Friday, January 25, 2008

Postseason jigsaw

A quick warning: this post unapologetically swings for the fences. Take into account as necessary.

How does one encapsulate a postseason--one still not even 1/6th completed and with the Referendum on Program Health of signing day still to come--already as overflowing with developments as this one? As Will pointed out, to say that things have been and should continue to be "pretty interesting" around the Auburn football program is a monstrous understatement. The end of the regular season is supposed to indicate a few weeks of slow news; on the Auburn front, it's instead produced one front page, WAR DECLARED-style headline after another.

In short, this postseason has felt like I've gone out and bought a gentle 100-piece kiddie jigsaw puzzle depicting, oh, let's say butterflies. But when I brought it home and opened the box, I found a 1000-piece behemoth where I can't even tell what picture I'm trying to build or if they're even all supposed to be part of the same puzzle.

But I'm the sort of Auburn fan who can't help but try to put everything together, to hold each of these different pieces up to the light, turn them over in my hand, rearrange them, flip them, squish them together into some kind of clear picture of what this postseason has been--and will be--for Auburn football.

These pieces have come in all sorts of unusual shapes, the first one sort of curved like ...

A champagne bottle

I invited a handful of my Michigan-lovin' buddies over to watch the Iron Bowl, because like Six Flags, football's always "the more the merrier" even if all the "more" weren't going to necessarily find "merry" in the game itself. Though I did worry that having to watch an Auburn fan going WOOO! WOOO-HOOOO! WOOOOO, YEAH! WOOOO! for a half-hour in the event of a win in Auburn's end-all-be-all rivalry game might be less-than-pleasant after the Wolverines had fallen so toothlessly in their Iron Bowl equivalent.

My experience with Michigan fans, though, by-and-large, has been that they've been good sports and so of course this ended up being less than an issue. One buddy even arrived with a bottle of celebratory champagne in case of an Auburn victory.

"Wow, dude," I said. "You didn't have to do that."

"It's been sitting in my fridge for a year," he said.

"Oh," I said, and as I tossed it in the freezer I found out it still had the price tag on it. $12.95.

Still, when Lester bulldozed his way for the clinching first down and we had just watched Auburn win their sixth straight game over Alabama for the first time in a century of sweat, I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate than by popping the cork. I poured out a few glasses and we raised them.

"War Eagle," I said, and we drank.

As it turned out, $12.95 champagne that sits in a fridge for a year tastes the way you would expect $12.95 champagne that has sat in a fridge for year taste: i.e. like total ass. It was horrible, horrible stuff.

I would have drank it all night. Auburn had won the Iron Bowl. For another year, at least, Nick Saban was a failure. It had now been six years since Alabama had beaten my team. I grinned like a madman and high-fived everyone twice per hand at least and guzzled the $12.95 champagne down like Gatorade on a summer's day back home.

Because underneath everything else it tasted like victory. And now, weeks later, it's still there, lingering on the tongue. Victory, victory sweet as victory comes. It'll stay there until next November, no matter what happens, no matter how many pieces get added.

A wisp of smoke

I've read back over this post a dozen times. I wrote it as quickly as I've ever written anything on this blog. The response was substantially less enthusiastic than, uh, the usual response. I do sincerely wish I'd have made it more clear that I never expected Tubby to actually leave. I just thought it had become a possibility.

And now, seven weeks later, I stand by that. Mostly, I stand by that post. Are the Arkansas media insane? As reliable as an amnesiac weatherman? As believable as Barry Bonds? Yes, yes, yes.

But I maintain that without some kind of fire--at the bare minimum some tiny Jimmy Sexton-fueled spark, the fading ember of some underling in Tubby's camp having some sort of conversation with some underling in Arkansas's camp--there would be no smoke. The opinion here remains that there is a line dividing letting the media run with the possibility of a coach's interest in another job for the purposes of leverage (a la Tubby vis a vis Texas A&M) and actually showing interest in in another job, however slight the interest, whatever the purpose (leverage, rubbing it in a powerful trustee's nose, etc.). The opinion also remains that Tubby crossed that line.

Does it matter? I don't know. At the time, I'd have said it does. After the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and watching the Iron Bowl a few more times, it seems an awful lot harder to say the same. But nothing, not even the taste of champagne, can put Tubby back on the other side of the line.

A triple-XL sweatshirt

I hated this quote.

"After speaking with Coach Tuberville for the better part of 20 minutes," Borges said in a statement released by Auburn, "it became increasingly clear that Auburn needed a new offensive coordinator."

In other words: Tubby told me he'd rather I have the dignity of resigning than getting out-and-out dumped. Even if you bet your sweet ass I'm getting dumped.

