Tag Archives: Thom Gossom

Thom Gossom’s “As I See It” – Back to the Future

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’s book Walk-On, My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University, is available in Borders and Walden bookstores, J&M Bookstore, the Zoo Gallery in Destin, FL, and at walkongossom.com

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…


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Filed under As I See It by Thom Gossom, Coaching Search

Thom Gossom’s “As I See It” — Tennessee edition

Remember Jason Campbell? Yes! Did you see him this past Sunday handle the Dallas Cowboys, arguably the best team in the NFL? According to the television announcers, Jason, is rapidly becoming one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks. Why? Coaches have gotten him to adjust his throwing motion. Also according to his coaches, Jason is incredibly bright and is a team player. There’s more. According to an analysis by the NFL announcer on the Washington-Dallas game, “When the quarterback has the confidence of the play caller, it’s amazing how well he can perform.”

Flashback a few years to Campbell as an Auburn sophomore and junior quarterback trying to learn the game. The news reports then, were that Campbell was an erratic passer and couldn’t learn the system. Every mistake he made was magnified. Before long he was battling his competition some guy named Daniel Cobb, and his own self-doubts. It didn’t matter that he had a different offensive coordinator each year. The doubts were created by continual punishment and demotions for every mistake and by not giving him the opportunity to work through his mistakes.

Now, flash forward to Kodi Burns, Chris Todd and the Auburn offense of today. Auburn has scored three offensive touchdowns in the last three games. Two of those games, Kodi Burns didn’t even play. One, LSU, was a close loss where perhaps Burns could have made a difference. The offensive woes (one offensive touchdown) continued against Tennessee this past weekend. Because they get paid big money, I’ll use the words of the analysts on the nationally broadcast Auburn-Tennessee game. On several occasions, the announcers pointed out that the offense was not clicking because Todd is not a runner and because he is injured, his arm is not strong.

“He lobs the ball, shotputs it,” one said.

“You can’t lob the ball down the middle,” countered the other.”

The polite criticism went on.

“If he’s hurt why is he in there?”

“Todd is really struggling.”

“Auburn is having trouble running without Burns.”

“You can’t be a little bit in the spread, It’s like being a little bit pregnant. You can’t hide the quarterback.”

“There are murmurs of discontent.”(referring to the crowd).

“To say it (the offense) is a work in progress is a little bit obvious.”

“It won’t work.”

When Kodi Burns was finally inserted into the game, there was a cheer from the Auburn crowd. A short drive, two missed passes and a missed field goal resulted in excitement from the crowd and the team but no points.

Later Burns was again substituted for Todd to the delight of the crowd. However, the three meaningless plays that were called for Burns did not use his ability. The analyst also picked up on this; ”Kodi Burns was very upset when he came out of the game. Burns seemed to say, ‘If you’re gonna let me play quarterback, let me play quarterback.’

With a final chance to prove himself, Burns did just that by throwing on the run to clinch the first down that sealed the victory. It was not a homerun play but it was a game winner and a play Todd could not have made.

When Auburn decided to go to the spread, the excitement among the Auburn faithful was off the charts. With an offense that was advertised as no huddle, speed against the play clock so as to run more plays, wearing down defenses, scoring in the second and fourth quarters, full of trickery, blah, blah, blah.

But, as of Monday morning we’re back to the same old, same old. Todd has been named the starter for Auburn’s next game against Vanderbilt. I have nothing against Chris Todd. I think he’s being put into a no win situation. He’s not playing well. If he’s injured he shouldn’t be starting. And it’s obvious right now to fans and television announcers that he’s playing in front of a guy who is better than he is. The quarterback position was supposedly so close you could flip a coin. But after starting the first game, and getting injured, Burns is now a distant second in the competition.

Auburn has a good team that could be special and exciting. The rock solid defense has proven on every Saturday but one this fall that it can withstand some offensive mistakes and still come out with a victory. That said; why not go with the guy with the most ability. He learns, gets better, becomes a better passer, and maybe the offense lives up to its promise. Makes sense to me.

Is it personal that Kodi Burns does not play more? Go figure.

Thom’s book Walk-On, My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University, is available in Borders and Walden bookstores, J&M Bookstore and at walkongossom.com

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Back On The Plains (debut TWER column by Thom Gossom)

I talked with Thom yesterday and told him he should write a column for the blog. And he totally did! Hopefully, it’ll be a regular thing…

By the time we made it to the elevator to transport us to the top floor of Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn University we were both sucking wind and ready for a comfortable chair. We’d walked maybe a quarter mile, but when you use a walking stick because of shot knees and a bad back, and limp like old gimp-legged Chester in the TV series “Gunsmoke,” a quarter mile can be an Olympian feat. For the record, my friend, brother, and former teammate James Owens was the one hobbling along with the cane. I was doing the Chester imitation because of a knee that a doctor told me ten years ago, at age 45, looked like the knee of a 75 year old. But hey, we made it to the President’s Suite and what a sight! It was my first game since the infamous 2002, reunion I speak of in my memoir, Walk-On. Thousands of shades of orange shone brightly under the nightlights of the Jordan Hare. Full, and plump from a full buffet, we sat down for a fun football game between my alma mater, Auburn and those dreaded tigers from the bayou, LSU.

While waiting for the pomp and circumstance to end and the game to begin, James and I tried to catch up on our lives. But well-wishers kept interrupting. Many know me from television and film work, the recent publicity on the book, and my days on the Plains as split end #49 with the huge afro. Some knew James, but not nearly enough, from his history making days as Auburn’s first black footballer.

James and I reminisced about our time together. We were Shug Jordan’s first two black players in the early 1970s when integration found its way to Auburn athletics. It’s a bond we’ll share all our lives. We remembered the fun stuff. We laughed at the sorry second team offensive linemen that Coach Pap Morris would daily dog cuss. “YOU ARE NOT A FOOTBALL PLAYER! YOU JUST WANT TO WALK AROUND WITH THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS! YOU JUST WANT SOMEONE TO SAY, ‘HE’S ONE OF THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS.’ YOU JUST WANT TO GET ON THE BUS WITH THE FOOTBALL PLAYERS. BUT YOU’RE NOT A FOOTBALL PLAYER!” We laughed about going to the Goal Post Grill and being served more hamburgers, fries and shakes than we could have ever paid for. With very little money we would come out with full stomachs and big happy smiles. Sadly, we remembered our brother, Henry Harris, Auburn’s first black athlete. We wondered what his life would be like today. James said to me, “He’d be proud of you.” I hope so. He and James were my big brothers in those dark days.

At halftime (I’ll get to the game) we ventured into the letterman’s lounge. I’d already seen many of my teammates. Bobby Davis and Jimmy Sirmans both linebackers, greeted me warmly. The lefthander, a good guy, defensive end, Rusty Deen, was smiling as usual. Receiver Mike Gates and fullback Rusty Fuller, perpetual twins, jazzed me up. Gates again gave me a hard time about the car I sold him. I’m lucky they didn’t have the lemon law then. Randy Walls one of my favorites gave me a big hug. Randy, as a sophomore quarterback, led us to ten wins against one defeat in 1972. We became know as “The Amazins.” Coach Jordan proclaimed that team his favorite after 25 years of coaching, and our miracle 17-16 win over Alabama.

Among unsure former teammates, my memoir, Walk-On has caused a stir. Many were cautious in asking about it. One asked quietly, ”Thomas I was nice to you wasn’t I?” “Of course,” I said with my fingers crossed. Two concerned women, cornered me and blurted out, “I’m not in that book am I?”

There was one flashback to yesteryear. One of the former footballers, whiskey breath and all, felt the need to tell me and James and any one else who would listen, how he now felt like he was a black man and the one final wish in his life was to f— a black woman. “I feel black,” he announced. He embarrassed his wife as he continued with his faux soul brother act. “Just one time I’d like to f— a black woman,” he kept telling me. We begged off and fled back to the Presidents suite.

The game: I’m sure the spread offense will get better, but will it be good enough to beat the better teams in the SEC? It’s hard to say, “yes” right now. The offensive coordinator says Auburn will throw the ball even more than we did against LSU. Hell, that’s a no-brainer when you can’t run. Don’t know what happened to the “Bow your neck up and shove it down their throats” lineman and running backs we had before. The personnel is still there. But the linemen are pass blocking NFL caliber defensive ends almost every play with no running threat. Hell, let’s run a dive so our guys can fire off and knock the shit out of them every once in a while. Mario Fanning doesn’t even carry the ball (enough said). Ben Tate, a good runner, spends his running plays trying to go east-west. In the SEC that’s a waste of a good down. If you ain’t hitting it north-south, forget it. Tristan Davis fumbled once. That’s it for him.

