Dec. 30, 2013
For Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton, much has changed in the past year (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - As the 2012 football season ended, Tim Horton wondered what his future held. In his sixth season of coaching running backs at Arkansas, his professional life had been turned upside down.
The story is well-known. After taking Arkansas football to new heights, winning 21 games in two seasons, head coach Bobby Petrino had been shown the door after his motorcycle crash exposed an affair with a former Arkansas volleyball player. And the Razorbacks' program fell apart.
Meanwhile, Auburn football had hit on hard times, going 3-9 and 0-8 in the SEC. That season cost Gene Chizik his job. Horton had no way of knowing it, but those unrelated collapses in two programs far apart would have a dramatic impact on his life.
On Jan. 4, Horton joined the staff of first-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn as the tight ends coach. Weeks later, Rich Bisaccia, who had signed on as running backs coach and special teams coordinator, bolted for the Dallas Cowboys. Horton was a running backs coach again.
On Dec. 7 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Horton celebrated his first Southeastern Conference championship. Tuesday, he will climb aboard Auburn's charter and fly to Pasadena, Calif., where the No. 2 Tigers (12-1) and No. 1 Florida State (13-0) will play for the BCS national championship on Jan. 6.
Not even the most optimistic of coaches could have foreseen such a turn of events.
"It's probably like some of these players," Horton says. "Last year was a tough year professionally. We won two SEC games and went 4-8 when we were a program that seemed to really be taking off. I understand how these players felt. You got humbled very quickly. We are just very appreciative and very thankful to have the opportunity to be here."
Horton, a former All-Southwest Conference wide receiver who coached the likes of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis at Arkansas, was in New York City when junior tailback Tre Mason was honored as a Heisman Trophy finalist. And now he's preparing to coach in the game that everyone who coaches college football strives to reach.
"It's very meaningful," Horton says. "So many coaching friends you've been around your whole life never get this opportunity. Some great, great coaches at some great programs have never gotten to coach in this game.
"It's quite an honor and it's very humbling, but all the credit goes to our kids. Obviously, they are the ones who have put us in this situation."
As Horton and his family settled in at Auburn and spring practice came and went, he saw hope for good things. A championship? It was after a 45-41 victory at Texas A&M that he and Auburn players and his fellow coaches were convinced that big things could be ahead for the Tigers of 2013.
"You were really proud of the way the kids responded to adversity at LSU, but we went to A&M and won on the road when we got their very best shot," Horton says. "It was offense and defense and special teams kind of doing it all together. That's when it looked like this could be a special deal."
Special it has been. And one of the reasons was Mason, who blossomed into an All-American running back. He has rushed for 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns. Only Bo Jackson has gained more rushing yards in an Auburn season. No Auburn player has scored as many touchdowns on the ground.
"Obviously, Tre was good already," Horton says. "Let's don't kid ourselves. We didn't really know a whole lot about him because he was banged up and didn't do much in spring practice. He's a tough kid. I've always felt like the one ingredient to be special, whatever the position, is toughness. He's obviously a tough kid that is very competitive and has had a tremendous season."
As the season began, Mason was splitting time with fellow juniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. But down the stretch, it was Mason's show. In Auburn's 59-42 victory over Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, he rushed for 304 of Auburn's 545 yards. No runner had ever run for as many yards in a game between two SEC teams.
"The thing that happened was Tre was probably the first one to get a high number of opportunities, and he took advantage of it," Horton says. "Like Lou Gehrig, you never got him out of the lineup. That's really what happened. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are still outstanding players and have great futures in front of them, but when you get someone that is producing like that, it's hard not to give him the ball."
It has not been easy, Horton acknowledges, for Artis-Payne and Grant. But he says they have not backed off.
"They want to play," Horton says. "They are competitive guys, and they are good enough to get more snaps than they are getting. The thing that has been so encouraging and so rewarding is to see the way they practice. I believe that is going to serve them well in years to come."
Over the past month, Horton has heard the talk that Auburn's running game, the nation's best at 335.7 yards per game, is all about sleight of hand, more deception than domination. He pays little attention.
"I feel like we have as good an offensive line as there is in the country, if not the best,
Horton says. "I think our fullback is as good as there is in the country, if not the best. We have running backs and quarterbacks that can run the ball.
"The people that say that probably haven't played us."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: