This is the last part of a five part series by Thomas Northcutt chronicling his time as a manager for Auburn Men’s Basketball, a position he had held since Bruce Pearl’s first season in Auburn. If you missed the first four posts, be sure to go back and read them here here here and here.
Selection Sunday was a dream come true. I was so excited for it that I got one of the worst case of designer’s block I’ve ever had and just couldn’t throw together a new graphic. This was the day that every kid playing basketball dreams of. The day that your team gets announced to play in the NCAA Tournament. They sit us all down in the main football film room in the Athletic Complex and we wait for them to say our name. Thankfully they announced everyone in alphabetical order so we knew we’d be announced pretty quickly. Then the moment came, and everyone went crazy (except the players, who decided they wanted to act like they had been there before). Then they announce we’re playing in San Diego. The general consensus in the room? Thank god it’s not Boise.
San Diego was great. Going to the zoo, practices, free time in the beautiful city on the coast, all of it was great. All of the SD residents kept apologizing for the “bad weather” because it rained like two times. The stereotype that San Diego is always Sunny and 75 is absolutely 100% true, and it’s incredible.
Going into the College of Charleston game, I knew I was nervous. We were playing in the NCAA Tournament, it could be our last game, we hadn’t been playing well as of late, I was stressed. Then the game started, and all the nerves went away. The whole time, regardless of the score, I was just so happy to be enjoying the tournament and this once in a lifetime opportunity (for me, at least). The game itself was stressful as anything. Shots weren’t falling for us, but our defense played great. Forcing 21 turnovers in a game where the entire arena aside from our section was against us was so great, keeping their fans quiet.
Bryce doesn’t foul anyone on the last shot of that game. Buzzer. Red lights. Band plays War Eagle. We won our first tournament game since 2003. We knew we had made history all year, but that was a big one, especially when you consider that we missed 17 free throws, which was so uncharacteristic of us. Even though we hadn’t played very well on the offensive end, being able to walk out, knowing we had at least one more game, was great for our team and our fan base. Winning even once in the tournament is hard so being able to know we at least did that was a great moment.
Then we get to Sunday, the day of the Clemson game. I had a realization on the way to the arena that afternoon. If you remember from earlier, my first road trip was a trip to Clemson, a game we lost. As much as I didn’t want to think about it, I had a bad feeling that my time as a manager was about to come full circle and we would end as we began. But I left it to the team to get it done, knowing I had given my all over the last four years and that everything I had done was enough. Anything else from that point going forward was on the court.
I like to be as positive as possible during games, especially this year, but when Clemson hit their first shot of the second half, I knew we were fresh out of 20-point comebacks for the season. I made the decision that, regardless of the outcome, I would cherish those last 20 minutes doing my job as best as I could, locked in more than ever before.
It’s hard watching the clock tick down, literally counting down the last moments you’ll get doing something you love. I had poured my all into Auburn Basketball for four years, and every memory of every game and practice started overflowing in my head. With every second came a new memory, a different game we had won, a different moment in practice, a different funny moment or quote from a different player or manager.
Buzzer. Red Light. War Eagle. That was it. End of the game, end of the season, end of my last game as a manager. I was the only one in tears, because I was the only one who knew they wouldn’t get to be a part of a team like that again. Something I had dedicated the last 8 years to, the thing people knew me as, the one thing that meant so much to me, done. It hurt then, it still hurts a little now, and it probably will sting for a little. That had been a part of my life for so long, and it was over.
However, as clichés go, I’m less sad that it’s over but more happy that I got to spend my four years in school doing some amazing stuff not many other people will get to say. I worked 85 total games at Auburn, finishing with a record of 51-34 in games I worked. I got to work games in 10 different states, including California and Hawaii, places I’d never go without a little help. I got to work for one of the best coaching staffs in America under Coach Pearl. I got to serve so many different players, coaches, staffers, and managers from so many different backgrounds that I’d never get to meet otherwise, not to mention calling them friends, teammates, and family. To say that I was blessed to get to be in the position I was is an understatement.
I remember watching Peyton Manning’s retirement speech, and he began to talk about how important appreciating all the little things is. That has resonated with me ever since. After four years at Auburn, there are so many small moments and daily rituals that I have come to appreciate in my time here. I’ll miss coming in and cleaning up the locker room while Coach Pearl prepares his pregame notes. I’ll miss my pregame 1 on 1 with Anfernee. I’ll miss the silence of Auburn Arena during a free throw, followed by those two claps and an AU. I’ll miss watching Malik dance to literally anything and cracking a joke with Horace on the bench. I’ll miss that ol’ Daktronics clock that I got to work and BP yelling “on the buzzer” followed by a punch, signaling me to hit the horn during practices from across the court. I’ll miss getting to work out with such motivated players like KT Harrell or Anfernee McLemore and the energy they gave me through their passion for the game. I’ll miss sprinting like an idiot around that bench with that tiny metal stool. I’ll miss looking into the student section and seeing so many people, close friends and total strangers, bouncing up and down after a dunk or a three, giving me and the rest of our team new life on the bench. I’ll miss the stupid conversations on bus rides on the road. I’ll miss our guys getting excited when I posted a new graphic with them in it.
Most importantly, I’ll miss serving the Auburn Basketball family in every way I could. While my role was small, I like to think that I carried it out to the best of my abilities and hopefully I made some sort of positive impact on this program, helping in some way to rewrite the culture at Auburn.
When we got back from San Diego, after greeting family and other friends at the doors, I walked into Auburn Arena one more time, just like I have so many times. But as I walked onto the court, I noticed something, and I wish I was making this up. There was a chair sitting almost exactly where my seat during games would be, and the clock was at 00.0 with the red lights on.
Buzzer. Red Lights. War Eagle.
Say what you want about how it happened or who made it happen, but it felt so symbolic for me. I saw the zeros the symbol for the official end of my time as a manager. I sat there in that spot and visualized every big moment I was lucky enough to be a part of. “Oh there’s where I’d warm up with Anfernee. There’s where TJ Dunans made that shot vs. Mercer. That’s where that camper did that thing… That’s where we cut down the nets.” Then I looked in the stands. “That’s where my friends sat. That’s where the UK fans watched us storm the court from. That’s where my family sat on senior day when we became Champions”. Then I looked up even higher. “That’s where our banners are gonna hang”.
When the clock is at zero and the red lights are on, you have two options. You can sit there and let the red lights linger and reminisce on the previous score, or you can put new time on the clock, reset the scores, and be ready for the next challenge that could be thrown your way. Rather than walking out with those red lights on, I went over and set the clock once more with a new 20 minutes on the clock, clearing the old scores and getting it ready for the “next game”. You can linger on the previous game, appreciate the good times or sit on the bad ones, or you can prepare yourself for the next one, picking yourself up from wherever you are and getting prepared for the next challenge.
So, now you’re probably sitting there asking , “Thomas, what’s your next challenge? What’s next for you?,” and to that I’d say, “That’s a great question, random stranger who read this post”. At the time I’m posting this, my job status is TBA. I’m looking for a job in sports doing graphic design somewhere. Where this will take me, we shall see.
Regardless of where I wind up, what I’m doing, or how I get there, I will always remember where I came from, especially these four years at Auburn. I will carry myself in a way that will make the Auburn Family proud and reflect the values an Auburn Man is to hold. The impact this university, team, and family have had on me has been so influential for me and I can only hope that I have and will have that kind of impact on anyone down the line.