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November 20, at Auburn Auburn 22 Alabama 14 PERFECT TO THE END The Tigers rallied to roll back the Tide and complete an unbeaten, and unlikely, season

TERRY BOWDEN WAS DOING his weekly radio call-in show on the
Thursday before the Alabama game. This week it consisted mostly of
adoring fans telling him how wonderful he was. And why not? Terry's
Tigers were 10-0 -- with only hated 'Bama standing in the way of a
perfect, 11-0 year. A win against the Tide would make the team
Terry's Terrific Tigers. Plus, it would make Bowden the most
successful first-year coach in major college football history.
Then a caller hit the airwaves with, what he termed, a
''hypothetical question.'' Bowden grimaced but listened: ''If Auburn
scores a touchdown against Alabama Saturday with 30 seconds left in
the game to go ahead 100-0,'' the caller asked, ''will you pass or
run when you go for the two-point conversion?'' There was raucous
laughter all around.
Such is the depth of hatred in Auburn for those folks in
Tuscaloosa, whom Tiger fans see as insufferably snooty. Yet the
question is also indicative of the fantasies in which Auburn fans
indulge. They dream of winning, sure, but they dream of winning
grandly, maybe spectacularly, maybe against all odds, maybe with a
miracle and, yes, maybe 100-0.
The day of the Alabama game, a sellout crowd (85,214) of already
bonkers, going-wacko, heading-toward-apoplexy fans saw all their
hopes and dreams and wishes come true -- except for winning 100-0.
Auburn won 22-14. Good enough. After all, Bowden admits, ''we don't
have the ability to blow people out. All we do is play just good
enough to win the game that day.''
Now they had become Terry's Tantalizing Tigers. No TV. No SEC
Championship. No bowl game.
But might Auburn be No. 1?
Might. Was undefeated Nebraska or West Virginia better than
Terry's Transcendent Tigers? We'll never know.
What we do know is that Auburn was better than Alabama that
Saturday afternoon, even though winning did require a miracle --
which came in the form of one Patrick Nix. A widely unknown and
broadly ignored sophomore quarterback from Rainbow City, Nix was
redshirted in 1991 because Auburn had talented Stan White and didn't
need the far less talented Nix. The last two seasons White played and
Nix watched. In two years Nix threw a total of 23 unimportant passes,
all in mop-up appearances.
But on a third-and-nine at the 'Bama 29 with 6:22 left in the
third quarter, White got slammed to the ground, lost six yards and
was lost for the day with strained knee ligaments. Nix was suddenly
in search of his helmet. There was no time to be nervous.
''Why get nervous when it's your job?'' Nix said later. ''When I
saw Stan go down, I knew it was my time.'' So there he was, fourth
down, 15 yards to go at the Alabama 35, his team trailing 14-5. In
the huddle Nix looked at wide receiver Frank Sanders and said,
''Frank, go catch it.''
With that -- no warmup, no preparation, no consultations -- he
threw a strike to Sanders at the three-yard line. Sanders outdueled
'Bama's Tommy Johnson for the ball, then dived into the end zone.
Auburn now trailed just 14-12. A 26-yard field goal by Scott
Etheridge in the fourth quarter put Terry's Tenacious Tigers up
15-14; and with just 2:19 left, a blazing 70-yard run by James Bostic
closed the deal for Terry's Titanic Tigers.
It helped that Alabama was ticketed for 12 penalties, while
converting just one of 13 third-down situations. In seven second-half
possessions 'Bama never got beyond the Auburn 42. Tide quarterback
Jay Barker suffered a 9-for-23 day (130 yards, two interceptions) and
a torn ligament in his left knee.
Meanwhile, White, a senior, saw his Auburn career end about 21
minutes earlier than anticipated. For Nix, though, the day was an
unexpected pleasure. ''All I ever wanted,'' said Nix later, ''was a
chance. I'm not a great quarterback. But I am a competitor and a
winner and a hard worker.''
