The Boys of '83: From tragedy to a championship

Oct. 24, 2013


Pat Dye coached Auburn to its first SEC championship in 26 years

By Phillip Marshall
AuburnTigers.com

On that hot afternoon in August 1983, no one at Auburn was talking about championships or even the approaching season-opener against Southern Mississippi.

Coaches and players wept together, trying to console one another and deal with overwhelming grief. Fullback Greg Pratt had collapsed after making the required time in running tests. He died a short time later.

On the day before practice started, Auburn players were required to run four 440s with one minute’s rest in between. The required time depended on the position. Randy Campbell, now an insurance and financial services executive in Birmingham, was a senior quarterback. He remembers it vividly.

“Greg had actually made it in two practice runs without seeming to have any problem,” Campbell says. “The day you actually run it, for some reason, is always 10 times harder than practicing it. The day we had the test, it was hot and humid. Greg had made his time in the first three, but you could tell he was struggling.

“A couple of guys who had finished ran along beside him to encourage him on the last one. That’s just the kind of guys we had on that team. He made it, but he collapsed. We didn’t think much about it. I’d collapsed a couple of years earlier. Usually, four or five guys fell out. We didn’t really know anything until somebody came around the dorm and said the ambulance had come to take him to the hospital.”

Dozens of Auburn players went to the hospital, waiting in the hallway. That night, they got the numbing news from head coach Pat Dye.

For Dye, tough and demanding on the field, it was the most difficult day of his coaching career.

“There’s no way to describe what it was like going through that,” Dye says. “We went through the practices, but it was like we were at a funeral. The kids worked anyway, and the coaches got them through it.”

From those days of pain and despair, Auburn’s football team began to grow. It became one of the more dominant teams ever to play at Jordan-Hare Stadium, going 11-1 and winning the Southeastern Conference championship. Those who were there will always believe they were robbed of a national championship.

“That tragedy was there all year,” Dye says. “I don’t think there’s any question that it brought our football team close together.”

The Boys of ’83 will gather in Auburn this weekend on the 30th anniversary of that championship season. They’ll have reception tonight and be honored at Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic.

* * *

The story of the 1983 team started in January 1981. After a month-long search, Dye had been hired from Wyoming to replace Doug Barfield. He took over a program coming off NCAA probation, one that had not beaten Alabama since 1972. He came with his jaw set and with fire in his gut. Auburn would win, he vowed, and win big.

“The first impression was the first team meeting we had,” Campbell says. “He threw two guys out of the meeting because they weren’t paying attention. He basically proceeded to tell us that he’d won a championship at every level. He said he knew how to win and that we were going to win. He said, most of all, we weren’t going to fear Alabama. That got my attention.

“He came across as very, very confident. We kind of all walked out of there and said, ‘He’s really the right guy and things are going to get real good real quick or he’s full of it.’ The 40 who thought he was full of it weren’t there very long.”

It didn’t take Dye long to make his point that winning would come at a high price.

“That winter and spring training was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Campbell says. “There were three phases to the winter program. Phase 1, we thought, was kind of like a joke. We lifted hard, but we were used to doing that.”

There was nothing funny about the next phase, held in the old inflatable “bubble” that was once Auburn’s indoor practice facility.

“The first day of Phase 2, some of the guys in our group were walking to the bubble,” Campbell says. “Here comes four guys holding Darryl Wilkes up, bringing him out. He was a free safety. He was about 6-2, 175 and one of the best athletes on the team. He was soaking wet and about to pass out.

“That was Phase 2. We won’t even talk about Phase 3, but it got real hard, real quick.”

It didn’t get any easier when spring practice started.

“I can remember players being so tired coaches would hold them up at the line of scrimmage,” Campbell says. “When the ball was snapped, they’d shove them in there. We were just trying to find out who was tough and who wasn’t. Between 30 and 40 people left the program.”

Auburn went 5-6 that first season, but it was obvious good times were coming. The Tigers weren't particularly talented, but they played with ferocity, toughness and discipline. It was a season that easily could have been better.

A fumbled kickoff and some controversial officials’ calls led to a loss to Wake Forest. A fumble near the goal line in the final seconds allowed Tennessee to escape. A rarely called illegal snap penalty gave nationally ranked Mississippi State new life when Auburn led in the final minutes.

“We had a lot of good guys that left, good football players,” Dye says. “There can’t be but one way to do it, and that was our way. The ones who stayed bought into our philosophy. We had some great players on that 1981 team that were seniors. (Defensive tackle) Edmund Nelson and (linebacker) Danny Skutack jump out at me.

“If we’d done a better job of coaching, we’d have had to a chance to win three more games. We should have beaten Mississippi State and Tennessee. We did beat Wake Forest. They just stole that game from us.”

But it may have all been for the best.

“When you look back,” Dye says, “if we’d won eight games that year we might have gotten a false sense of where we were. We might not have accomplished what we did later.”

What Auburn’s football did in 1983 echoes still through the years. Pride was restored to a level that had not been seen since the national championship year of 1957.

When the 1981 season was over, Dye and his staff were on the road in search of their first full recruiting class. Though the days of self-proclaimed and self-promoting “recruiting analysts” were far away, Auburn’s efforts opened eyes around the Southeast.

