After winning against Alabama in 1982 and 1983, we were favored to win again in 1984 against an opponent that had struggled all year and came into the game at Birmingham with a losing record. My approach to the Alabama game was to not make it any bigger than it was. You know with all of the hype, and all of the carnival atmosphere that goes around that football game, it sometimes tends to get bigger than what it really is, and it really just boils down to a football game when it's all said and done.
Both sides are going to be motivated and there's a fine line in there between getting ready and being ready, and then thinking you're ready and not being ready. In 1981, '82 and '83 that was the approach that we took. Of course, Alabama had good football teams in those three years and we lost one and won two of them.
Coming up to the '84 football game, we struggled coming out of the box that season. It was just a team that I could never get them to where I wanted them to be. We had Pat Washington at quarterback, a great kid, and, of course, we had Bo (Jackson) and he got hurt in the Texas game.
We had two great tailbacks that season with Bo and Brent Fullwood and we should have switched from the wishbone to the "I" formation to take advantage of their skills, but we didn't that year. Pat Washington would have been an ideal quarterback in the "I" formation. Also, I already knew by then that we had to get to where we could throw the ball better to consistently compete for the SEC Championship.
Today you could still win in the SEC with the wishbone, but if you want to do that and win a championship you have got to be a lot better than the people you are playing against. And in this conference, the people you are playing against like Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and LSU, are going to have good players every year. That's just a fact of life. They get good players when things are going bad. All of those schools have had their problems, but really that stems from coaching. I think that coaching is that important to success or lack of success in college football and when I say that, I'm talking about myself, too.
In 1984 I should have done something to head off being picked number one in the nation starting out the season, and that is part of the job of a head coach. I wanted to play Miami to open the season in the Kickoff Classic, but we were a long ways away from being as good as we were in 1983. We struggled out of the box against Miami up in New Jersey, losing 20-18 in a game we had plenty of chances to win.
After that we had a two-week layoff and played out at Texas and lost that game, too, as Bo got hurt. It was just a bad start to the season. We got better and won some games in the middle of the season, including that wild one at FSU, but we still weren't playing great football.
Coming up to the Alabama game, I took the same approach as I'd been taking the previous three years, but I didn't have the same kind of football team. I should have known that, but hindsight is always 20-20. I knew that our football team hadn't played as well as it could play, but Alabama already had lost six games and won just four and they couldn't have a winning season.
I just did not get our football team ready to be the best they could be that day. And Alabama was as good as they could be when they played us. It was frustrating, the whole game was frustrating.
Coming down to the end, when the game got close and we got on the goal line, I made a coaching the decision that didn't work out. With more of that hindsight stuff, I think we could have kicked the short field goal late in the game when we were trailing 17-15 and we would have probably won the game.
When I made the decision to go for the touchdown when it was fourth down on the one-foot line, I didn't know how Alabama was going to stop us, and they really didn't. We stopped ourselves.
The reason that I went for the touchdown, as opposed to kicking the field goal, is that Alabama didn't make a first down in the fourth quarter. We completely shut them down. But, if we make the three points, that puts us up by a point, but it gives Alabama four downs all over the field for a late drive to win the game. They still would have had plenty of time to get the ball in field position and kick a field goal to regain the lead. If we scored a touchdown, I was thinking they would have to score a touchdown and they couldn't do that.
So, my decision was to go for a touchdown and if we did get stopped, they got the ball on the one foot line and we're going to get it back with a chance to win at the end, which is exactly what happened. I didn't anticipate missing a 40-yard field goal, but I didn't anticipate having to go for it either. I thought we would score a touchdown when it was fourth down a foot to go.
The play that we called is the same one that we scored on in the first half. And we would have walked in with it if we would have gotten it executed. The mistake was running the combo play on the goal line. You call the sweep to go one way, and if the quarterback doesn't like the way the defense is lined up, he checks away from the strength of the defense and runs the play the other direction, and because you've got them outnumbered you can make it work.
Well, in the first half when we ran the play, we were on Auburn's end of the field, and there was no noise. We changed the play at the line of scrimmage and Fullwood scored on the sweep.
The play we called at the end of the game was Combo 57 and Bo was going to take the pitch at right end. When our guys got to the line of scrimmage the defense was loaded to the right where Bo was going to run it so Pat called an audible to change the play. There was so much noise Bo never heard Pat change the play to 56, which was Fullwood running the sweep like we did in the first quarter so we ended up with two backs running together. We don't score and Alabama gets the ball back.
Just like I expected, Alabama has to punt the ball back to us with time for us to score again, but we missed what would have been a game-winning field goal. We should never have been in the situation where we had to kick a field goal on the last play of the ball game to win. We had a better football team than Alabama. They were just better than us that day. Because of mistakes in the judgment on our sideline, it wasn't necessarily the players' fault we lost that game because it was my responsibility to get them ready to play.
I didn't sleep a wink all Saturday night because I knew we had a better football team, and I was just sick that I didn't do a better job getting them ready to play in that particular game. That was probably my biggest disappointment. The next one would have to be the LSU game in Baton Rouge in 1988.
Baton Rouge is always a tough place to play a football game as a visitor and they had a good team, but we had a chance to play Notre Dame for the national championship that season. Unfortunately, we lost 7-6 that night in a game in which we didn't do what we needed to do offensively.
We had a plan going in to Baton Rouge to throw the football against them because they were vulnerable to the pass. We threw the ball for more than 200 yards that game, and moved the ball up and down the field, but when we got in the red zone we had to settle for field goals and we couldn't score. LSU had one drive and that was at the end of the ball game. On that '88 team we did not substitute a lot on defense and late in the game our guys up front like Tracy Rocker, Ron Stallworth, Benji Roland and David Rocker weren't as fresh as they were earlier.
When you lose games like that you go back home and you don't make excuses, but make sure you know why you lost. In my opinion, and my opinion was probably as good as anybody's on the subject, our defense was as good as any team's in the country that year. I knew LSU, or anybody we played, would have a hard time scoring against us. If we had taken a little more of a physical approach to the game and not depended so much on throwing the ball I think we would have had more success that night.
That loss really hurt because our kids were ready to play and because of what a victory would have meant. We beat Florida, Georgia and Alabama to finish the regular season and I would have loved to have seen us play Notre Dame for the championship because that would have been a dang good game.
Even though they were a long time ago and they were just two games in my 12 years as head football coach at Auburn, I still think about the 1984 game in Birmingham and the 1988 game in Baton Rouge because those losses still hurt today.
We won a lot of big games, including some we maybe weren't supposed to win, but it takes 10 like that to make up for one you lose in which you should win. It's a sickening feeling you sometimes get out there when you can tell that your team is not ready to play. Sometimes, like our 1983 victory over Maryland in which we trailed 14-0, you can get the thing turned around during the course of a game, but at other times you can't and those ones linger for a long, long time.
(If you have a question or a subject you would like me to write about in future columns, you can email it to PatDye@autigers.com.)
Editor's Note: This is part of a series of columns that College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Dye is writing for AUTigers.com about the game he played and coached. An All-American at Georgia and one of the top head coaches in SEC history at Auburn who was also head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming, Dye participates in the Legends Poll, a Top 25 rating of the best teams in college football as determined by a panel of all-star former head coaches. Dye writes three columns a week--The Dye-Log, the Dye-Gest and Pat's Picks.