Dec. 13, 2013
Minutes before taking the field at the Georgia Dome for last Saturday’s Southeastern Conference Championship Game, Auburn players looked at the man who stood in front of them. And Pat Sullivan, Auburn icon and Auburn man to the core, talked from the heart.
“I told them I just wanted them to know that they had put the pride and the fear back in the blue jersey,” Sullivan said. “I told them they’d made all Auburn people everywhere happy.”
And then Sullivan told them to grab each other’s hands and repeat the words he said: “I want you to know you are my brother, I love you, I’ve got your back and I’m not going to let you down tonight.”
With that, Gus Malzahn’s first Auburn football team ran out the door for a game that would mean so much to so many. They won it 59-42, claiming the SEC championship. Sullivan was there when it was over to lead the loud and joyful rendition of Auburn’s fight song.
Hours later, Michigan State had beaten Ohio State and Auburn was on its way to the BCS National Championship Game.
It’s been quite a year for Sullivan, who won Auburn’s first Heisman Trophy in 1971 and returned to coach quarterbacks and help Pat Dye win championships. The head coach at Samford, Sullivan heeded his school’s call for help and teamed with Bo Jackson, Mac Crawford and athletics director Jay Jacobs to hire Malzahn last December. His Samford team won the Southern Conference championship for the first time and played in the Division I-AA playoffs.
Once they talked to Malzahn, it was clear to Sullivan and the others that they’d found their man.
“Gus just won us all over,” Sullivan said. “I don’t know that any of us expected for them to have this kind of year. You knew when you talked to him that he had a plan and a vision and a passion. The people he was going to surround himself with, it was all a formula for success. I think it turned out just wonderful.”
Yes, it did. Auburn is 12-1, ranked No. 2 and marching toward a Jan. 6 showdown with No. 1 Florida State at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Sullivan saw up close last Saturday what he’d seen from afar as he devoted his energy to the young men who play for Samford.
“It’s really been something special,” Sullivan said. “The discipline, the care (Malzahn) has for his players and they have for him. Being in the locker room the other night before the game, at halftime and after the game, you could just see the discipline and the teaching and the caring. Don’t ever sell that short.”
On the field, running back Tre Mason played the game of his life, carrying 46 times for 304 yards and scoring four touchdowns. Mason is gone today to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Sullivan won’t be there, but he’ll be there in spirit.
“I’m really tickled, and he deserves to go up there,” Sullivan said. “From what I know about him, not only is he a heck of a player he is quite a nice young man with his values and morals and everything in the right place.”
None of it happened by accident. Malzahn shared his plan, got the job and began implementing his plan from the time he arrived on Dec. 4 of last year. He demanded effort and loyalty and returned it in kind. Auburn football was on the way back at warp speed.
“The coaches all are pulling together,” Sullivan said. “There’s no jealousy. The players themselves, you can see the caring they have for each other and the coaches. Quite honestly, that’s not what we’ve had.”
And maybe that’s the secret. Maybe that’s how a team goes from being 3-9 and losing every SEC game, from being miserable and angry, to pulling together, believing in each other and earning the right to play for a national championship.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: