Looking At The Road to Championships

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn football team.

Reality is not always easy to accept.

Fans of every college football program in America want the same thing. They want to win championships. When they don't win championships, they want to contend for championships. If it's not happening, most believe all they need is a new coach to make it happen.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem is that it is easier for some than it is for others. Some schools have so many advantages that they have to mess it up not to be contenders. Some have no real chance at all. Others have to work harder and longer.

As much as some Auburn fans and even Auburn officials would like to believe otherwise, Auburn is one that must work longer and harder.

In all the years of Southeastern Conference football, Auburn has won five league championships. Four of those came under Pat Dye in the 1980s. Shug Jordan came ever so close almost a dozen times, but he only won it once.

Does that mean Auburn can't be a contender most years and win the championship its share of times? No. It just means it's harder to get there and harder to stay there. And it means when things go bad, it can take longer to get back.

Auburn has many advantages. It has a large fan base that, though prone to bickering and complaining, is very loyal. It has facilities second to none. Geographically, it is in easy driving distance of some of the top prospects in the country. What it doesn't have is a recruiting base it can call its own. It is No. 2 in most parts of Alabama, No. 2 or No.3 in Georgia and in the top five in Florida. Outside of some areas of Alabama, it is No. 1 nowhere.

There are more schools in Auburn's category than in the category of, say, Michigan or USC or Notre Dame. LSU coach Nick Saban is a case in point. In four years at LSU, he's won two SEC championships and a national championship. After his first four years at Michigan State, he was 25-22-1, had been through two 6-6 seasons and had not won more than six games in a season. He never won a championship at Michigan State, but he won 10 games his last season and well might have won one if he'd stayed. It was, however, a lot harder to get it done at Michigan State than it was at LSU. Michigan State is a school with very similar advantages and disadvantages to Auburn.

It took Frank Beamer six years to get Virginia Tech to a bowl game. Fans were calling for his head. The administration stuck with him and the Hokies ended up playing for a national championship.

There are numerous other examples of patience paying off. It's interesting to note how often coaches are fired just before turning the corner. Danny Ford told me during his last season at Arkansas that, if he survived, he would have his best team in 1998. He didn't survive, and Houston Nutt had his best team in 1998. Mark Richt won an SEC championship with Jim Donnan's players in 2002. Terry Bowden went 11-0 with Pat Dye's players in 1993.

No one can question that Tommy Tuberville has done a great deal to rebuild the Auburn program. He inherited a huge mess in November of 1999 and had the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game two years later. He's had two nine-win seasons, which I don't believe anyone would have predicted in 1998.

At the same time, no one can question that the season just ended was a huge disappointment. For many fans who basked in predictions of championship glory in the summer, it still is hard to swallow. It became even uglier when President William Walker, athletic director David Housel and trustees Earlon McWhorter and Byron Franklin made their clandestine trip to talk to Bobby Petrino.

Auburn has a chance to be very good next season. The big games will be against LSU, Tennessee, Georgia and, of course, Alabama. LSU and Georgia, the toughest ones, are at Jordan-Hare Stadium. If the Tigers can win two of those and either the SEC Championship Game or a bowl game, they'll probably have Tuberville's first 10-win season.

The difficulties in this recruiting year--brought on by the ill-advised trip and SACS probation--won't have much if any impact on next season. Auburn isn't the most talented team in the country, but it is talented enough.

Tuberville's program is in place. His sixth Auburn team should be a good one. It's time.

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