It is an intoxicating atmosphere. For all his young days, Rob Pate dreamed of being part of it. He wanted to play college football, and he was willing to work as hard as it took to do it. He realized that dream. He played and played well for Auburn, helping the Tigers to two trips to the Southeastern Conference Championship game.
Pate, who is studying to be an optometrist, is more than just an athlete. He's a husband and a father. He's an articulate and thoughtful observer of the world around him.
Rob Pate is shown in action at football practice.
College football gave Rob Pate a lot. It paid for his education. He experienced the thrill of big wins and championships. He made friends that will last for a lifetime.
But Pate saw the dark side, too. He went through the unhappy days of 1998 when Terry Bowden left at midseason, was replaced by Bill Oliver and finally by Tommy Tuberville. He struggled to survive on the meager funds provided by his scholarship. He struggled to find time to be a student and to cope with the immense physical and emotional demands of playing big-time college football.
He'd do it all again, Pate says. But he is not shy about saying changes are needed in the game he loves. When his career ended in the Florida Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2001, Pate had already made up his mind that he would put his feelings into words. He has written an insightful and fascinating book entitled Experiences of a Tiger.
He agreed to allow me to quote some excerpts from the book for which he hopes soon to find a publisher. I'll share them without comment.
On playing for Oliver, Auburn's secondary coach and defensive coordinator his first two seasons:
"The opportunity to play for Coach Bill Oliver was the highlight of my career at Auburn. In my mind, no one worked harder or knew more about how to play great defense than Coach Oliver. He was the best teacher of the game I ever played for. I learned more about football in the two years I played for Coach Oliver than I ever imagined possible."
On playing Alabama for the first time in 1997:
"I remember the opening kickoff, standing on the sidelines and looking across the field at Alabama. All my life, I knew I would play in this game. I just always thought it would be for them. Instead, I was in orange and blue and I was proud of it."
On team dissension after a 1-3 start in 1998:
"We had a players' only team meeting in order to refocus and come together as a football team. It was definitely needed, as each loss created enormous divisions between us all, most noticeable between the offense and the defense. Instead of the meeting uniting a team that was in disarray, it became a finger-pointing, name-calling fiasco that made me ashamed to be a part of my team that night.
"The majority of the blame was placed upon the shoulders of Ben Leard, our starting sophomore quarterback, who was doing his best given the fact that defensive linemen were in his face like gnats on three-step drops. combined with a running game that was last in the nation. Some guys on the team had a problem with the way Ben handled adversity on the field, and they explicitly verbalized their brutal opinions.
Pate (31) and Leard (14) enter the arena at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"Specifically, I recall many players upset about Ben smiling whenever bad things happened to him on the field. For example, if he threw an interception or fumbled away the ball, when the cameras turned to him trotting off the field he would have a sly grin on his face. Seemed perfectly harmless to me. I mean, everyone deals with frustration in different ways, and who am I to say how it should be dealt with? Well, obviously, my teammates saw it differently and berated Ben with their blunt, insulting comments.
"I was in complete shock at what I saw taking place. Our starting quarterback, our appointed leader, was on trial by those who had given up on him. Many became so outraged at the indecency of it all that they simply got up and left. It truly wasn't fair. The attacks on Ben didn't stop with the players. Every talk radio program seemed to be aimed at getting Ben to transfer. Things got so incredibly bad that his own mother couldn't even bear to come to our games because of the constant criticism from neighboring fans. Ben deserved better than that, yet he took all the fault-finding in perfect stride. The way he handled himself through the next three years was extraordinary, and he became a model leader to me. Webster's Dictionary describes the word "hero" as "one with great strength, one of nobility, one off good character." Congratulations, Ben, you are a hero!"
On the departure of Bowden as head coach six games into the season:
"Now I realize that I don't know everything involved with the resignation/firing/quitting, whatever you want to call it, of Coach Bowden. Many rumors surfaced, and legions of talk radio personalities and football "experts" conjured up their own versions of what all went down. But I do know two things about the entire ridiculous nightmare. One, Coach Bowden did not deserve the treatment he received from Auburn. He came to Auburn, inherited an extremely difficult situation, was commanded to play by the rules (which he always did), and he was the most successful coach in Auburn's long history. Yet, one season removed from a Western Division title, Coach Bowden was ousted from a program he had crowned with success. In my eyes, that was absurd.
"Secondly, the manner in which we found out Coach Bowden was gone was even more ludicrous than the decision to fire him. It was Friday night, just as we were preparing to leave Auburn for Lanett to travel to our hotel. We always ate dinner at Sewell Hall, received our pregame speech from Coach Bowden in which he gave us the "six musts to win," and then we'd see a movie and go to bed. But on this Friday night, things were far from customary.