I wonder went through Gorgeous Al's head during those 20 minutes. The memory of being stopped on the streets by Auburn fans who thought of him as a kind of archangel sent to Earth from Offense Heaven, i.e. the Pac-10, at the close of 2004? The 4th-and-10 to beat Georgia in 2005? Maybe Tubby telling him, point-blank, to bail on the complicated stuff and just try to beat both teams in the 2006 Auburn-LSU game into a bloody pulp?

Probably something like all of those things, I'd guess. What went through my head when I read the news was that play in the third quarter of the 'Bama game, the play where Cox ran play-action and Stewart had slithered out of the backfield over the middle, a beautiful play design that worked to perfection and had Stewart open for a surefire touchdown. Cox threw the ball a solid three yards short. And a few weeks later, Borges was unemployed.

It's not what I wanted. After seeing what Borges could accomplish in 2004 and 2005 with a quarterback who wasn't notably suffering from a degenerative muscular disease, after his influence had been as responsible for anyone's outside the head coach himself for the best three-year stretch of Auburn's history, I wanted one more season. I wanted one more opportunity for Borges to design plays with a quarterback who could complete them, a QB who would hit Stewart for that touchdown. I think Auburn has quarterbacks who can do those things.

But as big of a role as Borges played in the triumphs of '04-'05-'06, he did not play as big of a role as his head coach. It's Tubby's team, Tubby's program, and on his list of criteria for evaluation, it's fair to guess that "This year's results" are the first 127 items. "Results from last year" accounts for the next 36 items, and "Results from further back than that" are next. I doubt non-result-related criteria are even involved. And make no mistake, Borges' results from the last two years are not acceptable for team looking to win the SEC.

And so he gets 20 minutes, the courtesy of a resignation, and is gone. This is probably the way things should be. This is the way Auburn wins six straight games against Alabama. I am trying to accept it. I am doing my best to like it.

But I still see Cox missing Stewart, our string-armed warrior's pass falling short, Stewart without a defender within 15 yards of him and the football rolling to his feet, and it is hard.

A tub of Fleischmann's

Oh, the doubts of Tony Franklin and his Magical Offense from Beyond the Rainbow Stars are still there.

That Auburn's drives will end with depressing frequency at the opponent's 11, the 6, the 2, as it runs out of field to spread. That the ability to blast forward on Tubby's trademark QB sneak-on-4th-and-1-from-our-own-36 will atrophy and wither. That as with so many other hotshot offenses du jour, as more and more film accumulates Year 1 success will lead to Year 2 diminishing returns and Year 3 failure. Most potentially troubling, that the siren song of throwing effortlessly for five yards will overcome the conservative sentiment to pound away for four, turning Auburn into a more talented version of Mike Leach's Texas Tech or Hal Mumme's Kentucky. All fine and good as far as the offense goes, but that kind of smoke-and-mirrors chicanery always comes at the cost of defensive identity. Again, look at Leach, look at Mumme, look at any number WAC and-or Pac-10 defenses from the '80s and '90s. Defenses treated like 5-cent sideshows play like them; even Spurrier's Florida teams were never exactly the '86 Bears (or '88 Auburn Tigers, to use a less-trafficked but more audience-friendly version of the same analogy) and even with arguably the greatest offense the SEC has ever seen, Spurrier never finished the season without a loss. If Auburn travels down this road--call it the Finesse Expressway--it will not win championships.

But even with all of that black baggage tucked away securely inside my head, I wasn't lying when I said it took two plays for me to sign on the Spread Eagle's dotted line anyway. All of the above may come to pass, it's true. But until we see otherwise, those are just doubts, just the meaningless stammered But, but, but ... of a fan who like all fans finds change for change's sake worrisome and unsettling, and should probably have more faith that the guy who hired Bobby Petrino and Al Borges knows what he's doing. (We'll just skip over that whole Nallsminger business for the purposes of this section, thankyouverymuch.) More important than doubts about the future is the evidence of the present, and the evidence on offer during the Chick-Fil-A bowl (much as some might choose to ignore it) was that Auburn is staying Auburn. It'll just be an Auburn where the offense looks over to the sideline before every play like someone just yelled "Fight! Fight!" from that direction and then proceeds to put the ball in the hands of its best players to churn up-and-down the field.

That's the evidence we have. Evidence given us after less than a dozen practices. That's the Auburn Tony Franklin has given us all the bliss of expecting.

A scarf

Not to go all LiveJournal on you, but yes, there is a Soon-to-be-Mrs. JCCW, and the Soon-to-be-Mrs. JCCW has an exceptional knack for Christmas presents. This year I received a Burnt Orange and Navy Blue striped scarf.

