Most days, I couldn't be happier with that decision. Certain Saturdays during the fall, when the closest I get to my football team is pay-per-view Underwater-o-Vision as called by Andy Burcham and Cole Cubelic, I'm more ambivalent. And then there's the long winter, when I don't just wonder why the hell we moved to this godforsaken icebox of a state, I wonder why anyone would have ever voluntarily chosen to live in a place that gets this damn cold.
But this past weekend, even with the thermometer hunkered down in the 20s and the wind chill driving the "feels like" reading into the teens, it felt right. This weekend, as an Auburn fan, it felt right to be surrounded by ice, and snow, and the filthy gray slush that accumulates in the gutters. It felt right to put on as many layers of clothing as possible and tromp out into the cold and wind knowing it wasn't going to be pleasant, but that you'd get where you were going eventually.
Part of me wonders if it's just Auburn's time. After all, it's everyone's time eventually.
Before Pete Carroll, USC went six seasons without winning more than eight games in a year, went to only two low-level bowls, and lost them both. In the mid-90s, Ray Goff and Jim Donnan conspired to coach Georgia to four straight 5- or 6-win seasons. Between the Fred Akers, David McWilliams, and John Mackovic eras, Texas--Texas!--lost four or more games 12 times in 14 seasons between '84 and '97. I don't have to tell you what Alabama went through between Gene Stallings and Nick Saban. LSU, Oklahoma, the list goes on. And even Michigan--inviolable, invincible Michigan--spent the last two seasons watching first its best collection of offensive talent in a decade lose to Appalachian St. before its bajillion-year bowl-streak went down the tubes in a 3-9 debacle. Football death comes for us all, eventually.
But for the most part, even though Auburn has neither the recruiting base nor the grand tradition nor many other things that these programs have, our Tigers have been mostly immune to this kind of decay since the moment Pat Dye arrived on the Plains in 1981. Since then, Auburn has never had a three-year span in which they failed to win eight games in at least one season. The back-to-back five-win seasons to close out the Dye era were followed immediately by a perfect 11-0 campaign in 1993. The 3-8 and 5-6 seasons in '98 and '99 were bracketed by trips to Atlanta in '97 and 2000. For all the griping from certain corners of the Auburn fanbase about a general lack of championships (and sniping from Tide fans about the same, as if they wouldn't have traded any coach they had between Bryant and Saban, save Stallings, for Dye or Tubby in a heartbeat), we've had it very good for a very, very long time. For those of us born in the late '70s or early '80s who never knew the Barfield years or the nine-game streak, we've been so lucky as to never know Auburn as anything but a proven winner.
My expectation is that I'm going to remind myself of this many, many times over the next few seasons.
Saturday night, my Michigan friends were trying to console me. "I'm sure weirder hires have worked out," one of them said.
I've spent at least part of every hour since trying to think of one, racking my brain for a coaching hire that made you say Huh? What on earth are they thinking? the way the announcement of Gene Chizik did, and then turned out all right.
I've failed. The two candidates from last year were Bill Stewart and Mike Sherman. Fail. The last two I can think of in the SEC were Ed Orgeron and Ron Zook. Fail. Remember when Nebraska fired Frank Solich and replaced him with Bill Callahan and we all thought they were dumb? They were. Remember when you found out, earlier this decade, that Army had hired some guy who was going to bring in a crazy West Coast passing scheme, and you thought "That'll never work?" It didn't. The closest I can come to new head coaches who were greeted with something less than wild enthusiasm and then went on to success are guys like Jim Tressel, Rich Brooks, and Les Miles, but all three of them had definitively successful head coaching stints already on their resume. Our guy, as you are aware, does not.
Tons of programs have been led astray by false optimism. If you know of one who's endured a bout of false pessimism, I'd love to be reminded of it.
And so a hire that should have united Auburn fans in a way we haven't been since, oh, before the 2006 Arkansas loss only divides us again.
I don't support booing coaches or players; we're there for them, not the other way 'round. Gene Chizik deserved to be greeted with the second reaction, not the first. That he is Auburn's new coach won't change the fact that I'm going to live and die with the 2009 Tigers as much as I did with Tubby's teams, won't change my desire to return to Jordan-Hare in 2009, won't change how often I wear my Auburn t-shirts around Ann Arbor.
But I can't bring myself not to speak my mind, and I can't bring myself to believe that Gene Chizik will be a good head coach at Auburn. I'm trying. I would like to, since I think the many, many Auburn fans that are claiming we need to put aside our disappointment, get behind him, show him our support, etc., have their heart in the right place. Unity sounds a lot better than division right now.
But I haven't been able to believe. I can't. Not yet.
My favorite book as a kid--and one my favorite books ever, period, still--is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And so there's come a point around each of the last two Februaries, when we haven't seen the sun for months and the plowed slushpiles in the parking lots rise higher than my head and I can't even remember the last time I went outside without coat-scarf-gloves-hat, that the fantastical part of my brain worries that we've been plunged into the White Witch's endless winter, that it's just going to stay icy and miserable forever and never even be Christmas. That's the same part of my brain I tried to drown Saturday night, the part that was worrying that Auburn was about to re-enter the Barfield days and that this time, in this new SEC of Meyerses and Sabans and Richts, we'd never come out, trapped in our horrible Shreveport winters forever.
The good news is that there's a reason that part of the brain is only a small part, and that the rest knows better, knows that eventually the sun is going to come out again, that eventually we'll be able to go to the park again, spread a blanket out on the grass, and spend all afternoon only reading about make-believe witches and eternal snowfall. Eventually, I know, Auburn will hire another Pat Dye or Tommy Tuberville and we'll all ride back to New Orleans together.
No, I don't believe that's where Gene Chizik will take us. What I believe is that Auburn football is in for some cold and difficult seasons, and that there will be times this fall and maybe in subsequent falls when it will seem like Auburn football will never warm us again. I hope like hell I'm wrong about that. But right now, that's what I think.
But here's what I know: that if 2008--now, without question, the worst season of Auburn football of my lifetime--and the Chizik era represent an Auburn winter, spring's going to come some day. And in the meantime, winter isn't always the way it is in Michigan--when it snows back home, it's a reason for celebration, for snowballs hidden in the freezer and days away from school and homemade ice cream. If this is Auburn's winter, it won't be quite that fun, but we will have some laughs and some little victories along the way.
And so, finally, I would say to Auburn fans: Bundle up. Prepare for the worst. But know that we'll have our day in the sun again someday, and that--who knows?--it might come sooner than any of us dare to hope.
War Eagle: today, tomorrow, winter, spring, summer, forever. War Eagle.