"Instead of meeting in the cafeteria to eat like we normally did, we were told to wait in the team meeting room across the street at the athletic complex. We sat in there for about 30 minutes before guys began to get restless, as we could sense things were out of the ordinary. Buddy Davidson, assistant athletic director, was running around the complex like a chicken with his head cut off, and he kept telling us we'd be eating shortly every 10 minutes. Finally, after about 45 minutes of waiting, no explanation and no coaches in sight, we decided to walk across the street and start eating.
"Eating had to wait as we discovered locked doors at the cafeteria entrance. Some people decided to wait outside, some returned to the dorm rooms, but most, including me, went to the game room to watch TV or play pool. It was in this room that we received the information, along with the entire nation, as ESPN reported that Coach Bowden was out as head coach of Auburn University. We found out that the man who offered us an education in exchange for football was gone through a report on television. Now that was ridiculous."
On hearing from Bowden about his departure:
"Later that evening, after we were finally permitted to eat, Coach Bowden did come by and tell us the report was indeed true. I felt sorry for the man, as he struggled to contain his emotions as he wished us luck in life. To me, the situation was comparable to a death in the family."
On Oliver taking over as interim head coach:
"The torch was reluctantly passed to my position coach, Coach Oliver, to inherit this plagued team, search for positives in a negative situation and to somehow ignite a flame under a team whose fire had long ago fizzled out. Under the appalling circumstances, he did an outstanding job.
"Things instantly changed with Coach Oliver calling all shots. Practices were noticeably shorter, as he was a big believer in getting the work done and getting off the field. He continued to be defensive coordinator, but he also managed to spend a good portion of practice with the offense. In my opinion, Coach Oliver enjoyed putting together an offensive game plan much more than a defensive plan. He would always tell us how he was a much better offensive coordinator than defensive coordinator. I would have to see that to believe it, because the man was a defensive genius in my eyes. He told me once that, on Fridays, after all the preparations for the week were over, he would peek at the other team's defense to see who and how he would attack from an offensive standpoint."
On Oliver not getting the job permanently:
"When Coach Oliver was interim head coach, I believe we all thought he would eventually be named as permanent head coach at the season's end. After all, he was obviously capable, he was more than qualified, he was well-respected, he was a proven winner and he did a sensational job with a not so sensational football team. Privately, I knew he was going to be the next head coach of the Auburn Tigers. How? Because of a conversation Coach Oliver had with my brother, Phillip, before our game with Arkansas that year.
"Phillip was offered a scholarship in the summer before his senior year of high school by Coach Bowden at his football camp. In fact, he was the first verbal commitment of the 1999 recruiting class. With Coach Bowden's departure, there was a cloud of uncertainty hovering over Phillip's head as he pondered whether or not a new coach would honor the scholarship Coach Bowden had offered. Coach Oliver ended that worry as he talked with Phillip prior to the Arkansas game in his office. He told Phillip, ‘I've got the job,' that basically he just had to jump through a few hurdles for athletic director David Housel and the job was his. He assured Phillip that the scholarship was still intact.
"So what happened? Did Coach Oliver make an assumption that never should have been made? Did Phillip have an erroneous dream--which wouldn't surprise me--and never actually meet with Coach Oliver that afternoon? Did Coach Oliver just fib to Phillip to comfort him in an awkward situation? No! The powers that be told Coach Oliver the job was his just four weeks prior to the Iron Bowl and the end of the season. Then the powers that be took from Coach Oliver the position they had just presented to him. For what reasons, I have no idea. But I do know that when Coach Oliver walked out the door as coach of the Auburn Tigers, a bit of me left with him."
On the arrival of Tommy Tuberville and his staff:
"It didn't take very long to realize things were going to be quite different with a new coaching staff in command. As a matter of fact, it only took one workout before we all knew things had most definitely changed. Coach Kevin Yoxall, our new strength and conditioning coach, put us through our first of many running sessions, a.k.a. Yoxercise sessions, just days after returning to campus. The entire team met in the indoor facility to run three "gassers" as our new coaches watched quietly. A gasser is a 208-yard sprint in which you run four consecutive trips from one sideline to the other within a specific time limit, usually 32-35 seconds for defensive backs. I, along with close to 100 of my teammates, toed the line, eager to prove ourselves to a new group of coaches for the very first time. But unfortunately, the only thing we proved that night was that we had an incredibly long way to go with an uphill hike to get there.
