You can win with an ordinary quarterback. You can win with a weak passing game if you can run. You can win with a weak running team if you can throw. You can cover up inadequacies on defense. You can't cover up problems within the fabric of a team.
The best teams not only have talent, they have players who care for each other and put the good of the whole ahead of their individual aspirations. Back in 1997, it was obvious before a game was ever played that Auburn was a team with chemistry. Quarterback Dameyune Craig and linebacker Takeo Spikes were in charge and weren't going to have it any other way. The result was a West Division championship.
A year later, Craig and Spikes were gone. It was just as obvious that team had no chemistry. When things got tough, instead of pulling together, players blew apart. There was a contentious meeting in which defensive tackle Leo Carson openly criticized quarterback Ben Leard. The result, of course, was a 3-8 record, the departure of Terry Bowden and all the rest.
Ben Nowland was a true freshman center on that team. He sensed trouble in his first game on the Auburn sideline, a shockingly one-sided 19-0 loss to Virginia. "We were getting beat and people were just standing around and talking like nothing was wrong," Nowland says. "I didn't know what to think. I knew it wasn't supposed to be that way. It was disheartening, really. I'd come to an SEC school expecting big things and nobody seemed to care." Those days are gone. They are gone, those within the Auburn program say, because of the kind of people Tommy Tuberville and his staff have recruited.
Ben Nowland is shown before his head was shaved earlier this summer to make wigs for children in cancer treatments.
"If you don't have good people, I don't think you can build a quality program top to bottom," says Joe Whitt, who has seen 22 Auburn teams as an assistant coach. "It's about character and work ethic. Athletic ability only gives you a chance. If you have great ability, great character and great work ethic, then you are going to have a great athlete. If you have ability but don't have character, you have an athlete who is never going to reach his potential. If you surround yourself with a team like that, you are going to have a team that is potentially good but never gets you to the top. This team has a bunch of good kids. We have some kids that are very, very special kind of people--good morals, good work ethics, good spiritual leadership and good physical ability. That's the total package."
When Auburn coaches go recruiting, Tuberville says, they look for character as much as they look for speed, strength and athleticism. "It's a philosophy of building character, attitude and work ethic," Tuberville says. "If you don't have those three things, you can have a team or two, but you're not going to get to where you want to get to. You can be somewhat successful, but it is going to catch up with you."
Defensive tackle DeMarco McNeil says things have changed dramatically since he arrived in 1999. That's one reason he says he expects a big season. "If you know you can trust the next person and rely on him, you don't have to try to do things you aren't accustomed to doing," McNeil says. "My first year, there was a lot of individuals. Now we just seem like we have so much love for each other. That carries on to the field.
"We basically hang together," McNeil adds. "There'll be about 12-14 in a group. If one gets in trouble, 12-14 will get in trouble and 12-14 aren't going to get in trouble."
Dontarrious Thomas was the leading tackler on the 2001 Auburn team.
Junior linebacker Dontarrious Thomas has everything every coach is looking for. He has NFL ability. He's an outstanding student and citizen. Like his roommate McNeil, he has seen big changes. "The coaches have done a great job of bringing in guys that are willing to work hard and want to achieve things," Thomas says. "We know we are in this together. Everybody realizes that. We are a family. Our coaches have done a great job of planting that in our minds."
No one knows where this season will go. That will be decided on the field. But what is obvious is that this is an Auburn team that will go forward united in spirit and purpose.