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Auburn Tigers end half-century of agony with national championship

GLENDALE, Ariz. — For the Auburn players, there is joy.

They are the ones who sweated in the summer, battled in the fall and emerged victorious in the end.

For the Auburn decisionmakers, there is relief.

They are the ones who gambled on an unproven head coach and stood by a renegade quarterback.

And for the Auburn fan?

This morning, there is salvation. Or vindication. Or restitution. Or whatever you want to call what happens when you devote every fiber of your soul to a football program that goes 53 years between national championships.

For Auburn, the wait is over. Barely, but it's over.

On the final play of the 2010 season, Wes Byrum kicked a 19-yard field goal to beat Oregon 22-19 in the BCS Championship Game on Monday night to punctuate Auburn's third unbeaten season in 17 years and the first one to bring home college football's ultimate prize.

And when it was over, as players raced around the field and confetti was shot into the air, Auburn coach Gene Chizik raised both arms in triumph and walked quickly and purposefully into the history books.

"They defied all the odds. Fifteen weeks ago, nobody believed we could do this except us," Chizik said. "We said we wanted to go from good to great. I can sit here tonight and tell you that the Auburn Tigers are the best football team in the United States."

A Pinellas County native and Clearwater High graduate, Chizik was about as unpopular as a head coach could be when Auburn hired him away from Iowa State a little less than two years ago. And yet today, Chizik is the man who won the title that no Auburn coach had won since the legendary Shug Jordan in 1957.

"It's not about my arrival. That's not how I live my life. I live my life trying to do the right thing and guide 18- to 22-year-olds to do the right thing," Chizik said. "It's not about how I arrived or how I will leave. It's not about Gene Chizik; it's about the Auburn family.

"I don't get any satisfaction in 'look at me' or 'told you so.' None of that. This is for these players and this Auburn family."

Until now, the Tigers have been the Boston Red Sox with a drawl. The New York Rangers on the plains. They have been a grand program with a grand history and a giant hole on the resume when it comes to titles. They have had national championships in their sight, in their hands and in their hearts, but they could never put another one down on paper.

There was 1983 when the Tigers played the hardest schedule in the nation, were ranked No. 3 at the end of the regular season, beat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl, watched the Nos. 1 and 2 teams lose on New Year's Day then were leapfrogged in the polls by Miami.

There was 1993 when Auburn went 11-0 for new coach Terry Bowden but failed to play in a bowl game or compete for the national title because of NCAA sanctions.

There was 2004 when Auburn went 13-0 but never got a whiff of No. 1 because it was the same year USC and Oklahoma went unbeaten and played each other in the Orange Bowl for the national championship.

Five SEC teams have combined to win 16 national championships since Auburn's last one. And half of those were won by Alabama, a scenario that has the potential to take years off the life of every true Auburn fan.

"Winning a national championship and bringing that home to the Auburn family, if I tried to describe what that means, I would probably cheapen it," Chizik said.

Chizik did it with a defense that was ranked 54th in the nation and yet stopped an offense that was supposedly unstoppable. The Tigers gave up 449 yards of total offense, but their defensive line repeatedly held Oregon out of the end zone whenever the Ducks got close.

"I could not be more proud of our defense," Chizik said. "For one month, our defense was bound and determined to show up and play the game of their lives.

"They played their rears off, and I love them."

If the defense was better than expected, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton was as good as advertised. In a dreadful first quarter, he attempted to pass six times and came away with two sacks, one interception and a net loss of 1 yard. Yet once the Ducks took a 3-0 lead, Newton came alive. In the second quarter alone, he was 14-of-18 passing for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Over the years, Auburn fans have watched Georgia and Tennessee celebrate national titles. They have seen LSU and Florida win multiple times since the millennium began. And they have endured the heartache of Alabama championships more times than they thought possible.

On Monday night, they put all of those memories behind them.

For the 2010 season was finally the year of the Tiger.

Auburn Tigers end half-century of agony with national championship 01/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 7:41am]
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