By way of throat-clearing, let’s establish two points here.
1. I’m not from Alabama; the visceral hatred and small-pond/big-fishism that infects this state year-round in its rivalry between a second-rate land grant and the flagship is truly alien to me. Even when I moved here as a child it just seemed…weird. And it is weird from the outside. Hell, at least Michigan and Ohio State share an acrimonious border that sparked a brief shooting war. So, I have no problem praising a competitor or calling them out in equal measure, even if that competitor is from the ‘Barn. Auburn really is just another school to me — another conference opponent for whom Alabama sells their season tickets and the prospect of an upset motivates them all season. They are a cultish, weird-as-hell school, to be sure; but at the end of the day just another one on the calendar. (and, honestly, with the addition of Aggie, they’re not even the most cultish program in the SEC any more. Poor Auburn, always a bridesmaid).
2. I do not desire Great Value, white-label opponents. I want my alma mater to play the best that they can schedule, and the conference to be coached and managed as well as it can. Only a coward shielded by a league commish desires to be protected — not naming any names here ACC, PAC12, Big 10…but, well, the shoe fits. So, when I praise an interim coach at an ostensibly rival, or say that School X ought to hire Y, then it is being objective as possible. I deal in data; it drives my beliefs, not vice versa.
With that preface in mind: The performance of the Auburn Tigers under Carnell Williams earned him a shot at the Auburn head coaching job; at the least, he deserved the respect of a courtesy interview. Treated as an afterthought by the very program he has given twenty years to, he received neither.
Saban Derangement Syndrome has driven many programs over the edge the past 16 years. We’ve seen LSU Man morph from a fun agent of chaos into a murderous, obsessive coonass more jilted than Glenn Close ever dream of being. We’ve seen Tennessee Man burn through half a dozen coaches, almost as many Athletic Directors, and wind up squarely in the NCAA’s doghouse for the most amateurish sort of cheating. But nowhere has that mania reached pandemia than in Lee County, Alabama, where the Auburn Tigers have forced out two coaches who played for national titles because they simply weren’t meeting the standards of the emerging dynasty to their East, and the greatest dynasty of all time to their West. How bad has it gotten? Auburn has now paid more money in buyouts to football coaches than Nick Saban has earned at the University of Alabama.
Talk about throwing good money after bad. And now Auburn is throwing away a good man after a bad one.
I’m not going to fully address the Hugh Freeze situation here. If Auburn is fine with hiring a man who harasses a sexual assault survivor, calls the architect of the Baylor coverup “Christ-like”, and uses state university property and resources on low-rent prostitutes, that’s their prerogative. I’ll be sure to tune into those Saturday Hugh Freeze confessionals of faith for this week’s performative Christianity.
If the national media want to bend over backwards to write tales of Freeze’s redemption — when he’s not even fully confessed, much less atoned — and do so in the worst sort of attempt to curry favor for access, be my guest. You’ll know who they are.
If, as a football matter, anyone wants to address why this man, and why now, I’d love to hear it. Hugh Freeze was literally on no one’s radar this season. Or last. Or the year before. What is it that Auburn, and Auburn alone, sees in a man they could have had in October or in October of 2021. Or in October 2024. Five-D chess, indeed.
Instead, my focus is on the person to whom it always should have been; the other coach that has now become another discarded human being in Auburn’s quest for relevance beyond the borders of the state.
October 29, 2022 was perhaps one of the grimmest days of recent Auburn football history. The Tigers had just been utterly blasted at home by a mediocre Arkansas team, in a game where Bryan Harsin gave their feature back just 11 touches. Harsin was relieved, and in his stead ‘Barn alumni and legend Cadillac Williams was tabbed as the interim coach.
But something very strange then began to happen for the 3-5 Tigers: The Tigers begin to believe. It was not easy. They hit the road to face the No. 25 MSU Bulldogs, and fell down 24-6 after one quarter. That was when Williams pulled the kids aside and delivered a simple message: We’re going to win, because we know who we are and we believe in one another.
They damn near did. Over the next three quarters, the Tigers held ‘State to just six more points, even as they mounted a furious rally to push the game to overtime. Though Auburn would lose, 39-33, they didn’t quit. They did believe. They did find themselves. Auburn would be what Auburn had traditionally been: a team that plays hard as hell, and is led by defensive line and running back play.
It was the first time all year that Auburn won the turnover battle.
What happened next week against A&M was practically a foregone conclusion, as Auburn secured their first divisional victory of the season and their first of any sort in over a month. Cadillac, always wearing his heart on his sleeve, then began to take control of the program very publicly:
“I’m so appreciative of this Auburn family,” he said during a post-game interview on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium. “These fans showed up and showed out. The energy. The atmosphere here. I’m just appreciative for this institution. I’m forever indebted to it. I love serving these young men. This coaching staff is bigger than me. It’s just not my show. We are together. We family. So, I’m excited.
“These kids just need a little love. They need to be loved on with the discipline. They need to know that it’s okay to make mistakes. They going to fall, but coaches will be there to pick them back up. Regardless, we got their back. They have to open their heart, and that’s what they did, to be honest with you.”
The kids began to believe. The Auburn fanbase rallied around Caddie. A once-improbable dream of a bowl bid was staring the Tigers squarely in the face.
