TODAY: The Best Game; The Best Rivalry
Late last decade, the Auburn football program was a smoldering wreck. The end of the Terry Bowden era was not a good one on the plains. The university hired Tommy Tuberville and his pine box from Ole Miss to right the ship. What no one could have expected then is that the program was about to go on an epic roller coaster ride, one almost Shakespearean in nature.
Things weren't that impressive during Tuberville's first campaign in 1999, but 5-6 was an improvement over the 3-8 debacle of the year before. In 2000, the team experienced a significant bump, jumping to a 9-4 (6-2 SEC) record and winning the SEC West. He would follow that up with 7-5 (5-3) and 9-4 (5-3) seasons in which he would tie for the division lead but not get to go to Atlanta due to tiebreakers.
Auburn had become a major player in the division again, exactly what Tuberville was hired to make happen. However, a third straight 5-3 record came in 2003 (8-5 overall), and the natives began to get restless. The Tigers weren't exactly taking full advantage of a mostly down period for Alabama, and it appeared they were in danger of getting lapped by Nick Saban and LSU. To wit:
|.750+ win pct.||3||14||.176|
|.500-.749 win pct||15||25||.375|
|.500+ win pct.||18||39||.316|
That's when one native particularly known for restlessness stepped in.
Bobby Lowder, perhaps the most powerful booster in college athletics at the time, used the private jet that his now-defunct bank owned to fly university president William Walker, athletics director David Housel, and two trustees to the Bluegrass State. They went to talk to former Auburn offensive coordinator and then-Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino about possibly replacing Tuberville should AU decide to make a change. The press got wind of it though, the incident became known as "JetGate," and the university was put on probation by its accrediting agency.
No one would have blamed Tuberville had he decided to leave the university, but he chose to stay. That decision led to one of the best four-year runs for any SEC team this decade.
In 2004, Auburn went undefeated but infamously was shut out of the national title game. To date, it is still the only undefeated season for any SEC school in this decade. Auburn would then go 9-3, 11-2, and 9-4 from 2005-07, sharing the division title in 2005. Auburn's 27-6 (.818) SEC record from 2004-07 was the best of any team in the conference during that span. Tuberville also became a much better big game coach in that span:
|.750+ win pct.||9||4||.692|
|.500-.749 win pct||11||5||.688|
|.500+ win pct.||20||9||.690|
Those years marked the first time Auburn had won nine or more games in four consecutive years since 1986-89. However despite the great success. all was not completely well. For one thing, Tuberville continued to burn through coordinators at an alarming rate. There was also the issue of declining performance over that span:
|Season||Points For||Points All.||Margin||SEC Record|
Each year the offensive output declined and the SEC record was getting progressively worse. Pressure was beginning to mount, so Tuberville made a decision that would ultimately seal his fate: he hired Tony Franklin to be his new offensive coordinator.
Franklin was a guru of a pass-heavy variant of the spread offense, and with spread offenses all the rage in college football, the thought was that he would revitalize things and get scoring up. However, his pass first mentality didn't mesh with the run first instincts of the head coach and the assistant coaches he was most loyal to. There's also plenty of evidence to suggest that Franklin's personality doesn't mesh well just about anyone, as he's never been in one place long and has a tendency to air dirty laundry after he leaves a job.
The offensive transplant was rejected, and Franklin was fired halfway through the season with the Tigers sitting at 4-2. They would go 1-5 the rest of the way, missing out on a bowl and finishing under .500 for the first time since Tuberville's first season. The Riverboat Gambler was not given the opportunity to fix his offensive coordinator mistake as he was shown the door four years after his perfect season.
The process to replace Tuberville was long, torturous, and at times appeared as though no one was in charge. Eventually Gene Chizik was given the job, with his stellar terms as Auburn and Texas defensive coordinator clearly taking precedent over his 5-19 tenure at Iowa State. Chizik understood the situation well, hired a hot name in Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator, and laid low for most of the off season. After an up and down 2009, Auburn went 7-5 and found its way to the Outback Bowl.
Despite winning just one SEC championship this decade, Auburn was never far from the forefront. JetGate was national news beyond just the sports arena. The 2004 team's snub is still a huge talking point in the battle over the BCS. I would argue that it was the catalyst for SEC fans beginning to incessantly talk up the league as the best in the country, a movement that worked in swinging national perception in the SEC's favor and was pivotal in getting SEC teams into the 2006 and 2007 national title games. The Tigers were the only team to beat Florida in its 2006 national championship season. The fall of Tuberville and the Franklin soap opera were a compelling story as the drama played out from week to week.
I couldn't blame Auburn fans if they are yearning for some stability. It's been a wild ride.