This may not seem like such a mind-blowing present. Just a scarf. But of course when one grew up in Alabama and currently lives in Michigan, scarves are a daily necessity after about, say, mid-November. And when an Auburn fan lives in Michigan, wearing Auburn colors comes to feel like a necessity, too. Not because anyone in Michigan cares, of course, but because Burnt Orange and Navy Blue are always a welcome sight and nothing else here is going to provide them. Home is never more important than when home is a long way off, and if Home can be wrapped around one's face in the teeth of wind descended from some Great Lake or another, so much the better.

Which is why, watching the Chick-Fil-A Bowl at the New Year's Eve party "of Ultimate Swank" per the invitation, I wore my Burnt Orange and Navy Blue striped scarf incongruously over my nicest suit and tie. Not swank, no, but a better and better choice as I inevitably went from thinking "As long as the offense looks halfway competent, I'm not worried about the result" to "You know, it really would be nice if they pulled this out" to "If Auburn wins this, please, I swear, I'm going to send every member of this team a coupon for a whole bag of free no-pickle sandwiches COME ON AUBURN!"

And so when Burns picked his way into the end zone in overtime, I couldn't help but twirl it overhead like Auburn's answer to the Terrible Towel, couldn't help but hold it up soccer-style as I sloshed my way through whispered, a capella solo on the fight song.

A few minutes later, the sky began to teem with the fattest flakes of snow I felt like I'd ever seen, the start of what would be the heaviest New Year's snowfall on Ann Arbor record. Though not exactly wearing the appropriate attire for it, the Soon-to-be-Mrs. and I had to take a walk around our hosts' back yard. It never got cold, warmed as I was by the glow of Auburn victory, by just the right amount of liquor, by the wonder I'll probably have for snowfall at night no matter how long I live here, by a perfect Burnt Orange and Navy Blue gift wrapped snugly around my neck. It hit me, then, that 2008 was going to be a very, very good year.

The warmth of that conviction, like the taste of the Iron Bowl, has stayed with me. I wrap myself in it every time I leave my front door.

A boom mic

One of both the good things and difficulties of being an Auburn blogger is that we've developed enough quality in the Auburnosphere that occasionally, someone will say better what I would have said about a given subject before I even have the chance (or, in some cases, get my slow ass around to it). Jay and the boos, for instance. J. Comer at TWER on Nick [reverent pause] Saban. I don't know exactly why, but I feel the YouTube gold spun by the boys at the Auburner somehow expressed my thoughts concerning Mario Fannin's debut against USF more eloquently than I could in a dozen tries.

The Will Muschamp situation is another one of those times, since my response is basically identical to Will's. If Muschamp was that determined to find a reason to leave Auburn, he was never ours. If Jay Jacobs is as clumsy a bungler as this situation showed him to be, we should be very worried. No one here was in the right. There are no positives to be gleaned from this, no steps forward even unwillingly taken. It was 100 percent pure fiasco. There is nothing left to say, nothing to do but shrug our shoulders and move on.

A commemorative ring

I've written a short one-act play concerning this post at the Fanhouse.

What Not to Throw, by Jerry Hinnen

INT.: A room in a large house made entirely of glass. In the middle of the room a man, the ALABAMA FAN, is sitting in a chair wearing a crimson sweatshirt and a Crimson Tide cap. An orange-and-blue bird flies by outside the house carrying a banner in its beak that trails behind it. The banner reads "National Champions." ALABAMA FAN reaches down and picks up a large stone off the floor. He hurls the stone at the bird. The stone shatters the glass house, which falls to pieces around ALABAMA FAN.

ALABAMA FAN: Oh no! My beautiful glass house!

The End

Now, truth be told, neither my play nor the post that inspired it have much to do with the hiring of Paul Rhoads. But the ring described in the post, that does.

Why? Because even though it's Jason Campbell's ring and even though he played as large a role in its creation as anybody, the ring nonetheless doesn't exist without Auburn's defense that glorious year. Auburn doesn't come anywhere close to 13-0 without Carlos Rogers, and Stanley McClover, and Junior Rosegreen, and even poor maligned pre-linebacker Will Herring, the One-Man Cover*. And, of course, Gene Chizik.

Auburn fans don't seem to remember Chizik too fondly these days, what with all the ENJOY IOWA ST LOLZ comments that emerged in the wake of Muschamp's good-byes--and understandably so. The belief that there are greener pastures out there than a program coming off of an undefeated SEC and Sugar Bowl championship season isn't going to earn one many friends in the previous pasture.

