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Auburn's title finishes off dreams for teams past

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Auburn coach Gene Chizik said it best the day before his team would win the school's first national championship in football since 1957.

"I've told my guys that it's not about them," he said. "In 20 years it will be about them. But this game is about all of the Auburn people who never got the opportunity to be where we are."

Wes Byrum's 19-yard field goal on the last play of the game gave No. 1 Auburn a 22-19 win over No. 2 Oregon to deliver the Southeastern Conference its fifth consecutive national championship from its fourth different school. But this one was really not about conference pride, which was still considerable as the confetti rained down inside University of Phoenix Stadium.

This one was for guys like Al Del Greco. Del Greco kicked three field goals, the last one coming with 27 seconds left, to lead No. 3 Auburn to a 9-7 win over No. 8 Michigan in the 1984 Sugar Bowl. That night an 11-1 Auburn team thought it was going to be voted national champions after watching No. 1 Nebraska lose to Miami in the Orange Bowl and No. 2 Texas lose to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl.

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"We were back at the hotel watching the Orange Bowl and we weren't sure if we should be pulling for Nebraska to lose or to tie," said Del Greco, who went on have a long career as an NFL kicker. "After Nebraska lost (31-30) we thought that they had to vote us No. 1."

Del Greco still remembers the phone call he got the next day from David Housel, the Auburn sports information director. The voters in both polls had elevated Miami from No. 5 to national champions.

"It was one of the most difficult phone calls I've ever received," said Del Greco, who was here with his son watching the game. "In many ways, you never really get over that."

This one was also for Pat Dye, who won four SEC championships as Auburn's head coach but never won the national title.

"I wanted to win this one so bad it was a sin," Dye said on the field after the game. "This was their dream and it was my dream. I don't have the words to tell you how great this is. This is bigger than that whole desert out there."

This national championship was for the guys on the 1993 team, which went 11-0 but could not play for the SEC championship or the national championship because of NCAA probation. Terry Bowden, the first-year head coach of that Auburn team, watched the game Monday night at the home of his brother, Jeff, in Florence, Ala. Terry is now the head coach of Division II power North Alabama and Jeff is his assistant.

"What I will always remember about that team is that it was a bunch of scrawny little guys who would not lose," said Bowden, who started 20-0 at Auburn in 1993-94. "The Auburn people thought all was lost when they went on probation. That team gave them hope that things were going to get better. I wish they could have been rewarded for what they did. Tonight is their reward."

This Auburn national championship was for the 2004 team that went 13-0, won the SEC championship, beat three top 10 teams but did not get a chance to play for the BCS title. That team had four first-round draft choices, a school record. Running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams were taken in the first five picks.

But USC and Oklahoma finished 1-2 in the BCS standings and played for the championship in the Orange Bowl. Coach Tommy Tuberville flew to Miami and put on a brave face while he watched USC destroy Oklahoma.

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"All I remember about being down there is that at halftime USC was kicking Oklahoma pretty good (38-10)," Tuberville said. "We could have played with USC. I guarantee that. That was a great football team." Tuberville, now the head coach at Texas Tech, went out to eat Monday night in Lubbock and didn't watch the game. He was too nervous. There were 24 seniors on that Auburn team that he recruited. But you could tell in his voice that he desperately wanted it for them.

One of those seniors was Byrum.

The defensive coordinator on that Auburn team was Chizik.

"That team should have gotten a chance to play for the championship," he said.

This Auburn championship was for the late Jim Fyffe, the radio voice of the Tigers for 22 years who coined the signature phrase "Touchdown Auburn!" Fyffe died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 57.

"Jim would have loved to be a part of this. I really wish he had been here," said Mike Hubbard, the president of the Auburn Network. "He, as much as anybody, understood how much this moment means to the Auburn people."

This night was for Housel, the former sports information director and athletics director and the quintessential Auburn man. No single man in my experience has loved a university more than Housel has loved Auburn. He was not in a luxury box Monday night. He was sitting with the Auburn people, where he has always been.

This night was for Buddy Davidson, a long time Auburn employee who has seen every game played by the Tigers since 1957, the last time they won a national championship. When the snowstorm hit Alabama on Sunday and Monday, Davidson got out on one of the last charters to leave the state and made it just in time for the kickoff.

Tens of thousands of Auburn fans traveled here and just as many wanted to be here. Some couldn't get here because of the weather. You can bet that they slogged their way through the snow to continue the tradition of rolling Toomer's Corner in Auburn.

Some took out second mortgages to buy tickets. Thousands of others came here without tickets and were in the parking lot. They just wanted to be here.

Why? I asked Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary, who grew up in Auburn, Ala. Gibbs' boss gave him the night off to come to Glendale in search of some history and to (hopefully) check another item off his Bucket List.

"It's really simple. I know a lot of people who have been waiting their entire lives on a game like this," Gibbs told me last week. "I'm one of them."


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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