Make that miracle worker. But sitting in the stadium shadows long
after all the screaming had stopped, Nix deflected any glory. He
said, ''I don't want to be the hero. What we did this year was all
Stan anyway.''
That's true, but the cold fact is that White was having a
miserable time with the Tide, which was rolling over him; he managed
only 11 completions in 26 tries, had an interception and was sacked
three times. White was working no miracles.
But Auburn's whole season had been like a fantasy. There was no
realistic expectation that this team would succeed to this degree.
Bowden, himself, says ! he had hoped to go 6-5 this year. Making
things tougher for him as he took the reins this season was the fact
that Alabama had won the national championship last year, which
earned the Tide significant recruiting advantages. Then Auburn's best
defensive player, cornerback Fred Smith, tore up his knee in
preseason drills and was lost for the year. Moreover, this is
Bowden's first big-time head coaching job, and he readily admitted
that he never would have gotten it if his name hadn't been Bowden --
as in Bobby.
While Terry patterns himself after his father -- not a bad idea,
given the old man's 165-46-3 record at Florida State over 18 seasons
-- he admits there is one major difference: ''My dad is less annoying
to other people. I'm like my mother. I'm always trying to tell others
how to do their business. Then I have to apologize. It's embarrassing
afterward. I have to control things from top to bottom, just like my
mother. She comes to the house, and next thing you know she's
rearranging the furniture.'' Among family members, his mother, Ann,
is known variously as Coach Ann or, in less shiny moments, Dictator
The truth is, Terry can be, well, annoying. Or at least
disingenuous. After Saturday's game he was asked about his defense.
He waved the question off, saying, ''Ask Wayne Hall ((Auburn's
defensive coordinator)). I don't know anything about it. Obviously he
had a plan and it worked.'' The fact is, Bowden has a top-level
offensive mind, and that means he has to understand defense.
Annoying. He also talks way too much about Daddy. Annoying.
But he can also be quite charming. Talking of 'Bama coach Gene
Stallings, Bowden says, ''He is very, very wise, experienced,
hardened and has a depth of understanding. On the other hand, I am
energetic, young, inexperienced and say the wrong thing. There is a
lot of coaching for me to learn.'' That's not annoying. That's
But the main reason this season began in despondency and ended in
delirium is that Bowden came in and refused to let past troubles and
probation be factors. He seems to have just willed things in a
positive direction. He introduced pins that read ATTITUDE, which
became ubiquitous at Auburn, where people truly don't lament what
might have been if the school were not on probation. They're thrilled
with what has been. And that all comes from Bowden.
David Housel, the school's sports information director, says of
the probation, ''We have been through the valley of the shadow. We
have been stripped naked. We have been shamed and embarrassed.''
Yet all this has somehow had a cleansing effect. And Bowden stays
after it. ''I don't know if we really want to play Notre Dame or
Florida State,'' he says. ''We don't have much talent. I think it's
good enough for Auburn fans to be able to point out that we are
undefeated and therefore are national champs.'' Auburn, No. 1. Sounds
O.K. in a nutso year.
Meanwhile, 'Bama's loss had further soured the SEC title game.
Both participants, the Tide (8-2-1) and Florida (9-2), had now been
sliced and diced by Auburn. But as the always philosophical Stallings
told his seniors at a breakfast in Tuscaloosa two days before the
Auburn game, ''Failure is the price you pay for improvement.''
For unbeaten Auburn, however, there's no room for improvement --
other than in adhering to NCAA rules. But Bowden points out that he
does know failure: ''When I coached at Salem College, I was 0-7 my
first year. I cried. I was a failure. I thought, Your dad is Bobby
Bowden, and here you can't win a game.''
That was yesterday. Today, Terry goes to Denaro's, an Auburn
restaurant, and sings Sweet Baby James to a boozy crowd the night
after winning the biggest game of his life. Today, all is swell with
Terry's Tigers, who had every reason this year to be torpid, tame and
timorous. Instead they turned out to be just triumphant.