The offense has been bad the last three years. Last year’s quarterback, Brandon Cox, was shot after the Georgia game of 2006. Offensive coordinator, Al Borges was very limited in what he could call with Cox. A pass over the middle had the whole stadium and AU fans watching television, cringing. The new quarterback wears Cox’s number 12. Enough said. If Kodi Burns can’t play alongside this guy, he doesn’t deserve a scholarship. Can 90,000 fans all be wrong? If Burns doesn’t know the system, the coach should teach it to him. That’s his job.

Also, forget the numbers. The numbers don’t mean anything. I saw the game. These pop gun offenses without a running quarterback can pile up big numbers and beat teams when you have the talent edge. The offensive coordinator says the quarterback played good against LSU. I saw the game. I hope he gets better.

At the end of the night, James and I boarded the elevator to begin the quarter mile trek back to the car. In the crowded elevator, a man struck up a conversation with James. “Did you play here,” he asked? “Yes,” James responded. He then asked me. I nodded, “Yes.” Another gentleman on the elevator pointed to James and told the inquirer, “He was the first.” The questioner didn’t get it. But, the other man didn’t go further, not feeling comfortable saying the first “what” on the elevator. Finally, I told the inquisitive man, “James was the first black football player at Auburn.” The man looked at James admiringly.

Thom’s book Walk-On, My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University, is available in Borders and Walden bookstores, J&M Bookstore and at walkongossom.com

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“Walk-On” out in stores

Walk-On, the new book from former Auburn star Thom Gossom, was finally released last Tuesday — perhaps you remember hearing about it in my recent novel.

You can order it directly from Borders or get a personalized copy at www.walkongossom.com. But you might actually catch him at J&M this Saturday, signing books before we embarrass LSU.

There have been some other write ups and last week, Paul Finebaum took a break from his busy career in erotica to have Thom on his radio show. Paul, of course, took the opportunity to insinuate that Auburn just really hates black people, that it always has hated black people, that it will forever continue to hate and loathe and belittle black people. Keep them down. Bench them. Second-string them.

He refers to Auburn as “… a school that’s always had a rap with the racial issue…”and as having “a reputation as a bad place for black players over the years.” He wants to know if “that’s been rectified” and also “why every time there’s a black quarterback down there it’s an instant controversy, one of those may be going on right now…”

Keep in mind this was while discussing a book written about, among other things, Auburn’s leading role in integrating college football in the state of Alabama.

Here’s the math:

Kodi Burns + second string = Tommy Tuberville, racist.

Oh, also keep in mind that Kodi Burns is not only the current fan favorite for the starting job but the latest in a long string of black “fan favorite” quarterbacks going back to the early 80s. Pat Washington, Reggie Slack, Dameyune Craig, Jason Campbell and now Kodi — Campbell, Craig, and Slack are arguably the three most popular quarterbacks in recent Auburn history.

(To his eternal credit, Thom defended Auburn, saying no, no, you know, it was hard everywhere, Paul.)

But it was Paul’s peculiar contrast of Thom’s experience as the second black football player at Auburn, (which began six years after Auburn integrated) to what must be his understanding of the Bama experience… in particular, to the famous spectacle surrounding the initial integration of the University of Alabama… to the Hug in the Schoolhouse Door, to all the funshine and rainbows filling Tuscaloosa in the early 60s… that really caught my attention:

“This is not a pretty story,” Finebaum says of Walk-On. “This is not, ‘hey, I walked in the door with the national guard and everyone embraced me…‘”

No football player in the state of Alabama, red or yellow, black or white, ever ‘walked in the door’ flanked by the national guard (any national guard action, and it was only at Alabama, would have been, oh, seven years prior). If they had, it wouldn’t have had anything to do with protecting them from fanmail or PDA.

So what the hell is he talking about? Whatever it is, taste it — it’s grain fed revisionism, of the sort only Bama fans can churn, and oh so similar to a certain strain — a fascinating phenomenon of Bryantism — that kept popping up during my research for Walk-On … but more on that later.

Just know, for now, that if you’ve ever felt paranoid for thinking that Paul would rip out a kidney and slap it on the table for the University of Alabama.. don’t.

Because when Finebaum writes:

For long-time chroniclers of college football, it has been agonizing to witness the devestation of the Alabama dynasty – once among the proudest in the lore of the sport.

… he is first and foremost writing about himself. And he would do anything in the world to end that agony… fantasize about institutional racism at Auburn, bend over for Dr. Saban… anything to maybe, just maybe, help, one day, take the edge off…

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Actor’s new memoir zooms in on deleted scenes of southern football integration

By J. Henderson

[You’ll pick up pretty quickly that I mostly wrote this for an audience mostly unfamiliar with Auburn football. So forgive the explanation of the Iron Bowl, Punt, Bama, Punt, etc… and full disclosure, as they say – I helped Thom with some of the research for the book. Fuller disclosure: this is long, but worth it I hope, so click the ‘keep reading’ link.]

