Bowden gives Auburn reason to cheer

December 05, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

AUBURN, Ala. -- The day after Terry Bowden was hired as Auburn's football coach a year ago next week, he sat in the lead car of the town's Christmas parade. He was the parade's grand marshal and the town's great question mark.

"It was all curiosity," recalled Bowden. "Everybody was asking, 'Who is this guy? What's he look like?' There was skepticism. It was all a surprise. Most of them knew who I was because of my father, because I had coached in the state [at Division I-AA Samford]. But it was a real concern."

When Bowden played the same role yesterday -- sitting in a car with his wife and their three small children, being driven around by the town's mayor -- the curiosity was replaced by cheers, the skepticism by belief, the concern by genuine affection for the 37-year-old coach.

So what if the Tigers were on NCAA probation, ineligible to play in yesterday's Southeastern Conference championship game a

couple of hours up the road in Birmingham? So what if Auburn (11-0), one of three Division I-A teams to finish the regular season undefeated, will be sitting at home the next two New Year's days?

"You know there's not going to be any sad Auburn person on this Earth," Auburn native Ozz Calton said between leading the school's "War Eagle" chants and acting as the parade's announcer. "Most of us have never experienced anything like this in our lifetime."

The remnants of Auburn's miracle season still hang from the trees at Toomer's Corners, the town's center. They come in the form of the toilet paper thrown by Tigers fans traditionally after victories, big and small.

In this case, it came after Auburn's 22-14 victory over rival Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium two weeks ago. That meant more here than the previous 10 wins. Several thousand fans gathered that night to, as Calton said, "throw."

And, as Bowden said yesterday, "To people in Alabama, winning the state championship means a lot more than winning the national championship."

Bowden, a Florida State law school graduate who also spent a year at Oxford, is smart enough to realize that he pushed the timetable ahead a few years by accomplishing what no other Division I-A coach had ever done. But the pressures that come with this job weren't created in the past two months, when Auburn became the country's surprise team.

Asked if he might have saddled himself with unreasonable expectations for the future, Bowden said, "The monster was created years ago. That's southern football, whether you're talking about Auburn or Alabama or anyone else in this part of the country."

But Bowden, sounding very much like his famous father, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, quickly added, "I fed him a little bit more than he thought he was going to get, so he'll want a little more next year. But if I hadn't fed him enough, they might have gone out and got themselves another tiger-keeper."

That doesn't seem likely. As much as old-time Auburn fans who can remember the last unbeaten team (1957, and the Tigers were on NCAA probation that season, too) still feel some loyalty to former coach and athletic director Pat Dye, they have taken to Bowden.

It has something to do with his personality, but it has just as much to do with his winning percentage. Calton, who works at a local bookstore, said business picked up recently as the Tigers were winning.

Among the Auburn players, there is a feeling that they have done everything within their control. Although some bitterness remains toward the NCAA for the sanctions the Tigers received because of violations committed by former coaches and players -- stemming from charges by former Auburn player Eric Ramsey that players were paid -- there is also a sense of accomplishment.

"We're all satisfied to go 11-0 and beat Alabama," senior kicker Scott Etheridge said. "I'll be satisfied for the rest of my life."

Etheridge declined a chance to go to yesterday's game in Birmingham. With a forecast of rain, watching a game between "two teams we beat with two sets of fans who don't like me" did not appeal to him. "We're calling it the consolation game," he said. "It's for second place."

Not that Bowden expects to play in the SEC championship every year, once the probation ends after next season. Nor does he anticipate the Tigers contending for the national title every year, as his father's teams tend to do in Tallahassee.

"I just want this to be a quality program year in and year out," said Bowden, who already has received several coaching awards including yesterday's selection as the Walter Camp Football Foundation's Coach of the Year. "But we have some mountains to climb. We have some growing pains left."

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