My father would have enjoyed watching Auburn raise that crystal trophy this week. He had seats at Jordan-Hare when it was still Cliff Hare Stadium with one end zone still open. My earliest memory of watching the Tigers was when the defense intercepted Florida's John Reaves 9 times in an upset win back in '69. In those days, fans could walk down onto the field and exit underneath the stands in the corners of the end where the dressing room sits. No dogs, no yellow-coated security guards, and no people acting stupid. It was mostly a treat for the kids to be on the grass their Saturday heroes had just trampled.
Auburn never won a national title during that time. There were the undefeated years of '93 and '04, several Iron Bowl wins, and some other big games, but never that one season where the combination of good play and good fortune united for the whole year. Then came 2010, perhaps the most unlikely season in which Auburn would rule college football. Dad died almost a year ago but he was curious as to what the upcoming season might hold. Honest Auburn fans will tell you they approached this season with optimism but not overconfidence and, for many, 9 - 10 wins seemed a reasonable expectation between the advantage of the schedule and the anticipation of a couple of breaks going our way. Perhaps I should have known it would be different on opening night.
Our seats were the second and third from the aisle; the aisle seat had one of those pre-installed chairbacks some ticket holders pay for, but whoever arranged that didn't show that night. Or at the next home game. Or the one after that. My bride and I took turns using the seat and it is nice to be able to lean back from time to time. It was her idea that the empty seat was more than a seating chart mistake, that it was a purposeful act. It was dad's seat and he would take the ride with us, week in and week out, win or lose. Obviously, lose never came, with an overtime thriller followed by turnover-filled victory as Auburn became the unlikely South Carolina state champion setting up the year's two decisive home games.
The scores you already know, but my brother, who came in for the LSU game, walked away with the same feeling my wife had - there was something about that seat that had been paid for and equipped with a seatback, yet no one claiming it. It had to be dad's spot and surely he was enjoying not just the team winning but the excitement the Tigers and their big kid of a quarterback were generating. How could any long-time fan not get swept up in the excitement of a player seemingly having the time of his life and wanting an entire stadium to know about it.
Perhaps the real key that the seat belonged to dad was the Auburn seemed to master the football question he always asked - how come teams don't have a special play for short yardage that is a virtual lock? Sending a back into a pile or running a sneak is never guaranteed to be successful and, time and again, he would ask how it was that a team could fail to pick up 6 inches or two feet. This year provided the answer - you put a 6-foot-6, 250 pound quarterback in the shotgun, after the snap he takes two steps forward, and dives over the pile. First down. Or touchdown. Worked every time. Without fail. Of course, the challenge becomes finding a player to replicate that feat game after game, year after year. But, for one season at least, that nagging question was answered. And for one season at least, the Tigers won the last game of the year. I hope dad enjoyed the season as much as the rest of us did.