Auburn finally brings title home
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The white-haired man descended from the portable stage with deliberation and care. He walked as slowly, well, as slowly as he drawled. The words that came out of Pat Dye's mouth sounded as if they should pour over pancakes.
On this night, on the grass beneath the roof of University of Phoenix Stadium, in the wake of Auburn's 22-19 defeat of Oregon, what the former Tigers coach said sounded sweet indeed.
"This is my dream," Dye said. "These kids lived my dream."
Assistant athletic director Joe Whitt, a megawatt smile beneath his trademark wide, black hat, stood smack in the middle of the Tigers' locker room. Whitt served under four head coaches at Auburn before hanging up his whistle in 2005.
"We've been fighting this for 30 years," Whitt said.
To understand what the national championship means to Auburn, you can't ask the players and coaches who won it. Their focus, God bless 'em, has been narrowed to the Oregon Ducks and how to beat them.
No, you have to pull the camera back. Change to the panoramic lens. Train your eye on the history of Auburn football since 1957, when the Tigers won a share of the national championship. Not even the whole thing -- Auburn shared it with Ohio State.
A few days later, Paul Bryant arrived at Alabama and restored the Crimson Tide to prominence. It took "The Bear" four years to finish No. 1. Alabama has won eight national championships since Auburn won its last.
You have to understand Auburn's history as the agricultural university in a state in which the businessmen and lawyers and politicians traditionally came out of Tuscaloosa.
You have to see how the great moments in Auburn football over the past generation always carried an asterisk. In 2004, the Tigers went 13-0, but got left out of the game for the BCS national title. In 1993, Auburn went 11-0 and couldn't compete to finish No. 1 because of postseason probation. In 1988, the Tigers lost one regular-season game, 7-6 at LSU, the famous "earthquake game," in which the noise in Tiger Stadium moved the seismic needles on campus.
Only one assistant coach carried the Tigers' historical burden into the game Monday night. Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker won the Outland Trophy and the Rotary Lombardi Award in 1988. Those Tigers won the SEC and went to the Sugar Bowl. In Rocker's mind, they fell short.
"I've always been living with, 'We came close to play for a national championship but we didn't,'" Rocker said. "That's something that's always been in the back of my mind. I see Coach Dye. He brings it up. It something you always live with."
In 1983, the Tigers went 11-1 and finished third, which galls Dye to this day.
"Today's terms, we would have been national champions in '83," Dye said. "We played the toughest schedule by far -- by far -- of anyone in the country."
No. 5 Miami upset No. 1 Nebraska 31-30 and jumped over Auburn to win the title.
"It's almost like you think, 'Man, why not?'" Whitt said. "Because we've done all the right things, and it doesn't happen."
It has always been something. Auburn always fell a play short or a win short or, as was the case in 2004, a decimal point short. Dr. James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon who has taken care of Auburn football teams for four decades, stood in the middle of the Tigers' locker room. On his right hand sat a large ring with the Auburn logo.
"That's the '04 ring," Andrews said. "It says, 'National Champion.'" He smiled. "But there's a difference."
There is a difference. This team barely began the season in the top 25. The Tigers finish it on top of the polls, on top of the world.
"Oh, Lord. I been with Auburn 40 years, all the way back to the Sugar Bowl when Oklahoma beat the hell out of us in 1971 [40-22]," Andrews said, bringing up another near-miss. "I'm still pinching myself trying to figure out if this is for real. The most exciting thing about this year is that nobody -- nobody -- had any clue that this could happen. It just kept rolling along."
Rocker said he received texts all day from former teammates. On the way to the stadium Monday, Rocker heard from another one.
"I'm sitting on the bus with Bo Jackson behind me," Rocker said. "Bo is like, 'We got to do it.' All day, 'Y'all got to do it, because everyone's been waiting on this to come home.'"
This season, there is no asterisk. The Tigers have to hold their breath until the NCAA concludes its investigation of quarterback Cam Newton. But Auburn finished 14-0. The Tigers got the chance to play for the national championship. They won the game as time expired. They needed every last second of this season to exorcise the what-if ghosts of the previous 53 seasons.
"I will tell you it was magic and magical," Dye said. "And brilliant. And guts and character and all of the adjectives that you could add to it to make it what it was."
He came to Auburn in 1981 and brought it back to national relevance. On Monday night, he beamed with pride.
Dye looked back through the wide lens. He saw all the people and all the history. He saw the 99 games he won in his 12 seasons (1981-92) at Auburn. He claimed this one as No. 100.
"All of us old-timers and the former players and the former coaches and the fans that have withstood and endured the heartaches that go with being there and not getting to hold that [crystal] ball up there," Dye said, "this football team and staff did it for us. They did it for themselves, but we gon' bask in the glory."
That last word came out "glow-ry," as if it had been tapped from a maple tree. Someone asked Dye how big this victory had been.
"That's a simple question," he said. "Big as this stadium. Big as all that desert out there."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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