Ah, how long ago that seems now.
After that day, Auburn made a spectacular comeback at Florida before losing in overtime, then won five of its last six. It had three wins over teams ranked in the Top 10, including a 17-7 hammering of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Just like that, Tuberville was a hero, a master coach. Truth is, Tuberville was the same coach in October he was in January.
It was only a few weeks ago that head basketball coach Cliff Ellis was under serious fire. Auburn had staggered late in the season and barely squeezed into the NCAA Tournament. Then came a run to the Sweet 16 and everything changed again. Such is life in the fast lane of college athletics. In reality, coaches often get too much credit or too much blame.
There is no better example than last football season. Georgia won its first SEC championship in 20 years. Mark Richt was hailed as a genius. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution speculated that a dynasty might be in the making. But what if South Carolina running back Andrew Pinnock had not dropped the ball with an open lane to the winning touchdown against the Bulldogs? What if Horace Willis had not stumbled on what even Georgia quarterback David Greene called a Hail Mary that ended up being the winning touchdown against Auburn? Georgia would have lost four games and wouldn't have even played for the championship. And Richt would be the same coach he is today.
Travaris Robinson (left) and Tommy Tuberville share a laugh during a golf outing at the bowl game in Orlando.
What if Damon Duval had made his chip shot against Florida? What if Karlos Dansby had gotten there a step sooner and rescued Willis against Georgia? Auburn would have played Florida for the SEC championship, probably would have won, and Tuberville might have even a fatter contract than the one he ultimately got. And Tuberville would still be the same coach he is today.
What if Auburn had made one more basket against eventual national champion Syracuse in the East Region semi-finals? The Tigers would have gone to the Elite Eight, maybe even to the Final Four. Or what if Marquis Daniels' gutsy three-point shot with six seconds left in regulation against St. Joseph's had bounced off the rim instead of hitting bottom? Auburn would have been one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament. And Cliff Ellis would still be the same coach he is today.
In the dog-eat-dog world of the SEC, the biggest games are often decided by the bounce of the ball. Tennessee won the national championship in 1998 because Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner inexplicably dropped the ball when Arkansas was running out the clock on an upset victory in Knoxville. The Vols, given a reprieve, scored the winning touchdown. Almost every significant Ohio State win last season came down to a play or two, and the Buckeyes won it all. Miami wouldn't have even been in the championship game had Florida State not missed a field goal on the last play of regulation.
Tuberville has done things the right way in his four seasons as Auburn's coach. He arrived in 1999 and discovered, to his surprise, that he'd left more impact players at Ole Miss than he found at Auburn. He inherited a dispirited and dysfunctional program. He has patiently rebuilt the talent base. He has signed good people as well as good players. He knew when his second Auburn team went to the SEC Championship Game in 2000 that the job was far from done.
The pieces are in place now. Expectations for next season are soaring. The Tigers are likely to be ranked in the Top 10, if not the Top 5, in virtually every preseason poll. They will surely be picked to win the SEC West and maybe the overall SEC championship. The problem is that Auburn isn't the only place the pieces are in place. Auburn has terrific talent. So do others. Auburn players are excited and motivated. So are others. Auburn might win an SEC championship. It might even win a national championship. If that happens--or if it doesn't--chances are that, somewhere along the way, it will come down to the bounce of the ball.