"When the whistle blew for the first gasser, I recall guys running like I'd never seen them run before, trying to make a valuable first impression. Just about everyone made the required time, and most everyone looked like they had no problems with the first gasser. Then, the whistle blew again, and we were off for gasser No. 2, at a considerably slower pace. I remember sprinting through the line with two gassers now under my belt, feeling pretty good about things. Just one more left and we were finished. But the third and final gasser got to me pretty good. When I made the turn for my last 50 yards, I had no control of my legs as I wobbled home just under the required time. Luckily, I made all three gassers in time, but most of my teammates were not so fortunate. As I turned around to see how everyone was holding up, it became quite apparent that my condition was much better than those around me. One guy was vomiting blood. Another linebacker, Mark Brown, had passed out just as he crossed the line, falling head first at sprinter's speed into the padded wall right next to me. Some walk-ons decided then and there that football was not for them anymore and walked out the door never to return.
"Yes, with our first running session and encounter with the new coaching staff complete, our eyes were now open to the changes that were in store for the Auburn Tigers."
On what Yoxall meant to Auburn team:
"In my opinion, the finest action Coach Tuberville took upon his arrival to the Plains was his hiring of Coach Yoxall to run the strength and conditioning portion of his program. Though Yox was brutally cursed on a daily basis with the confines and privacy of the players locker room for the ungodly workouts he put us through, we grew to love him like a father. He took a team that had become amazingly soft and out of shape and transformed us into leaner, stronger, faster versions of ourselves with a hard-core regimen which he must have conferred with the devil himself to create. After completing a workout for Yox, you felt as if you could survive the most daunting physical challenges this world could ever possibly engulf you in."
On his feelings about playing for Tommy Tuberville:
"It was hard not to revere a coach who took so many chances. Fake punts inside our own 20-yard-line, fake field goals in which the holder tosses the ball blindly to the kicker, onside kicks in the first quarter, kept things interesting and fun to say the least.
"But I believe more than anything, I appreciated him for the direction of our program under his command. I applaud his willingness to allow our pray meetings and admired his perfect attendance. I valued the work ethic he instilled in our team, and the toughness that work ethic created. We truly were a metamorphosed team, physically, mentally and spiritually."
On former defensive coordinator John Lovett's confrontation with former defensive tackle Leo Carson:
"No group of guys were more upset at losing their position coach than the defensive linemen were in losing Coach Pete Jenkins. They adored Coach Jenkins with every ounce of their being, and rightfully so. He treated them like kings, and his deep compassion for each man he coached was evident in the tears he would openly shed for them. This being the case, it was this group that took the longest to buy into the new system. To Leonardo Carson and Jimmy Brumbaugh, it didn't matter if a reincarnated Vince Lombardi was Coach Tubs' hire as D-line coach. No one would ever replace Coach Jenkins. So when Coach Done "SPRINT DOWN THE FIELD" Dunn came in and began teaching his new techniques, these guys went berserk.
"I remember one incident in which Coach Lovett and Leo stood toe to toe ready to fight to the death at the end of one practice. During one of Coach Lovett's end of practice speeches, he made a comment that Leo took offense to. Instead of waiting until the meeting was over to confront Coach Lovett, Leo chose to deal with the matter then and there for all to see. "When you speak to me, you better speak to me like a man!" Leo exclaimed right in the middle of the entire defense and all its coaches. "I'll speak to you how ever I damned well please!" Coach Lovett asserted as Leo was up and in his face. The two exchanged unpleasantries face to face until Coach Terry Price broke the two apart. Afterward, I realized with was a good thing Leo had blurted out when he had, because if that meeting had taken place without Coach Price there to separate them, we would have probably lost our defensive coordinator (to death) and our All-American lineman (to prison). And although Leo should never have disrespected a coach like he did, he just expressed the immense frustration and resentment we all felt but were too afraid to admit."
On his Auburn career:
"My days as an Auburn Tiger truly were very special and fulfilling. I made friends that I'll never forget and will always keep in contact with. I played for a set of coaches I admired for their knowledge and dedication, and then a new set I admired for their tenacity and work ethic. I played for a multitude of fans that supported us just as much when we were losing as winning, I played in a state where college football reigns supreme, where people pack the stadium regardless of the opponent, and where that one game at the end of the season makes or breaks your entire year. Auburn was an amazing place to experience college football. And though I did not always agree with or appreciate the cards Auburn dealt its players on occasion, I'll forever be grateful to a university that afforded me the opportunity to don orange and blue and play out my dreams that began at the age of five in the streets of Center Point. How long ago that seems! How special my time was! My experiences as an Auburn Tiger have forever changed my life."
These are just some of the morsels in Pate's book. He had the courage to tell the story, good and bad. It's a story worth reading.