We could have gone to “the mountaintop”, the big stage, become media darlings. Instead, Auburn University, my alma mater, is again attempting to go “Back to the Future.”
Auburn’s first new head coach hire of the 21st century, is now mired in racial controversy. ESPN, CNN, and daily talk shows are having a ratings bonanza at Auburn’s expense. Damn, here we go again.
I, like most Auburn lovers, believed Auburn officials when they gave the impression they would do something bold in choosing the next head football coach at Auburn, maybe reach for the stars, command the stage, play in prime time, get the cutest girl on the block, get national billing on shows like 60 minutes, Jay Leno. Big names were thrown around, Spurrier, Petrino, Houston Nutt; great upcoming coaches were interviewed, Johnson at Georgia Tech, Patterson at TCU. We had a chance to be on the digital, high tech, newfangled, world stage and what did we do? We chose cable.
We forced out a winning coach supposedly for a new sleek 21st century model of head football coach with all the accompanying bells and whistles. A coach that recruits five star players who not only want to play for him but emulate the coach in their young lives.
Here’s what the back room boys at Auburn did with this wonderful opportunity? They hired a guy with a 5-19 record as a head coach? They hired a guy who had jilted the University once before because he wanted to be a head coach and thought the University of Texas could do that for him better than Auburn. They hired a guy that suddenly sprang from nowhere. They hired a guy the majority of Auburn people didn’t want. They hired a guy that would have been fired in 1-2 more years at Iowa State. They doubled his salary. Finally, they hired new Auburn head coach Gene Chizik because according to athletic director Jay Jacobs, “Chizik was a good fit.”
Look at what we could have had. The best new age, new media, bells and whistles, sleek 21st century model coach to come down the pipe this century is Turner Gill. Gill has turned the worst program in America into a league champion. On the field, he takes care of business. But more importantly, he has the “it” factor. The brother’s got “it”. The “it,” that could have made Auburn a lead dog in the SEC sled.
Surprisingly, he agreed to talk to Auburn.
Gill speaks from his heart. He’s a shining star. He’s about motivating young men. Coming from small town Texas by way of Nebraska, he knows small town, rural, down home people. In my mind, the perfect “fit for Auburn.” On top of it all, the dude just happened to be black. Hell, we could get the best young coach in America, make Auburn the number one news story right up until he played his first game next fall, and made Auburn the first top twenty college football program to hire a minority head football coach. We would be on the right side of history. Imagine a recruit deciding if he wanted to just go to college and play football or if he wanted to make history while also playing football for an African American pioneer and a forward thinking University. Every Auburn person I talked to white or black was fired-up about the guy. Gill’s skin color was just the cherry on top.
But Gill wasn’t a good fit for Auburn AD Jay Jacobs and the small band that guide his hand. The reasons for not hiring Gill were conjured up right out of the 1960’s. In other words, let’s find something he can’t do. The reasons I read were, “He did not have SEC coaching experience.” “Why didn’t his alma mater Nebraska hire him last year?”
The Auburn brass made a big show of interviewing Gill, “look at us, ain’t we done come a long way.” By most measurable criteria and intangible characteristics, Gill is the better of the two candidates. But to them Gill wasn’t “a good fit.” Favored Auburn son, Charles Barkley and others are crying racism. Gill is black and has a white wife. Chizik is white and safe. At the introductory press conference for the new coach, Auburn’s President Dr. Gogue, did not bother to show up. His message: “This is your show, Jay Jacobs. Your job depends on it.”
Can Chizik win? He should. He’s a good coach. Auburn has talent and can recruit talent. Although, I can imagine rival coaches telling young black men that the AD at Auburn says Gill did not fit at Auburn, then asking. Do you think you will fit there?
The back-room boys will make sure Chizik gets good coaches. If smart thinking makes a comeback, Rodney Garner will be hired from Georgia. Garner a former Auburn player is the best recruiter in the conference.
Given the same circumstances, Gill would win just as many games, but also put us on a national recruiting basis, which then puts us on a national championship track. He could walk into a recruit’s house as Nick Saban walks out. Auburn would rise to the top of the media parade. Imagine; Positive attention, for the athletic department, the alumni, recruits, fund raising, the University; 21st century thinking.
The Auburn faithful are deflated. Good friend Sherman Moon, an Auburn teammate from the 70’s says, “We were expecting, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Brad Pitt, and we got Orlando Bloom.”
Chris Wilson, lovingly referred to as “Fat Daddy” in my memoir Walk-On says, “When I found out he had a white wife, I said, ‘I understand.’ Unbelievable.”
Mary Pope, my down the street neighbor says to me, “you and Charles (Barkley) got to go up there (Auburn) and straighten them out.”
All three of these individuals are white.
Most Auburn people are upset. They should be. We are all stained by the alleged racism. Our university is stained. We are being dragged through the mud because a few good ole boys, a few gatekeepers, feel they know what’s best for us all. And what they think is best is to go backwards, to the good old days, a time gone by.
They are counting on the Auburn Nation being good Auburn people and falling in line and supporting the new coach and team. We will. That’s what Auburn people do. We support our team in good times and bad.
The latest incident reminds me of an instance from “Walk-On,” concerning the decision to recruit Auburn’s first black athlete in 1968. One member of the then Auburn board of trustees questioned whether, “the state of Alabama, is ready for a black athlete?”
Auburn needs dynamic leadership. Visionaries that see the future, see down the road, not continually looking back over our shoulders trying to go backward. Memories are about yesterday. Dreams are about the future, tomorrow.
Thom is featured in HBO’s recently released documentary “Breaking the Huddle.”
You can watch a promo here.
Here’s the thing I wrote on Thom a few months back…