Thom Gossom is telling me a story over the phone. I saw him tell it once on TV. He killed. Still, it’s better this time. It goes like this:

It’s the spring of 2004, a weekday afternoon in Los Angeles, inside a waiting room. It’s an audition for the television show Boston Legal. There is a black guy, about 50, sitting there, waiting to read for a part. That’s Thom.

He’s flipping through Sports Illustrated. There’s some svelte hipster, white, probably about 25, sitting across from him. The kid is wearing a vintage thrift-store t-shirt. It catches Thom’s eye. He puts the magazine down.

“… and I go, ‘hey man, let me see that shirt.’ So he stretches it out for me.”

The shirt reads: “Happy Birthday Bo, From Van Tiffin’s Toe: 25-23 – November 30, 1985.”

“I said, ‘Oh, wow man, d’you go to Alabama?’ He says, ‘oh, no, it’s just one of those vintage things.’ I said, ‘oh, so you don’t know what it means?’ He laughs a little bit, shakes his head no. He’s kinda freaked out a little bit, but you know, he’s really paying attention. I say, ‘well let me tell ya’ man, the ‘Bo’ is Bo Jackson.”

“He says, ‘oh, Bo Jackson?’ I said, ‘yeah man, this guy, Van Tiffin for Alabama, he kicked a field goal at the end of the Auburn-Alabama game that year and won the game and everything.’”

Thom said he explained a little bit more. The game was played on Bo Jackson’s birthday. It was his senior year. Tiffin’s kick was voted by Alabama fans as the greatest play ever in Birmingham’s Legion Field. It was a big deal. It was a knife in the gut to Auburn fans.

The kid goes, “Oh, so Bo went to Alabama?”

“Naw, man, Bo went to Auburn.”

They kept going.

“He was like ‘man, they take that stuff real serious down there don’t they?’ And I’m like, ‘oh man, yeah, if you went into the wrong place with that t-shirt on, you’d be in trouble like hell.’”

Ha ha ha.

“And so he asks me, he says, ‘well how come you know so much about it?’”

Thom tells him.

“I played football for Auburn.”

“Oh…”

The kid gets quiet, then he looks the black guy in the eye. The black guy, Thom, looks back and says:

“Yeah, man, you’re about to get your ass kicked.”

Ha haaaaaaaaa haaaaaaaaa!

Ok, I wanted to start off with that story. I think it sets the stage, so to speak. Now let’s talk Thom. You might not know Thom’s name, but you probably know his face. He’s an actor, a “that guy.” As in, “oh, that guy.” He’s a black that guy, a good one, well respected.

For me, it was In the Heat of the Night. I snapped my fingers and said “that’s it!” That’s why he looked so familiar. Officer Ted Marcus – 20 episodes, his big break.

“People will tell me they recognize me, but they don’t recognize me from role to role,” Gossom tells me in between conference calls with his publisher (he’s got a book coming out). “I take that as a compliment.”

He’s been a salesman here, a pharmacist there, a coach, a dude. The detective in Fight Club? That’s Thom. The judge on Boston Legal? Thom again. The CEO in the new Citibank commercial, holding up a box with that “we did it, team” look on his face? That guy, Thom Gossom. He’s been at it a while.

“They might be small roles, but I try to take them all seriously.”

“I guess you didn’t have to try very hard to take things seriously back then,” I say.

“No, back then it was pretty damn easy.”

Back then was the early 70s. If you rewind his career back to back then, back to college, back to Alabama, back to when national culture and especially southern culture was being completely recast, that guy, Thom Gossom, found himself as one of the leads in an action-drama of singular significance.

Because Thom wasn’t just a black guy back then, he was a black football player; “1970s Black Football Player in Alabama” is the most serious part he’s ever played.

photo by B. Ashmore

False Start

Thom was a wide receiver, arguably the most segregated position in today’s version of the game (Chris Shelling Jr. recently joked in an e-mail that “Auburn’s Next Top White Receiver” would make great reality TV. “Hicks Poor and Justin Fetsko could host.”).

He was a star on the one stage our mutual home state of Alabama continues to care about above all others, but at a time when the spotlight of that humid autumn sun really brought out the color in your skin. Thom Gossom was the second black football player at the first Division I school in Alabama to break the gridiron’s color barrier.

That school was not the University of Alabama.

Continue reading

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