We're a UVA family. My three daughters, two sons in law, and I are graduates of the University of Virginia. We have season tickets to UVA football and basketball games. We’re loyal UVA fans.
My son is the exception. He went to Auburn, class of 2008. This has had an impact on our family. Auburn grads have raised loyalty to one’s alma mater to a new height. They wear their loyalty on their sleeves and also on their hats, clothes, homes, cars—pretty much on everything. For them, Auburn is a deep, lifetime commitment. For many of the rest of us, the Auburn thing is appealing. And the UVA crowd in my family—some of us, anyway—have succumbed to it.
So when Hugh Hewitt, the great radio talk show host, offered me two tickets to college football’s national championship game, Auburn vs. Florida State, I instantly said yes. Hugh had gotten them from Denis Binder, a colleague at Chapman University Law School in Orange County, California. Though Auburn suffered a painful, last-second loss, my son and I are grateful to Hugh and Denis.
The seats were in the front row at the Rose Bowl, right behind the Auburn bench. We had to stand to see the game over the heads of the Auburn players and coaches. That was not a problem. We’d probably have stood regardless. We were happy to be there.
That Auburn was in the championship game was a miracle. To get to Pasadena, the Tigers beat Georgia on an under-thrown pass that was tipped to an Auburn receiver—no tip, no Auburn touchdown, no victory, no trip to the Rose Bowl. Then came Auburn’s game-ending return of a missed field goal for a TD that beat Alabama.
The victories over Georgia and Alabama, plus the overpowering of Missouri in the Southeastern Conference championship game, made Auburn the “team of destiny” for the 2013 college football season. That’s not good. The team of destiny is what you don’t want to be. It usually means you’re destined to come up short. More often than not, powerhouses win championships. Bookies know this. That’s why the betting line had Florida State winning by 8 points in Pasadena.
We sat in an integrated section. To my right was an actress who stars in commercials. To my left were a father and son who spent much of the game doing the tomahawk chop and chanting. How Florida State—the Seminoles, or Noles—gets away with this politically incorrect practice I’ll never know. If the Washington Redskins tried it, liberals would sack the town.
The Noles were horrible in the first half and trailed 21-3 until they stole a play from the team-of-destiny playbook: They faked a punt. Auburn was, surprisingly, caught by surprise. It led to a Florida State touchdown and cut the Auburn lead to 21-10.
Suddenly the roles were reversed, and the Noles became the true team of destiny. We know this for certain because of what happened when Florida State scored on a kickoff return. The Auburn player in position to thwart the returner pulled up lame. No one hit him. He wasn’t blocked. Fate, or whatever force decides destiny in football games, had intervened.
Auburn came back to retake the lead, 31-27, on a run by Tre Mason, the best player on the field. With a minute left, the Florida State offense faced the Auburn defense. This was a matchup that favored the Noles and was why they had been predicted to win. You know the rest.
My son was inconsolable. My wife was too. Days later she was still in a morose mood. The loss? I didn’t need to ask. “It was awful,” she said. “Very, very disappointing. Kind of crushing.” And she’s neither an Auburn grad nor a football fan. But she’ll stay up late to watch an Auburn game.
Alabama is a polarized state. You’re either an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan, the gap never to be breached. This precedes football. Auburn began as the state’s cow college. Alabama the elite school. The Alabama clan looked down on Auburn. Auburn resented it, and still does.
So much so that when the pain of losing to Florida State fades, they’ll have the return of the missed field goal that beat Alabama to warm their hearts. It was one of the greatest plays of all time. And it will always belong to Auburn and forever be an embarrassment to their haughty rival.