The next week would be more of the same. Facing a 7-2 Western Kentucky team as a scant home favorite, the Tigers lined up and harassed the Toppers into mistake after mistake; they pummeled WKU with a triad of devastating rushers. And what was supposed to be a close game became a laugher.
When Lane Kiffin fell through (a prospect most doubt was ever serious), Caddie began to speak very earnestly and candidly about his desire for the job; about what the job meant to him; about the trailblazing he has done at one of the SEC’s whitest campuses (and most troubled recent racial history):
“I know the responsibility of having that or being the first of any to do anything. I’m honored and blessed,” Williams said. “I give credit to the people before me who paved the way for myself to have this opportunity. Lord knows there’s a lot of guys that look just like me that actually can do a doggone good job in this seat. So, I’m honored. I’m just in the moment and chopping wood and just trying to win a ballgame. That’s it. That’s all I’m focused on right now.”
One more win, and Auburn would be bowl eligible. And, even facing the Tide as a three-touchdown ‘dog, the players never quit or quit believing:
Edge rusher Derick Hall was asked if he’d recommend Auburn to remove the interim tag from Williams and make him the head coach. Hall firmly backed Williams, echoing sentiments from several players.
“I’d vouch for him 1,000 times over. He’s come in, and he can relate to this place, No. 1. He can relate to the players, No. 2, being in the position that we were in,” Hall said. “And, you know, he can relate to the things that we’re trying to do in the future. A lot of guys have that aspiration to go and play in the National Football League, and he’s done that. He knows what it takes.”
Alabama would handily win the Iron Bowl. But it certainly wasn’t easy — the Tigers rushed for more yards than any opponent in a decade: 300 big ones. And, yes, Auburn would get their ass kicked and make mistakes, but they fought hard on every snap…and they played a clean game doing so.
After the game, a conclusion that was never in doubt, Caddie again addressed what it meant to coach this team and the growth that he made, even as the Auburn family came together again, and the team began to cohere.
It was as classy as it was inspirational:
“I mean, through this process, it made me a better person. A better husband, father, a better friend. It is powerful what you can do when you get people to believe and serve, and thinking about each other. It’s powerful. So that the thing that I’m most happy for, having this opportunity. That is what I told players, staff it was. I don’t know how many games that we’re going to win, and honestly, quite frankly, it was harsh to but it didn’t matter. But it didn’t. I’ve seen kids that were broken. I’ve seen kids that needed help. The opportunity to get to serve them and see how – wow – they have opened their heart. How they did a 360. How they’re back believing…
Let’s see why they were believing:
- Auburn went from 7th in SEC rushing (169 YPG) and finished 4th overall (206 YPG) — in November they were the best running game in the conference by a wide, wide margin: Auburn averaged 274 yards per game, and over 6 yards per carry: up from
- Disregarded Jacquez Hunter became a star in the making.
- For the first time in school history, two Auburn players platooned for 100+ yards in three straight games.
- There was no better team in the SEC down the stretch on the ground. Auburn went from
- In two games, Auburn would even win the +/- battle, something that had not happened to them once all season. And, Auburn would finish +1 in Caddies’ four November games.
- Its rushing defense in went from dead last in the SEC in October and September games to 2nd in November games. The Tigers went from allowing 5.89 yards per carry to 3.68.
- Auburn went from 12th in SEC total defense to 8th
- Auburn went from surrendering 6.1 YPP (10th in the SEC) to 5.09 YPP (5th, just behind Alabama).
- Auburn went from 4.35 YPC to 5.89 YPC. They would finish 5th overall, and hit the magic 5 YPC mark.
- Auburn went from losing players to the portal, to picking up recruits.
- Most importantly, in Cadillac’s four-game stint, the Tigers went 2-2 against four teams that were ranked at some point in the season — two of them were preseason Top 10 — and did beat one bowl team.
If the proof is in the pudding, if this is what Cadillac could do with just four games, imagine giving that guy the reins for a year or two. Because sometimes you do find a diamond in the rough; a man that can motivate and connect in a special way.
Cadillac is that type of guy.
And that takes me back to the final few sentences of Williams’ post-Iron Bowl presser; some sentences that most grabbed my attention, but did so for the wrong sorts of reasons:
“I grew up always wanting to play in this game. Dreamed about it, visualized about it, spoke it into existence….[To] be the first African-American to coach in this game, to be the head coach, it almost broke me down last night. It honestly, I didn’t really think much about it, to be honest with you, but it definitely was special. Special because we, you know, we don’t dream about being a head coach, to be honest with you. For people before and after me that are striving to do these things, a lot of things in life — if you can see it then you can strive for it and start believing it.”
Keep dreaming, Carnell. Because, even though there is no urgency to hire a “championship coach” — the Tigers are several years away from contending — you’re not even getting a courtesy interview. Keep dreaming, Caddie. Because there was literally no harm in the administration believing in Carnell like he believed in Auburn.
One side in all of this kept true to the Auburn creed, and it damned sure wasn’t the people with the checkbooks. “I believe in honesty and truthfulness, without which I cannot win the respect and confidence of my fellow men. I believe in sound mind, in a sound body…”
What a farce.
Because we now know that the one thing Williams can not believe in was the one that he ought have never doubted: Auburn itself.
So much for family.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by PostX News and is published from a syndicated feed.)