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Jetgate: A Look Back

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That time Auburn almost hired Bobby Petrino

LOOK HOW YOUNG TOMMY LOOKS.
LOOK HOW YOUNG TOMMY LOOKS.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be time,

But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

- Robert Penn Warren

The fall of 2003 was an odd time on the Plains.  Auburn started Tommy Tuberville's fifth season the year ranked in the top 10.  Some preseason publications believed Auburn could challenge for a national title.  These expectations weren't unreasonable.  Auburn's offense had most of the talent that proved unstoppable in 2004.  Our defense was led by two all-everything linebackers, Dontarrious Thomas and Karlos Dansby.

Then the season happened.  Auburn's vaunted Nallfense was shutout by an excellent USC team that almost won the national championship that year.  Auburn followed that up by losing 17-3 to longtime rival Georgia Tech.  What was supposed to be a dream season quickly turned into a nightmare.

Auburn limped in to the Iron Bowl at a disappointing 6-5.  Alabama was a legitimately bad 4-7.  I wouldn't trade Auburn's national success, but in some ways, the Iron Bowl was more fun when the only thing on the line was hate.  The air that night was thick with humidity, bourbon, and tension.  Everyone knew that the Board of Trustees wanted Tommy Tuberville gone.  The rumor was that Auburn's first choice was Tuberville's former offensive coordinator, Bobby Petrino.  There were rumors that the Petrino deal was already final.

Auburn started fast and never looked back on the way to a 28-23 win.

The game wasn't meaningful on a national level but it was fun to watch.  Campbell threw for 270 yards and Caddy added 204 more on the ground.  It marked our second straight win over Alabama and gave fans hope that things could still improve under Tommy Tuberville.

After the game, Tuberville answered questions about his job security by saying "that ain't my decision. Any other questions?"

And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil take the hindmost.

- Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men

A day or two after the game, it was revealed that Auburn's president, William Walker; Athletic Director David Housel; and Bobby Lowder had flown to Louisville to meet with Bobby Petrino the Thursday before the Iron Bowl to interview him for the Auburn job.  The secret meeting tampered with contracts held by both Tuberville and Petrino.  Walker and Housel (who, despite this momentary lapse in judgment remains the consummate Auburn man) lost their jobs over the scandal.  The scandal was part of the reason Auburn was put on SACs probation, effectively ending the longstanding battle between Lowder and the Board of Directors on one side and the student body and faculty on the other.  Petrino apologized to his AD and the Cardinal Nation and swore that he would stay in Louisville forever.

The event galvanized public support for Tommy Tuberville who went on to go undefeated in 2004 and stretch the winning streak over Alabama to six games.  Even today, seven years after he resigned as Auburn's head coach, he remains a beloved figure on the Plains.

After a great blow, or crisis, after the first shock and then after the nerves have stopped screaming and twitching, you settle down to the new condition of things and feel that all possibility of change has been used up. You adjust yourself, and are sure that the new equilibrium is for eternity. . . But if anything is certain it is that no story is ever over, for the story which we think is over is only a chapter in a story which will not be over, and it isn't the game that is over, it is just an inning, and that game has a lot more than nine innings. When the game stops it will be called on account of darkness. But it is a long day.

- Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men

The twelve years since JetGate have been strange for all involved.  Tommy Tuberville was loved on the Plains, sold stocks for a while, was sued for securities fraud, then moved to Lubbock where he was universally hated.  He left Lubbock--and some recruits--in the middle of a steak dinner to coach in Cincinnati.  People expect great things from this year's team, a sure sign the Bearcats goes 8-4.

Petrino left Louisville suddenly to go to the Falcons.  Then he left the Falcons even more suddenly to go to Arkansas.  He was building something amazing at Arkansas when things unexpectedly swerved off track, carrying Petrino (and his mistress) along with it.  His career was over until it wasn't.  Rumors again had him coming to Auburn briefly but too much water had passed under the bridge for that to work.  Through a series of unusual events, Petrino now finds that his first love, Louisville, is eager to take him back.  The desire for glory makes men do strange things.

Lowder kept a lower profile after Jetgate but remained on the Board.  His bank, Colonial, collapsed six years later due to a massive fraud in the mortgage division that caused $1 billion in fake assets to appear on Colonial's books before anyone noticed.  Lowder was not involved with the fraud.  After Chizik won the national title in 2010, Lowder and other members of the old guard assumed a higher profile again briefly.  It occurred to me at the time that Lowder never unfired Tuberville after 2003, but had to wait for him to lose to Alabama before he could ask him to leave.  Lowder left the board in 2012, around the same time Chizik left Auburn.

The fans kept coming to games and shaking their heads at the back-stage machinations and power plays of grown men trying to control a program where young adults play a boy's game in front of 90,000 people each week.  The highs were high.  Auburn went undefeated in 2004 and went 8-3 against top 10 teams under Tuberville from 2004-2007.  The lows, were low.  Auburn lost five games to unranked teams by an average of 11 points during that same span.  Then came Chizik.  The highs were high.  Auburn won a national title.  The lows were low.  Auburn had two players murdered and four more involved in armed robbery.  Then came Malzahn.  The highs were high.  Auburn came within an eyelash of a national title with a team that could have been 6-6.  The lows were low.  Auburn lost four of its last five in a stretch where they should have won four.  Throughout, the fans kept coming.  Tailgating, cheering, ripping their hair out, eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage (during the offseason because respectable people don't get married in the fall on the Plains).

"Which is nonsense, for whatever you live is Life. That is something to remember when you meet the old classmate who says, "Well now, on our last expedition up the Congo-" or the one who says, "Gee, I got the sweetest little wife and three of the swellest kids ever-" You must remember it when you sit in hotel lobbies or lean over bars to talk to the bartender or walk down a dark street at night, in early March, and stare into a lighted window. And remember little Susie has adenoids and the bread is probably burned, and turn up the street, for the time has come to hand me down that walking cane, for I got to catch that midnight train, for all my sin is taken away. For whatever you live is life"

- Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men

While it seems like yesterday, Jetgate happened 144 Auburn football Saturdays, 102 wins, 7 Iron Bowl wins, 3 SEC titles, 1.5 national titles, and 3 coaches ago.  Auburn's starting quarterback, Jeremy Johnson, was nine when it happened.

What if is one of life's most dangerous questions.  What if Petrino had come to Auburn?  Would Auburn have won six straight over Bama?  Would we have won multiple national titles with Petrino?  Would he have left Auburn for greener pastures in the NFL?  What if Petrino hadn't been so eager to betray his old boss?  Had he and the Auburn directors and administration not timed the visit so poorly would Auburn people have gladly shown Tuberville the door in 2003?  Ultimately, it doesn't matter.  The past is past and it's best not to dwell on it.  All those directly affected have moved on and we should too.

Note: For a very detailed story on the whole saga, check out Brandon Marcello's detailed story on the whole saga.