It was a year many Tide fans expected to endure as a struggle, although few would have predicted a 4-6 record. But even fewer Auburn Tiger fans would have bet on a 6-4 season and elimination from the SEC Western Division race before the Georgia game.
And now, as Alabama settles in with first-year coach Mike Shula, Auburn fans are asking themselves whether it is time to replace a coach that, just three months ago, was being called by many the man who would take Auburn to the next level.
Tommy Tuberville has always been seen by Alabama fans as a salesman of sorts. Stories have circulated that Tuberville has applied for several jobs after coming to Auburn, including several in the Southeastern Conference. Usually reliable sources even have Tuberville inquiring about the Alabama job when it came open in 2001.
Auburn fans, until now, would have none of that talk. Tuberville, the "Riverboat Gambler," was largely adored as a top-flight recruiter, coach and lover of all things Auburn.
Regardless of whether any of those things are true, this much is certain: Tommy Tuberville missed a golden opportunity to overtake Alabama, and it's an opportunity the Tigers may not get for the next 20 years or more.
Auburn fans, whether they admit it or not, have always gauged their own success by how successful the Tigers are relative to Alabama. The first item on any Tiger fan's agenda is overtaking Alabama as the state's premier program. Southeastern Conference and national championship aspirations come after that.
Three times since 1997, Auburn has had the opportunity to, if not kill off the Alabama program, at least wound it in such a way that quick recovery would be unlikely. The Mike DuBose error came first, highlighted by insipid play calling in the 1997 contest that allowed Auburn to escape its own field with a late win.
But the stars were not in alignment for Auburn. The 1997 and 1998 seasons were Terry Bowden's curtain call, when it became evident that either Bowden couldn't hack it as a coach, or he wouldn't play the recruiting games of his predecessor, Pat Dye. Auburn fans found themselves in a quandry -- either admit Bowden was a fraud, or explain away how he won with Dye's talent yet failed with his own, which he boasted of being cleanly recruited to the plains. Either way, Bowden was let go.
To add insult to injury, Mike DuBose won an SEC title in 1999. Alabama, thought dead in 1997, looked on top of the world.
The 2000-2001 seasons formed chance number two for Auburn, and again it was squandered. Alabama arrived on the plains at the end of the 2001 season with a 4-5 record and a team struggling under the weight of its second NCAA investigation in six years. All Alabama did that day was hang a 31-7 whipping on Auburn and gain momentum heading into the following season.
Chance number three is now, and Auburn is doing little to capitalize on it. In a year that the Tigers were supposed to compete for a national championship, they are instead stumbling towards the finish line--and quite frankly, would be a likely underdog if the Alabama-Auburn game were played this week and in Tuscaloosa.
While not a disaster, the 2003 Auburn season has been a study in humility, which is not one of the Riverboat Gambler's long suits. Tuberville has, to a great extent, dug his own grave with the Auburn faithful by allowing hype -- whether it surrounds his overrated recruiting classes or the team's chances in general -- to grow to out-of-control levels. He has also forsaken rich recruiting ground in Alabama for more Auburn-friendly territories in Georgia and Florida, a poor decision in any year but a maddeningly silly one given the cloud that recently hung over Tuscaloosa.
And now, Alabama may very well be on the upswing. Mike Shula is far from being a proven commodity in Tuscaloosa, but he is making inroads in recruiting and appears to be learning on the job. If Shula turns out to be the real deal, and if Auburn continues on the same path it has been on since the mid-1990s, the Tigers will slip even further into Alabama's rear view mirrors.
BamaMag.com is pleased to announce that Jess Nicholas, a veteran Journalist and long-time Internet commentator on college sports, will be writing for the website. Jess is hardly a stranger to the ‘BAMA Magazine family--or to the Alabama Internet community. For the past three years he has been a major contributor to the annual ‘BAMA Football Yearbook, and he has also written for the magazine.
His full-time job as managing editor for The Daily Sentinel in Scottsboro keeps him busy enough, but Jess always finds time to write about Alabama football, a subject close to his heart. An avid sports fan in general, Jess graduated from Alabama and has followed Crimson Tide athletics essentially all of his life.
Auburn's greatest successes have come during down periods at Alabama. The Tigers' only national championship came in 1957, a tumultuous time in Tuscaloosa that saw the J.B. Whitworth era end and a young UA alumnus named Paul William Bryant take over the reins as coach. Pat Dye's string of SEC successes came in the mid- and late 1980s -- a time just after Bryant's death, Ray Perkins' jilting of Alabama for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the rise to power of the impotent Bill Curry regime.
There's a lesson to be learned there. Auburn can't seem to succeed when things are going well at Alabama. But Alabama can succeed regardless of what's going on with the Tigers. That, folks, is the difference between a premier program and a lesser rival.
As Auburn's powerbrokers ponder what to do with Tommy Tuberville, its fans can only dream of what could have been.