A Man Who Loved The Tigers

Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn football and basketball in his Monday column.

The sad news came Saturday night that a friend was gone. Tommy Williams had finally lost his battle with cancer.

Tommy Williams

Whether you ever met Tommy or not, if you've been to Tiger Walk you've benefited from his devotion to Auburn athletics. He was officially designated the Tiger Walk coordinator sometime back. He was immensely proud of it.

Tommy led the way for the football team's walk to the stadium, at home and on the road. He was an Auburn man through and through. He loved the school, loved the athletic program, loved the football team. But most of all, he loved the athletes who play.

The last time I talked with Tommy was in a hotel lobby in Baton Rouge the morning after Auburn's football team lost to LSU. He related how he'd been hit in the back of the head with a small football, how he'd been threatened by a drunk fan.

He smiled the whole time. "I don't know how long I've got, but I'm going to enjoy myself," Tommy said. He didn't talk, as many did, about seeking vengeance on LSU fans when they come to Auburn next season. Instead, he talked about showing them how Auburn fans would act with class and pride in support of their football team.

In so many ways, people are really what college athletics is all about. It's about the players and the coaches. But it's about people like Tommy Williams, too. He'll be missed by all of us who knew him, but he left his legacy with his imprint on what has become perhaps Auburn's most cherished football tradition. He left his legacy, too, with those of us who knew him. He was a friend. And that's the best legacy of all.

A LOST SEASON

It would take a miracle now for Auburn's basketball team to turn this season into anything special. Just when it seemed things couldn't get much worse, things got a lot worse Sunday.

The Tigers' performance at Tennessee, not much of a team either, was worse than the one at LSU, worse than any in recent years. Head coach Cliff Ellis sat down veterans and played younger players. It didn't help. For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, this is a bad team. It is not an untalented team. It is not, in many ways, an inexperienced team. It's a team that can't seem to score and, as a result, can't win.

How did it happen? How did things fall so far just three years after the Tigers went 16-2 and won the SEC championship? Yes, Auburn plays a lot of young players. But Marquis Daniels, Adam Harrington, Lincoln Glass and Derrick Bird aren't young. Kyle Davis and Abdou Diame are sophomores. Sophomores play key roles for college basketball teams all over the country.

In 1999, Auburn had perhaps its best team ever. Since then, it has had two recruiting classes ranked in the nation's Top 10. And now this.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is trouble at point guard. Nobody expected Jamison Brewer to leave early. His departure, it seemed at the time, changed expectations from a possible championship season to just a good season. Nobody thought it would mean finishing last in the SEC.

The Tigers are in a collective funk as deep as any I have seen since the final season of luckless Tommy Joe Eagles, Ellis' late predecessor. Even that team could score.

Auburn is 9-9 overall and 1-6 in the SEC. If it doesn't beat Mississippi State at home on Wednesday, things will be totally out of hand. Ellis says he is committed now to his youth movement. That could well pay dividends a couple of years down the road. Auburn's freshman class is talented, talented enough to be the nucleus of some happy days in future season.

This season? It would take a miracle for this team to even have a winning overall record and go to the NIT. And miracles don't happen a lot in the SEC.

"This is called a downward spiral," Ellis said. "You have to guard against being your own worst enemy. We've got to pull together as a team. We'll get better as we go."

It couldn't get much worse than it was at Tennessee on Sunday. There are puzzling questions about this Auburn team. What happened to Adam Harrington's offensive game, once deemed good enough that he seemed headed for the NBA? What about Abdou Diame, the most high profile recruit on Auburn's team? Why has he not progressed? How could an entire team go so cold for so long from the field and at the free throw line?

Things seemed to be turning around when Auburn took No. 8 Virginia to the wire, then won its last four nonconference games. Even the first two SEC losses could be explained by the absence of center Kyle Davis. Things seemed to be back on course after a home victory over Alabama. That seems long ago and far away now. This is a team on a fast track to nowhere.


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