But the fact remains that Chizik deserves his share for 13-0. The starting defensive line against Alabama that season was Doug Langenfeld, Tommy Jackson, Jay Ratliff, and Bret Eddins. Montavis Pitts started at one corner and finished the season as the team's sixth-leading tackler. Auburn's leader in tackles, in fact, was Travis Williams. Be honest: how many of those names jump off the page at you?

This is not to say that these weren't all outstanding players, or that the 2004 defense wasn't talented; Rogers was of course unbelievable and bringing both McGlover and Groves off the bench on passing downs was a hell of a luxury. But was it any more talented than this year's model? Than Gibbs's in 2005 or Muschamp's in 2006's? Than any other of a dozen years over the past 20 we could rattle off that the 2004 team outperformed by a mile? No. Definitely not.

Chizik's work is worth remembering now, as once again we welcome a defensive coordinator that few Auburn fans have any familiarity with, that was never the first name *cough* Tenuta *cough* on anyone's lips, that is being portrayed by the fans of his former employer as an albatross they're happy to hang around someone else's neck. (Not sure why anyone would be so happy to see a guy who just coordinated the fifth-ranked defense in the country take off, but whatever.)

It's a similar situation (not a complete replication, mind you, but close enough) to 2002, when Tubby went out and hired another guy out of deep left field, whose best line on the resum-ay was a handful of years coordinating a nondescript mid-major to good if hardly eye-popping results. Three years later, Campbell and the rest had their rings.

So when the same head coach that had the foresight to make that hire thinks so highly of Paul Rhoads that he's tried to hire him twice, I have a hard time seeing how that choice will fail. As this post has probably made clear by now, "In Tubby We Trust" isn't the JCCW's position on evertything. In this one, it most definitely is.

*i.e. for gambling purposes, viz. the spread, not meaning he didn't need safety help despite the fact he was a safety to begin with.


Those are the pieces. This is the puzzle. What can we make of it? If we pull it together, what does it tell us?

My thought is that, more than ever, we know Auburn football is Tommy Tuberville's program, through and through. For better. For worse. It's his. The increasingly unpopular administration, the trustees, the coaching staff, even the fans--we who by-and-large did not approve of the will-he-or-won't-he shenanigans and would have balked at being told both our coordinators would walk ... for the present, none of them have more than a cursory say in the future of Auburn football. It belongs to Tubby.

And yes, there is a For Worse. Auburn shouldn't have to deal with its coach responding to serious questions about his dedication to his team with shrugs and word games. Good for the program or not, a good man who engineered the offense for the best SEC team of the BCS era getting kicked to the curb and desperately hoping for work must be For Worse.

But that is outweighed by For Better. By the daring required to hire a Mumme-trained coordinator from Troy and allowing him to run his screwball offense after two weeks. By not groveling for a grown man acting like a seven-year-old brat to stay put. By the track record that screams Rhoads's quality. By the attitude that winning--whether in contract negotiations or on the football field--comes first and every single thing else (within the rules) comes second. In our game, in our conference, that's the only attitude that survives.

It's the attitude that leads to the glow of a win wrapped around one like a scarf, to victories that linger like the taste of cheap champagne.

I can't like every piece Tubby has cut for this puzzle. But I can't help but be happy at the whole.


Richard said...

A 2007 season bonus post!

Thank you!

Except for the part about still holding Tubby's feet to the fire about the Arkansas kerfuffle, you framed it perfectly.

I'm not as worried about the new Franklin offense totally dropping the running game though. While the O is Franklin's (for now), Tubby can't help but meddle with it. I'm pretty sure he'll tug Franklin into a more conservative version of the spread. Now, whether that is good or not is another question. CAB seems to have been tugged a bit to far and it seems to have killed his ability for run a dynamic offense. I think we'll still keep the powerful running back based offence we've always had, just with more 'spread'. More weapons would be nice.

I've got really good vibes about CPR (now I hope I didn't just jinx it). Tubby obviously has a knack for spotting DC talent and as you said, tried once before to get him. I'm pretty sure this Tubby's first pick right from the start, which is why nobody seemed to have a clue who it was going to be. I don't think anybody was getting interviewed, so nothing to leak.

The downers were pretty heavy..CAB and Will Muschamp were just not uplifting moments, to say the least. But I agree, the good outweighs the bad, and you'll have plenty of interesting stuff to blog about during the 2008 season.

Great blogging year, Jerry, with a ton of super write-ups. Take care and I hope you get a chance to catch a live game sometime in 2008. Thanks for a great time!


jeremy said...

check your gmail inbox for a special surprise!

Hobnail_Boot said...

re: the end of the 2005 UGA-Auburn game..

I'll go to my grave believing Brandon Cox/Al Borges sold their collective souls for that completion. 2 years later, the OC is gone, and the QB is 8 INT's gone.