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A spirit that is not afraid

COLUMN | There is life in Auburn sports again

Via SEC Media Portal
Via SEC Media Portal

The lights brighten. The Jungle roars — two nights in a row. The whistle blows. Bruce Pearl's commanding yell rings through Neville Arena.

When the tipoff occurs and the basketball hits the hardwood on Wednesday and Thursday nights for Auburn basketball's exhibition games, the Auburn family can take a deep breath. A new era is underway.

With a change at both head football coach and athletic director on Monday along with a thriving men's basketball program and a rising women's team returning to play this week, there has never been a better time for Auburn to start over. 

More importantly, the new hirees are set up to do it right this time. Bryan Harsin never had support from the program since day one (and he failed to earn it). An internal investigation within the football program nearly cost him his job in February, and his reputation never recovered. And with that, the guy who hired him, former AD Allen Greene, seemingly lost his approval as well. 

But Auburn seems to recognize that, and things feel different this time around. 

Despite not having a permanent head coach named, Auburn can finally sit comfortably where it's at. At 3-5, fans now have a reason to reengage with Auburn football, as an Auburn alum and beloved staff member Carnell "Cadillac" Williams was named interim head coach. 

It still has games with Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Western Kentucky and Alabama, and what is there for Auburn to lose? There's a lot to gain, though. A bowl appearance seems unattainable, but it is still within reach. Not to mention, an Iron Bowl win is still up for grabs.

That might sound unrealistic, but I guess I'm just a big dreamer.

Auburn came into the Iron Bowl 6-5 last year, and thought it had no shot. It then skipped into the locker room, motioning for fans to make noise, with a 10-0 lead. It feels like all Auburn needs is to figure out how to close games. 

Let's look at halftime scores in Auburn's last 13 games, in which it went 3-10: down 17-13 to Arkansas, down 28-17 to Ole Miss, down 14-0 Georgia,  up 17-14 versus LSU, tied 14-14 with Missouri, down 14-6 to Penn State, down 10-7 to San Jose State, up 28-7 over Mercer, down 10-3 to Houston, up 10-0 versus Alabama, tied 14-14 with South Carolina, up 28-10 versus Mississippi State and tied 3-3 with Texas A&M.

The biggest of those deficits was a 14-point trailing of No. 1 Georgia in Athens. None of those games were out of control at the break. The fact that Auburn went 3-10 emphasizes the inability for the coaching staff to make halftime adjustments. If you ask me, the ability to win, or at least compete, in games (yes, SEC games) is there. 

And now the excitement is there, too. Some players fully supported Harsin, but a large handful of them did not. Williams, if nothing else, is a guy the team will rally behind and play their hearts out for. 

A 40-year-old Alabama native, Williams is relatable to the players as a former Tiger himself, and in three years as a running backs coach for Auburn, the running backs have been one of Auburn's biggest strengths. In those two seasons, Auburn's running back room has mustered nine 100-yard games and three SEC weekly honors.

He also had his own success in an Auburn uniform. He was a 2004 All-American at Auburn and led the Tigers to three SEC West Championships and an undefeated season in 2014.

Does playing hard for its coach mean Auburn will win out? Probably not, but I don't expect another 18-point come-from-behind victory to haunt the Tigers again on Saturday.

Not to mention, Auburn hired former Mississippi State Athletic Director John Cohen on Monday. Here's the key: the decision to fire Harsin isn't being attributed to Cohen, and he was hired without being expected to immediately make a major firing. Hiring him with a football coach hanging on by a thread only puts him in a bad position from the start.  

The details of Harsin's firing and Cohen's part in it is unknown, but the important part is that decision isn't attributed to him.

Who wants to come to a school and their first action is to fire the football coach? Regardless of how Auburn felt about Harsin, that's a tough way for Cohen to establish his reputation at Auburn.

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Now, Cohen is welcomed in, and while he is tasked with finding the right guy to hire as Auburn's next permanent coach, he has time to make that decision with Williams filling the gap. And who knows? He might make it easy on Cohen and prove to be that Auburn needs to look no further for a coach.

Either way, Cohen has a fair chance to prove himself, Williams has three conference games with a hungry team and Bruce Pearl is still a winner — that's one thing that hasn't changed. 

Auburn men's basketball is looking to build off of a historic 2021 year where it saw its first-ever No. 1 ranking. However, the early SEC and NCAA Tournament exits left a sour taste in Pearl's team's mouths. 

But as the calendar has flipped over to November, the slate is clear for the Tigers, and with that comes the chance to start over.

Noah Griffith | Assistant Sports Editor

Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.

Twitter: @NoahGG01

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