By J.M. Comer
Part Two of a three-part series. This is a blog with entries from two Auburn fans. This particular series of stories should not to be considered a serious journalism endeavor. And this blog is our impressions on all-things Auburn. For example, we like to use flowery language and poke fun at Bama. Please see Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Oh yeah, for good measure: Exhibit C. This blog entry should be considered my impression, as a fan, of spending a few minutes with Coach Tommy Tuberville and Assistant Coach James Willis. I thought that I would share my thoughts on the scene of Friday night, where I saw glimpses of the past, present and hopefully the future of our Auburn football program. What I took away from the experience? I think our Auburn program is in good hands. I hope that Coaches Tuberville and Willis would not hold it against me that I did not mention that I am a co-author of this blog, on the off-chance that they would stumble across The War Eagle Reader some rainy February afternoon. Maybe I should have mentioned it. I also didn’t bring up Tony Franklin. I thought it would be best to let that one lie buried in a grave. For good or ill, here we go. Please see Part one of this series if you are just tuning in. War Damn Eagle!
Image CC by Flickr user Henley24.
Ike, Thomas and I lined up against the fence at Southern High School. Halftime was drawing close, and Ray Cotton’s team, the Meade High Mustangs, trailed 7-0. The Mustangs were driving on the Bulldogs of Southern High, looking to tie it up. The senior quarterback and Auburn verbal commitment stood tall under center. Calm. Cool. Collected.
The three of us were grinning from ear to ear, sneaking glances out of the corner of our eyes at the Auburn coaching staff down the field to our left. I kept dropping my head and shaking it, looking at the ground. I couldn’t believe it. Coach Tuberville was only a few yards away. I had yelled “War Eagle!” to the coach earlier and I was the happiest guy in Maryland at that moment. You folks in living in Alabama don’t understand. People in other far-flung states are hungry for the sights and sounds, anything to capture the orange-and-blue memories of Saturdays in the South. Here was the living embodiment of Auburn football. The steady hand guiding the rudder during the storm. Right there!
A sidenote: I’d only met Coach Tuberville once before. I waited tables at Cock of the Walk when his family came in one night in 2000. It is a catfish house in Opelika. If you haven’t visited, I’d suggest you give it a try. Good fried seafood. As part of the waiting staff, I wore a pirate-like red shirt with leather laces up the front and a flat-brimmed black hat with a long, red feather. The getup was supposed to reflect Mike Fink, a larger-than-life longboat captain on the Mississippi River in the 1800s. He fought Indians. He wrestled. He drank too much and waved a Bowie knife at unlucky opponents. Then there was me, the 165-pound skinny be-Finked graduate with an English degree passing out hushpuppies. You couldn’t even take me seriously. I flipped your cornbread in the air as part of the act. Will the cornbread land in the skillet? Will it hit the floor? The circumstances at the time weren’t exactly conducive to a serious person-to-person meeting of the minds. All I gathered from the exchange of catfish and cornbread for money was that Tubby’s kids were well behaved and didn’t fill up on too much soda before their meal.
Back to the game at hand: Ray Cotton’s coach decided to let his quarterback stretch his legs.
Cotton was running around the corners. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was pounding it up the middle with success. He didn’t have too much help from the rest of his team of Mustangs at this point in the game. Receivers were dropping the ball. Cotton wasn’t helping himself much either. Some throws were too long. He was throwing to imaginary 6’5″ receivers. Push it forward young man!
We kept glancing over at the studious coaches, trying not to be too obvious. And then Assistant Coach James Willis walked over to say hello.
Ike and Thomas knew who it was instantly. I have to admit, I didn’t have a clue that the man had 344 career tackles at Auburn. I grew up a Tennessee Volunteer fan until I attended Auburn University in 1997. I still am catching up on the Pat Dye years. My coach in the ’80s was Johnny Majors. Don’t hold it against me, dear reader. I hate Alabama twice as much as most folks.
“War Eagle, I’m James Willis,” he said, offering his hand in kinship. I shook it. It was tough as granite. I’d never shook a hand before that felt like steel.
He asked us what we thought of the young quarterback on the field. And then he listened. We chatted for a few minutes as we watched Cotton lead his team to score 6 by pounding it in from the 1-yard line. The Mustangs then missed the extra point. Coach Willis commented that they should have went for 2 points and Thomas and Ike agreed. I’d been away from the high school game for so long that I’d forgotten what a risky endeavour the kicking game was at this level. But I felt like a great football mind as Coach Willis walked away. Not some psuedo-stalker in an Auburn hoodie and jeans.
