10 ‘This Is Auburn’ Moments from the 1980s
You’ve seen the ‘This is Auburn’ campaign. Or, maybe you have. It’s been out there a while, but they haven’t overdone it. This post is an abuse of the promotion, because This is Auburn is primarily about things people need to know about—things that, unlike football, don’t always get a lot of attention. But when I think, This is Auburn, I think about moments on the football field that make that statement. The 1980s were full of such moments. Let’s take a look.
1. Name Changed to University of Auburn
Settle down, fact checkers. That’s a joke. I just didn’t want to call this one The Dye Is Cast.
The foundational event for Auburn’s return to prominence might not seem a ‘This Is Auburn’ moment when viewed in a certain light. In 1981 Auburn hired Paul “Bear” Bryant’s preferred successor at Alabama. In both of his books Dye recalls a conversation when Bryant advised him not to go to Auburn, but instead to hold out for the Alabama job when Bryant retired. Dye responded there would be too much competition for the job from Bryant’s former players and other assistant coaches; so he couldn’t assume he would get it, and pass up the opportunity to coach at Auburn.
So how do we reconcile Dye’s connection to the one figure that symbolizes Alabama football more than any other, and say that Auburn hiring him was a ‘This Is Auburn’ moment? Firstly, we need to recognize that Bryant actually isn’t the face of Alabama football. It’s his mythological legacy that really serves that function. And that legacy has been grossly mishandled by countless representatives and supporters of Alabama football in the decades since Bryant’s death. They’ve taken I ain’t never been nothin’ but a winner, and turned it into an entitlement philosophy that neglects the core values that made Bryant a winner. Now, I won’t be so heretical as to quote the first line of the Auburn Creed in a paragraph about Paul Bryant, but, you know what I’m getting at—Dye brought to Auburn a certain ethic that he already had before he coached at Alabama, but that he saw modeled most intimately by a head coach while working nine seasons for Bryant.
Let’s be clear. I am not saying Bryant was perfect. I’m not saying that even the level of worship he receives from supposedly unbiased journalists is appropriate. I am saying that when we make the distinction between Bryant’s actual life and his mishandled legacy, we see that when Auburn hired Dye, we didn’t so much hire the next Paul Bryant as we did someone who had been a true Auburn man all along.
2. Bo Over the Top
Dye said it would take 60 minutes to beat Alabama. He was right, of course—we just didn’t put together those 60 minutes until 1982. It was Auburn’s first Iron Bowl win since 1972.
3. First Modern Era National Championship
Auburn’s 1983 campaign is one of the most impressive seasons of all time in any sport. If you dispute that Auburn won a national championship in 1983, I encourage you to wrestle more with the question of whether there’s such a thing as a national championship in college football—even now. If you’re an Auburn person, and you object to Auburn claiming a national championship for 1983, please understand that your objection is meaningless unless you can provide a reason, and you’re willing to elucidate that reason to the players’ faces.
4. Bo Knows Heisman
I was disappointed when I first learned Auburn would be placing statues of Pat Sullivan, Bo Jackson and Cam Newton in front of Jordan-Hare Stadium. It just didn’t seem a very Auburny thing to do. But the statues have grown on me, immensely. They’re big. They bring a lot of personality to the space. It’s fun to take pictures with them.
Just as Bo’s statue is in the middle between Sullivan and Newton, his Heisman win was right in the middle of the 80s. It was a big point of pride—the trophy itself tangible confirmation that, yes, This is post-Barfield Auburn.
5. 1986 Iron Bowl
If you’re a regular here, you know how I feel about the 1986 Alabama game. The ’86 season might not be a “This Is Auburn” moment. We failed to execute in critical opportunities. Otherwise, a good season could’ve been a great one. But we set that disappointment aside in the Iron Bowl and played well enough to beat a nine-win Alabama team, who won their bowl game to finish with ten wins.
For more on the 1986 Iron Bowl, check out this post on Alan Zuniga’s painting labeled with the players’ names, and also this post for the complete Auburn Football Review with Head Coach Pat Dye.
Auburn added the east upper deck to Jordan-Hare Stadium prior to the 1987 season, increasing capacity to 85,214. Dye and the Tigers weren’t just winning games, they were growing the program, getting it ready for even bigger things. Remarkably, Auburn made this move proactively. The expansion was part of Dye’s vision in 1981, even when Auburn had averaged just five wins per season over the previous five years.
The expansion also included the addition of the coolest scoreboard of all time.
7. Consecutive SEC Championships
Auburn won back-to-back SEC championships in 1987 and 1988, and shared the championship with Tennessee in 1989. Yes, I know technically it was a three-way tie, including Alabama. But we beat them, so we don’t have to share anything with them. We share it with Tennessee. Tennessee shares it with Alabama. Alabama lost to Auburn.
Anyhow, winning the strongest conference in the country—yes, it was the best conference even before espn told everyone it was—further solidified Auburn’s national prominence. The consecutive championships were part of five consecutive seasons in which Auburn played in New Year’s Day bowls. (Yes, I know the Sugar Bowl after the ’88 season was actually on Jan. 2. Enough with the fact checking, already.)
8. Auburn Opponents Get Rocked
In 1988 Tracy Rocker won both the Outland Award and the Lombardi Trophy. The ’88 D was one of Auburn’s finest ever. Over the final half of the regular season they recorded three consecutive shutouts, and then allowed no more than 10 points against each of the final three opponents. How’s that for a “This is Auburn” statement?
9. Curry Kicked to the Curb
What does Bill Curry being run off from Alabama have to do with Auburn? It shows we were in their head. After a 7–5 campaign in his first season at Alabama, Curry won 19 games over the next two seasons, but he couldn’t beat Auburn. He couldn’t beat Dye. Curry was even the SEC Coach of the Year in 1989, but his employers were, well, Aubsessed.
Curry’s departure was an important event for establishing the culture of instability at Alabama that continued for about another 20 years.
10. First Time Ever
We can’t overstate the importance of the 80s’ biggest ‘This is Auburn’ statement. The enduring impact is immeasurable. Auburn didn’t simply move our home game against Alabama to Auburn. We moved the Iron Bowl onto campus—ultimately, both campuses. Alabama followed our lead. And the impact works both ways. Without 1989, there is no Kick Six. At the same time, think about years like 2010. Auburn was unstoppable. We could’ve beaten Alabama anywhere. But, how much sweeter was it to beat them in Tuscaloosa, instead of in Birmingham?
This is Auburn
So, we can see that the 1980s as a whole were—and are—one big This is Auburn proclamation. For recent history the 1980s have been the bedrock of Auburn football. We continue to stand on it today, though, at some point someone will likely look back and say the current epoch of Auburn football began at some later point. When will that day come? I don’t know. But I suspect the point they (or we) will look back to will be 2013.
I hope we’ll see things in the second half of this decade that rival the greatness of the 80s. When we do, it will be fun to recognize that greatness, and say, “This is Auburn!”