With so many people wondering how Gene Chizik is going to perform in his inaugural season, it helps to look back and see how well many of his predecessors have done. We at Auburn have been blessed with relative coaching stability. We had our coaching icon, Shug, who stayed for a quarter century, and we’ve had four coaches total stay on the Plains for a decade or longer. And ever since Shug took the reigns at API in 1951, the average tenure for a head coach has been 11.6 years, tops in the conference over that period. Compare that to the school to the west, or to perrenial revolving door LSU, who’s average tenure for a coach since Charlie McClendon left after 18 years on the bayou is four years.
Many fans of other teams in other conferences talk about rebuilding. In the SEC, you come out on fire or you don’t last long enough to rebuild. For the top tier teams, two years is all you get–three max.Something’s gotta give, they say. Although most don’t expect miracles in the first outing, you better be laying a foundation to make a run at something soon, lest you be running for the door. Since those first three years are crucial, today we look back at the top 5 performances in an Auburn coach’s first three seasons, going all the way to the beginning. Missing are some of the more storied names in Tiger history: Heisman–who coached five seasons on the Plains, but only averaged four games a year. Jordan–the most legendary Tiger coach, who took a while to build a powerhouse. The rest of the names are going to sound pretty familiar, which is good commentary about how fast our contemporary coaches have come out of the box.
1) Pat Dye, 1983, 3rd season, 11-1: With a losing record his first season in 1981, Dye bounced back big time and erased all the pain of the Barfieldyears by giving Bear a proper send off and having a respectable 9-4 record, but the finest of his seasons was the third, where an improbable Tiger team only lost to Texas en route to getting ripped off for the national championship by Miami. Led by a gutsy QB named Randy and a punishing back named Bo, this team brought back a SEC title to the Plains for the first time in 26 years andestablished a precedent for three more in the decade. During my lifetime, arguably the first or second best Tiger team, in my opinion.
2) Terry Bowden, 1993, 1st season, 11-0: With Jay’s fine article yesterday conjuring up fond memories with Baby Bowden, we’ll always love him for his record breaking start, winning his first 20 games, an Auburn record. The best team you never saw, since they weren’t on TV that year due to probation. You either saw them at the game, or listened to it on the radio. A total blue-collar team, lead by Stan White at QB and James Bostic at tailback, their best wins that season were against #5 Florida (the best game I’ve ever seen) and#12 Alabama, with Pat Nix pitching in relief for an injured White. Although not eligible for the SEC title game or bowl due to probation, this team finished #4 in the country, behind the one-loss-apiece trio of FSU, Notre Dame and Nebraska. Ironically, this team actually received more MNC votes (4) from lesser NC selectors than did the next undefeated Auburn team of 2004 (3).
3) Mike Donahue, 1904, 1st season, 7-0: Wow, what can you say about Mike Donahue, the Irishman who was Auburn’s first super coach, who came out undefeated in his first season, paving the way for 17 more successful ones to follow, en route to the highest winning percentage of any Auburn coach ever? Under Donahue, Auburn was a SIAA powerhouse, and had victories against Clemson and Ga Tech that year, topped off by one against Alabama–our last victory against the Tide before the series was shut down 3 years later until 1948. It’s also worth noting that Donahue’s seven opponents that year scored a whopping 11 points.
4) Tommy Tuberville, 2000, 2nd season, 9-4: After a 5-6 record his first season, Tubs proved that he hadn’t in fact left Mississippi in a pine box, pushing the upstart Tigers into the SEC title game for the first time since 1997 and erasing all the bad memories from the end of the Bowden era. After a mid-season slip-up to Jackie Sherril’s MSU Bulldogs anda blowout by Florida, Auburn turned Amen Corner perfectly, squeaking by Georgia, then shutting out Alabama. After another blow-out loss to Florida in Atlanta, an uninspired team went on to lose to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. But Tuberville proved himself in the rebuilding department, setting up the glorious run of 2004 after a few false starts in 2002 and 2003.
5) Terry Bowden, 1994, 2nd season, 9-1-1: Bowden’s second season started where his improbable first one ended–on fire. Rolling up an additional 9 more wins in a row, Auburn was also eligible for post-season play. The best game of the year was the victory in Gainesville over Steve Spurrier’s #1 ranked Florida Gators the biggest slug-fest of any game I’ve ever seen. But Amen Corner proved to be difficult as we bogeyed both holes, allowing Georgia to come back and tie us, and losing to undefeated Alabama in the Iron Bowl, a game which decided who would go to Atlanta. Bowden would follow with back-to-back 8-4 seasons in 1995 and 1996, and finally made it to the SEc title game in 1997. The next year, he was gone in a flash, about as quickly as he arrived. But we’ll always have those first two years!