A state trooper on the sideline came up to us and said that we could come on the track since we were with Auburn University. “Um, no, sir. We’re just here to watch the game,” we mumbled. (This was a reoccurring thing. Everyone thought we were scouts for Auburn. I guarantee, in no way did we look the part. But people on both sides of the field noticed the small Auburn contingent. That’s for sure.)
Enter the Tiger: Tuberville
Tommy Tuberville walked over to us just before halftime. He had a few short minutes before he had to leave. That he took the time to say “hello,” well, it was beyond great. Afterward, we all sat in the stands and wondered if Nick “I don’t have time for this shit” Saban would have done the same.
My first impression of Tommy Tuberville? Focused. Friendly. Knowledgeable. His eyes reminded me of some of a farmer’s eyes, tobacco farmers that lived near my grandfather in the Cumberland Gap. They all had a slight squint from spending hours and hours in the sun. Or maybe Tuberville was more like the men I’d see at Hardee’s when I was a kid in Tennessee on my way to visit my grandparents or to church on a Sunday morning. They’d be dressed up and talking about what happened on the football field Saturday as they drank their coffee and flipped through the paper. Good-natured men, lean from working hard all week, enjoying their time together. (They were Volunteer men with their Bill Dance Orange T hats with the back netting. And God, they hated Alabama.) I’d always watch and listen to them all as my family ate our gravy and biscuits.
I’m saying this because I felt like those men when we were shooting the bull with Coach Tuberville. The talk was light and easy.
(I’m gushing. Gentle reader, please forgive me. This doesn’t happen often, that you meet your team’s head coach. If you want an unbiased analysis of Tuberville, you will not find it here.)
But a lot of the short conversation is still a blur. I was making sure that I didn’t say anything stupid. And I made sure not to talk about the 800-pound gorilla beating its chest, swinging from the scoreboard: Tony Franklin.
Sometimes all my efforts to not stumble over my words didn’t work. For example, I brought up the A-11 formation that The New York Times wrote about last week. I tried to describe it to Coach Tuberville, failing miserably.
“It has a center and two guards. And all the other guys on the offensive … are … um … eligible receivers … there’s a loophole that the California high school coaches are exploiting … yeah … two quarterbacks. I forgot about the two quarterbacks on the field.”
He graciously helped me save face by suggesting it must be like Texas’ “Q package,” which he then described to us, mimicking the moves of the quarterbacks and describing their options.
Also, Coach Tuberville quickly, but gently, corrected Ike for thinking that Southern High was running the Veer formation on offense. He said that Southern was actually running the Delaware Wing-T.
Also, Thomas criticized the throwing motion of Alabama ‘s recruit, A.J. McCarron. He commented that McCarron held his non-throwing arm in an awkward position, looking like a chicken wing or a baby T-Rex arm. “Does he hold that arm like that to block defenders?” Thomas wondered. Coach Tuberville had nothing to add to Big Sexy’s musings. Later, Thomas exclaimed, “Man, that was going nowhere.”
Ike made fun of me for wasting time talking about the weather with Tuberville. (“This is the first cold night here in Maryland this fall. It was hot last week, which is weird for October.”) The weather is my go-to subject whenever there is a brief lull in a conversation. What a waste of breath.
The Iron Bowl was discussed briefly. Tuberville squinted, then smiled. He flashed six fingers for the camera. He knows what makes our hearts soar.
We thanked Coach profusely for spending time with us and then it was time for the coaching staff to depart. I kept thinking about how, if I were in Coach Tuberville’s shoes and was enduring a similar football season, I would have been uptight, looking over my shoulder for real and imagined enemies like Dick Nixon. That he was loose, calm, friendly with us was amazing to me. The man has a plan. If you were a recruit with doubts, wouldn’t you be reassured by the man’s presence, standing tall and steady, watching your team?
Row of Cotton
The second half was about to start. At that point in the game, you could see Cotton’s potential. He could throw. He wasn’t afraid to pound it through the scuffle of linemen. But the Mighty Meade Mustang’s offense was stalling in the red zone. At one point, there was a miscommunication between Cotton and his center. With the ball near the Southern Bulldog 5-yard line, the ball was hiked past the young QB all the way back near the 20-yard line. Yikes! The Mustangs failed to score and make it a 14-13 contest before the half. But Ray Cotton’s Meade High Mustang team would gather their thoughts at halftime. (It appeared that there was no visitors’ locker room at Southern’s home field. The visiting team conferred in the endzone at halftime and discussed their game plan. Keep selling those foodstuffs to fund your facilities, Southern High!)
But Ray Cotton and his Mustang teammates would launch a comeback from the 14-6 deficit in the second half. It would prove to be an inspiring spectacle.
Part three tomorrow. 100% Cotton!