It is not hard at all to get Auburn fans to talk about pain.
The 1998 Tennessee game, featuring consecutive stuffed goal line sneaks in crunch time by a freshman quarterback behind a freshman center. Arguing across a street about whether the latest whatever was Brandon Cox's fault or not. USC fans showing up with patronizing "Fight On, Y'all" buttons as their team blanked the Tigers in Jordan-Hare. Reggie Ball, perhaps the worst four-year starting quarterback in college football history, being carried off on student shoulders after beating Auburn. The 2009 Iron Bowl. The 2002 Georgia catch. Leaving in the fourth quarter of what turned out to be the SEC's first overtime game, thus arriving home to still catch plenty of an eight-period loss. The year 2012.
It all comes pouring out with very little priming. Especially going unbeaten in 1993 and 2004 with nothing to show for either while Alabama's won two one-loss national championships since.
But it's even easier to get Auburn fans to talk about family, God, neighborhood fellowship, and the other things people make fun of when we make fun of Auburn stuff. You want to tell them it's okay to drop an "all in" if they want to, but then they make fun of "#Godthing."
On a day that should've been marked by anger and shows of defiance, a school-record 83,401 fans packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium to watch the return of former national champion offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and to say goodbye to the Toomer's Corner oaks, famously poisoned by deranged Alabama fan Harvey Updyke.
So Jordan-Hare is pretty much full: yfrog.com/mgwxxduuj— Jason Kirk (@JasonKirkSBN) April 20, 2013
It was more than 24 hours of polite celebration. It was parents coaching children on how to roll trees, demonstrating form and technique. At one point, I found myself wondering whether some people in the massive crowd even knew what had been done to the trees by a hated enemy. So long as the Toomer's replacement didn't turn out to be a wire statue of Gene Chizik, whose cubist face would do a phenomenal job of catching rolls, all was well.
I didn't hear Updyke's name used once all weekend, nor anything about poison or decay or regret or death. The only person I could find even acknowledging what was happening to the corner of College and Magnolia was the woman who made this sign, a call for perspective:
At least in the South, there's no metric for the strength of a college football program in the spring quite like spring game attendance. It's a competition that matters. I feel like apologizing to you for that fact, but it's true.
Up until Saturday morning, Auburn fans were hoping for a turnout of 50,000 fans at the A-Day Game. That would've approached the school record. It would've meant a stadium more than halfway full, a show of force not too far behind Alabama's, and a good crowd at Toomer's.
The night before, I met some of the College And Magnolia crew near College and Magnolia, where a bar that does not often have a DJ had a DJ. Hotels out to at least Opelika were nearing or at capacity. Parking was hard to find all around campus by 8 a.m. local. The corner oaks had already been quite rolled by five hours before the spring game had even kicked off, rolled enough that you would've gotten in trouble in middle school if your friends had done this in your front yard:
Lines at the Jordan-Hare gates were already growing at 10 a.m., well before they opened. Members of our tailgate company began hoping for 60,000 or even 70,000 in attendance.
Every program gets a fan confidence boost from hiring a new head coach (or, more accurately in many cases, from firing the old coach), but Auburn football has the benefit of replacing its broken regime with one that's already worked here.
It's a new day, and Malzahn is rising from Jordan-Hare like Mario from a pipe, but it's also part of an old day that was itself a pretty damn good day.
If we think of a school's offensive identity as being a similar mode of attack that lasts through multiple head coaches and over the decades, we can explain the offensive identities at places like Alabama, Nebraska, BYU, USC, Texas Tech, and the service academies. We cannot develop a picture of a lasting identity at Auburn.
In fact, over the last two decades, the only constant for Auburn's offense is change.
Let's start with Bo Jackson. Whatever else it does, Auburn should be able to run the ball. Terry Bowden, former running back, saw his offenses go from 1,000-yarders James Bostic and Stephen Davis from 1993 to 1995 to two straight years without even a 500-yard back. And Bowden only stayed at Auburn for (almost) five years.
Tommy Tuberville's Tigers leaned on Rudi Johnson, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams in their early years, but by the end it was a fenced-in Tony Franklin and nervous Tuberville putting Kodi Burns and Chris Todd through maybe the most insincere Air Raid ever attempted at the FBS level.
The Gene Chizik era began with Malzahn's hurry-up offense turning that same Todd into one of the SEC's best quarterbacks, and without asking Todd to run all that often. Cam Newton and Michael Dyer should've then established the Auburn prototype for the next decade, but the next two years were spent scaling back what Malzahn had built, with a slowed-down hurry-up in 2011 and Scot Loeffler in 2012 trying a pro-style scheme with spread-to-run players.
With so many of Auburn's current players having been recruited for Malzahn's offense anyway, we're technically seeing the first coherent transfer of offensive scheme from head coach to head coach at Auburn in who knows how long. Just pretend (as Auburn is) that 2012 didn't happen, and it's a block of consistency entering its fourth year.
Auburn fans would prefer not to deviate from smashmouth football, so long as that means wins. But the Tigers have to play the market, and the smashmouth market in Auburn's part of the world is completely dominated by Nick Saban at the moment. (And besides, Malzahn runs the ball a lot.) We've been cheerleading the Malzahn hire since before it even happened, as it fits everything Auburn should do and should want to do, from being good at what Alabama isn't good at to, you know, FAMILY.
Alabama fans approach life as if it is a thing that must acknowledge the superiority of Crimson Tide football to all things. At all hours. In all circumstances. No matter the topic at hand. No matter the people gathered to discuss it.
Auburn fans have embraced the FAMILY thing as a simple response: they're surrounded on all sides by the most overwhelming force in the history of college sports. They've insulated themselves, attracting far fewer sidewalk fans. They think of themselves as the last ember.
One of them recounts watching Alabama-LSU at a bar not specifically billed as a Bama bar. Just after AJ McCarron's screen to T.J. Yeldon completed the improbable comeback, the sheet upon which the game was being projected rose to reveal a full band, which launched into "Sweet Home Alabama." This was, again, at a non-Crimson Tide bar.
It's not fair to define Auburn as being not Alabama, but it's unavoidable. The Auburn football program is one of the country's true elites, whether in terms of wins, money, attendance, recruiting, or whatever else you choose. But because of its proximity to the sport's superpower, it's too often thought of as a little brother. I know little brother fans, but Auburn fans strike me more as being fully aware of their standing in state while proud of their standing nationally.
Auburn isn't a college town so much as a suburban neighborhood with a 87,451-seat coliseum plunked in its middle. You see more dogs on leashes around an Auburn game than at likely any other football event in the country. And while the Toomer's event was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, there were more kids on shoulders than I think I've ever seen anywhere.
The kid climbing a Toomer's non-oak in this photo was screaming, "War Eagle!"
It amazes me all day Saturday how much celebration can spring from one man's act of violence.
As far as I can tell, it was the biggest crowd in Toomer's Corner history, bigger than the 2010 BCS National Championship celebration.
Mickey Golden, a 1983 graduate and career veterinarian (perhaps the most Auburn vocation), attended with his kids, ages 14 and 11.
"I've never seen anything like this," he says. "It gets crowded, but definitely not for the A-Day Game."
As for the atmosphere, it's a "typical Auburn family," says Bill Becklew, a 1961 graduate who's alongside multiple generations of Auburn students and is introducing a one-year-old grandson to Toomer's. And if Gus Malzahn doesn't work out, he says, "It's still Auburn."
Glen Albright, a 1957 graduate with the definitive Auburn accent ("AW-buhn"), was at Toomer's with his family, including a granddaughter who's hoping to start the family's third generation at the school. He missed the 1957 national title celebration due to enrolling in the Army. He says the College and Magnolia crowd is "as great or greater than" any he's ever seen.
"We rolled it, one last time," says Albright. "With a surgical arm, I can hardly get it up there, but I did. It was fun. I hate to see them come down, but it's time."
Asked about the future of Toomer's, Albright says, "Whatever they come up with, we'll rally around it."
"Auburn fans are kind of like the rebel alliance."
I try this line out on a few different groups of Auburn fans. They all seem to like it.
Auburn family is a branding thing that's stuck. For at least one weekend, it certainly felt real. All that matters moving forward is that its members believe it.