But the one who would forever leave his imprint on Auburn football came from Bessemer. He played football, baseball and ran track at McAdory High School, a half-hour drive from the University of Alabama campus. He played mostly defense in high school, running the ball fewer than a dozen times a game.

His name was Vincent Jackson.

Most people called him Bo.

Auburn secondary coach Bobby Wallace, who recruited the Birmingham area, got Jackson away from Alabama, his lifelong favorite. It didn’t hurt that Alabama assistant Ken Donahue told Jackson he “might” start by the time he was a sophomore at Alabama.

Jackson signed with Auburn, turned down a $250,000 signing bonus from the New York Yankees and reported to campus for the 1982 season. By the time he left after the 1985 season, he’d won the Heisman Trophy and become virtually unchallenged as the greatest player ever to wear Auburn blue.

“You could tell he was different,” Campbell says. “He was bigger and stronger than anybody we had who wasn’t a lineman. He was faster than anybody, period.”

Jackson was the key ingredient, but there were others. When Jack Crowe arrived to replace Alex Gibbs as offensive coordinator in 1982, he identified Campbell as one who could be a winning wishbone quarterback. Lionel “Little Train” James was a devastating blocker and dangerous runner who would become one of the more popular Auburn players ever. Steve Wallace was playing left tackle on his way to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL. Tight ends Ed West and Jeff Parks were both headed to the NFL. Defensive end Kevin Greene was going from walk-on to star. Gregg Carr was on his way to becoming an All-America linebacker.

Wayne Hall, the defensive line coach, began what would become a tradition of sending players to the NFL. So grateful were those linemen that, years later, they got together to buy him a Rolex watch to show their appreciation.

Dowe Aughtman was a linebacker when Dye arrived as head coach. He wasn’t destined to stay there. “I still remember asking him if he wanted to be a nose guard or an offensive guard,” Dye says.

Aughtman became a nose guard. He would thrive under Hall and become a leader on a championship team. Hall, Aughtman says, helped him grow as a player and a man.

 “He’s still a very dear friend,” Aughtman says. “He was especially hard on his players and demanded a lot out of us, but he gave a lot, too. He was kind of our dad away from home. As a matter of fact, we called him dad. He could get that extra five percent out of you that most coaches just don’t know how to get.”

* * *

Auburn began its championship push in 1982. Campbell became the starting quarterback for the first time and Auburn went 9-3 and beat Alabama 23-22 when Jackson scored over the top from the 1 on fourth down late in the game. It beat Boston College and Doug Flutie in the Tangerine Bowl. Things were good. They were about to get better.

In November 1983, Auburn beat Georgia 13-7 in Athens to win the SEC championship and lock up a spot in the Sugar Bowl. Georgia had won the previous three SEC championships and was two years removed from a national championship. Dye licked sugar off a football in the dressing room.

“God almighty, that was a great day,” Dye says. “Winning the SEC championship, doing it at Georgia. That meant a lot to a lot of people.”

The 1983 season started with a 14-3 win over Southern Mississippi. Then came the game that would test the Tigers’ resolve. Texas went into Jordan-Hare Stadium and emerged with a 20-7 victory. A week later, things turned. Auburn routed Tennessee 37-14 in Knoxville. The season of dreams was off and running.

The schedule was brutal – including seven nationally ranked teams – but the Tigers just kept on winning. They beat Florida State. They beat Maryland and Boomer Esiason. But the biggest win might have been over Florida. Jackson rushed for 196 yards as Auburn built a 28-7 lead and held on to win 28-21.

It was after that win that national championship talk began. Auburn beat Alabama 23-20 in the final regular-season game when Jackson rushed for 256 yards on 20 carries and had two long touchdown runs.

The Tigers moved up to No. 3 in the rankings. Nebraska was No. 1 and Texas was No. 2. Nebraska and No. 5 Miami would play in the Orange Bowl. Texas and No. 4 Georgia would play in the Cotton Bowl. Auburn and No. 8 Michigan would play in the Sugar Bowl. It would take a miracle. On New Year’s Day, miracles began to happen. Georgia beat Texas. As Auburn and Michigan were embroiled in a bloody, physical battle on the floor of the Superdome, Miami beat Nebraska.

When Al Del Greco’s field goal gave Auburn a 9-7 victory, it seemed the Tigers had done it. They’d won 10 straight games against the nation’s toughest schedule. But the next day, Auburn was still No. 3. Miami won the national championship. Nebraska finished second.

Joe Whitt, who came to Auburn from Montgomery’s Robert E. Lee High School to join Dye’s first staff, left the Superdome that night convinced that Auburn had won the national championship.

“To be honest, as far as I’m concerned, we did win the national championship,” Whitt says. “It wasn’t awarded to us, but based on the standards and the way the national championship has been won before then and since then, there’s no doubt our football team was the best in the country.

“We did everything we could do. It was an early loss. We won 10 straight games. The team we lost to got beat by a team in our conference that we had beaten. Obviously, we had to have Miami beat Nebraska. Everything fell into place. We did our part. Nebraska lost. Texas lost. Who’s the champion? There’s no question in my mind. It’s Auburn.”

A season that began with unspeakable tragedy ended in glory never to be forgotten by those who played and those who watched.

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Portions of this story were reprinted from Phillip Marshall’s book “The Auburn Experience: The History and Traditions of Auburn Athletics."

 
       

Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: