we lose,” said Chizik. “Nobody has to like the outcome of this game. But everybody in that locker room who played did what we asked them to do. They fought for 60 minutes in a game that was really, really tough.”
None of the Auburn players or coaches was willing to go there.
“Make no mistake: We wanted to win the football game,” said offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. “But at the same time, we are building a foundation.”
Mathematically, the Tigers finished the regular season just two wins better than last year. But in terms of perception — both internally and externally — Auburn has progressed light years from this time last year.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” said Chizik. “I don’t think you can sit there and watch our football team play against Alabama and not think that. We’ve come a long way. Again, we said at the beginning of this that we were going to build a foundation for what we know is right. We are going to do it right, and I don’t think there is any question.”
To be sure, seven wins and a third-tier bowl game will not constitute success many seasons at Auburn. But three months ago, most Auburn fans would have taken this.
Guerry Clegg, firstname.lastname@example.org