It is a project that started relatively small and grew larger as time went by. I talked to athletes and coaches in every sport, from football to equestrian. It includes the stories of Auburn's greatest teams and profiles of almost 100 of Auburn's greatest athletes. With the help of photographer Todd Van Emst and graphic designer John McNutt of McNutt & Company, large photographs bring it all to life again. I talked with cheerleaders, band members and the proud people who entertained hundreds of thousands as Aubie. It was, at once, the most difficult and most satisfying undertaking of my life as a reporter, writer and editor.
There was laughter. Lloyd Nix, the quarterback of the 1957 national championship team, remembered the play late in the half that resulted in Houston's only touchdown in a 48-7 Auburn victory.
"We were down at the 3-yard line," Nix said. "Jerry Wilson and I weren't in the game. Coach Jordan looks at me and says ‘Lloyd, you and Wilson go back in and get it in the end zone.' I call a little rollout to the left with Phillips dragging across the goal line. As I throw it, it hits somebody's arm, gets intercepted and the guy runs it back 98 yards for a touchdown.
"Coach Jordan meets me on the field, grabs me by the facemask, and says ‘Damn it, Lloyd, I meant our end zone."
And there are emotions of a different kind. Steve Wilson, a linebacker on the 1972 team, remembered the spring practice that started it all.
"There was a room in the coliseum under the home team side," Wilson said. "They had wrestling mats on the floor and they wrapped mattresses around all the ducts. They turned the temperature up to about 105 degrees and put buckets around for everyone to use."
That was just the beginning of head coach Shug Jordan's plan to transform the Tigers from a passing team to one that would win with toughness and willpower unmatched. As spring practice neared, workouts moved beneath the north end zone at what was then Cliff Hare Stadium.
"We wore helmets and shoulder pads," Wilson said. "There was a blocker, a tackler and a ball carrier. You got that sand in your eyes and on your skin. It would get in your lungs and you couldn't breathe. The mental part was as tough as the physical, and the physical was something you don't want to think about. People were throwing their stuff in their cars and leaving. We lost three high school All-Americans. People were packing up and getting out of there.
"I think we were supposed to have 20 days of practice. If we had one Coach Jordan didn't like, he would say it didn't count."
I will take with me so many delightful memories--the intense pride of the 1957 national champions; the remarkable camaraderie that continues today among the players on the 1972 Amazin's; the quiet dignity of James Owens, the first African-American football player in Auburn history; the sadness of the story of Henry Harris, the basketball player who broke the athletic color barrier at Auburn and died in an apparent suicide years later; the strength that you still hear today in the voice of Pat Dye; Joe Ciampi's pride in not just championships won but of players who went on to successful lives; the courage of Pat Sullivan; the class of Hal Baird; the cherished Auburn memories of David Housel; the swimmers and their coaches who took such great pride in representing their school; the admiration of the 1960 SEC basketball champions for their coach, Joel Eaves; the fascinating story of wrestler-turned-astronaut James Voss.
That list could go on and on and on.
But through it all, there was a common thread. The men and women--some of them getting old now--who wore Auburn's colors did it with immense pride that never leaves them.
It's not just those who win championships. It's not just the stars. It's all of them. It's football players like Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan, baseball players like Tim Hudson and Gabe Gross and basketball players like Chuck Person and Charles Barkley. But just as important to the Auburn Experience are those who worked and waited and found something deep within themselves when it mattered most.
I know this book is something different than has ever been attempted on Auburn athletics. I hope it will be worthy of the people who gave their sweat and blood for their school and who took time to talk to me.
No matter how many books I sell, the process will have been worth it. I came away with a far better understanding of what it means to be an Auburn athlete, coach or administrator.
Those who choose to do me the honor of purchasing The Auburn Experience will be able, within a few days (the site isn't quite ready), to do it by credit card at www.theauburnexperience.com. It can also be ordered by sending a check or money order for $69, plus $4.50 or shipping and handling or sending credit card company, number and expiration date, to The Auburn Experience, P.O. Box 968, Auburn, AL 36830. The book, which will be available only by mail order, at J&M Bookstore and at Adams Drugs in Montgomery, will be delivered in late September or early October. Mail orders will be filled in the order in which they are received.