By Jeff Shearer
NEW ORLEANS - One minute, Quentin Riggins was talking to Deion Sanders. The next minute, he found himself in the presence of "Prime Time."
"I'll never forget meeting Deion Sanders and some of the guys on Bourbon Street," said Riggins, a junior linebacker on Auburn's 1989 Sugar Bowl team. "He was as normal of a guy as you could imagine, until the fans or the cameras came around, and then he was 'Neon.'
"He put on a show, and then when they went away, he said, `I'm sorry, I had to do that.' Early on, it was clear he knew more about marketing, antics and image than any of us. We're still thinking about video games. He was on a different level at that time."
Riggins and the Tigers met Sanders and the Seminoles on Jan. 2, 1989. It was not the matchup Auburn wanted at the end of the 1988 season.
"We lost to LSU in '88, and if we had won that game we would have played Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship," former Auburn coach Pat Dye said. "We lost 7-6, and that game haunts me till today. The head coach should make the difference in a 7-6 game and somewhere I didn't."
"There was a little frustration because we had the LSU game," Riggins recalled. "There were a lot of guys, including myself who wanted to play Notre Dame, wanted to go against that option offense."
Instead, No. 7 Auburn played Bobby Bowden's No. 4 `Noles, a team that had soundly defeated Auburn the previous season at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Trailing 13-0 at the half, Auburn quarterback Reggie Slack connected with Walter Reeves to pull the Tigers within six.
Knocking on the door for the game-winning score in the final seconds, Slack targeted Lawyer Tillman in the end zone.
"They had Deion Sanders on me," Tillman said. "Deion, with that incredible catch-up speed, he kind of caught up and he grabbed the majority of the ball and I had the tip of it. I couldn't pull it away from him."
Sanders' interception secured FSU's 13-7 win. The Tigers finished the year at 10-2, ranked No. 8.
Looking back nearly three decades later, pleasant memories from Auburn's Sugar Bowl trips come to mind easily for Tillman and Riggins.
"Just experiencing the city of New Orleans was great," Tillman said. "Just to do that back to back was awesome. You go down there and you represent Auburn and the state of Alabama. Get down there and just do the best you can. Have fun, but you know you're down there for business."
"I remember walking in the Dome with my roommate Craig Ogletree and Reggie Slack," Riggins said. "We were young pups. We really didn't get the significance of it until we got there, and then we knew. You automatically knew what a sense of accomplishment it was to hit the Dome.
"Going out on picture day, and just talking, because it gives you a chance to reflect on the season. What I remember is not so much the game, but the day before the game. The walk-through, because you're out there and all of the work is done and you can take a pause. And you can look over the season, and there's some guys who are seniors who you won't see again that you get to catch up with and cut up with."
The players from Auburn's five previous Sugar Bowl teams will have a chance to catch up and cut up Sunday in New Orleans at a reunion hosted by Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs.
Dye coached three of those teams, including the 1983 squad on which Jacobs started on the offensive line.
"It was a great run, and you know what?" Dye said. "All of the football games we won, and all of the championships we won, nothing means as much to me as becoming an Auburn man. That means more than all of the rest of it put together.
"Knowing what this institution stands for, and the kind of kids who are still choosing to come to school here. And the kind of kids that we're able to recruit to play football here, and other sports, other athletics, not necessarily because of the won-loss record, or because of the coaches, but when they get on this campus, they know there's something different about Auburn. And that's what means the most to me."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer