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History of Debut Games for Auburn Coaches

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What have we typically seen from a coach’s first game on the Plains?

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, whoa, what in the world are we doing here? In just a couple of days, Auburn fans get to see something they haven’t seen in quite some time — a brand new head coach on the Plains coaching his first game at Jordan-Hare. For all of the guff about how Auburn is notoriously fickle in terms of head coaches, buyouts, and the will to fire resting on whether or not Bobby Lowder’s office was a little too warm that day, the school just hasn’t had all that many head coaches lately. By lately, I mean over the past 50 years. Guys tend to stick around when they get this job. In fact, they stick around until we show them the door.

Maybe it has something to do with starting things off on the right foot. We’ve established that it’s typical for new Auburn head coaches to have success pretty early on in their tenure, and sometimes that sets expectations that are too high to be met on a consistent basis. Check it out going backward through time:

  • Gus Malzahn - SEC Championship in his first year, 13 seconds away from Auburn’s second national title in four seasons
  • Gene Chizik - SEC Championship/National Championship in his second year, with Cam Newton winning the school’s third Heisman Trophy
  • Tommy Tuberville - SEC West title in his second year
  • Terry Bowden - 11-0 season in his first year, won his first 20 games as Auburn head coach
  • Pat Dye - Broke Bear Bryant in his second year, won the SEC and came within a few hairs on Howard Schnellenberger’s mustache of winning a national title in year #3
  • Doug Barfield - managed to not have a heart attack while looking across the field at Bear Bryant
  • Shug Jordan - turned an 0-10 team into a 5-5 team in his first season

Now, some guys had way more success than others (Gus being the most notable), but you can see that the right guy usually got picked for the job and he usually did well to start. Something about that first invigorating sip of Toomer’s lemonade that lasts you for a year or two.

But what about those first games? Who played real competition? Who got to warm up with a snoozer? Let’s take a trip down memory lane and see how things shaped up for each of the guys on the list above...

2013 - Auburn vs Washington State - Gus Malzahn’s First Game

Look at those two kids up above! Man, what we all wouldn’t give to have Nick Marshall back running the show. At this time, however, we didn’t know what we had in the prototypical zone read quarterback, and neither did Gus Malzahn. He didn’t have much time to figure it out either, as Washington State came to town for an opening night matchup. It wasn’t the smoothest game, but we got to see the Malzahn tricks with the swinging gate extra point, and some of the fun of the 2013 team was on display for the first time in the opener.

Auburn ended up winning 31-24, and went 12-2 on the year. Hard to believe that was eight years ago.

2009 - Auburn vs Louisiana Tech - Gene Chizik’s First Game

Ugh, that square jaw and that concerned furrowed brow. What a guy. I’m truly sad that it didn’t work out in the end for Gene Chizik, but he got his ring and he’ll be known as one of the good guys in Auburn football history. His career started off as well as you could hope for also. After Tommy Tuberville decided that he was too lazy to recruit and compete against Nick Saban, Auburn turned to a familiar face in the former defensive coordinator who’d gone to cut his teeth in the Big 12. Chizik came in and won his first give games, including a wild barnburner in the rain against West Virginia. The first outing, however, wasn’t so easy.

Louisiana Tech entered with an up-and-comer named Derek Dooley on the sideline, and everyone was interested in seeing what kinds of changes the Tigers would put on the field after several years of increasingly turtle-like Tubershell football. Enter Chizik with a super charismatic staff and the then-genius offense of Gus Malzahn. Nobody knew to go fast yet, but Gus had ideas.

This game started off slowly, with Auburn falling behind in the first quarter and only taking a 13-10 lead into halftime. After the intermission, the Tigers found some footing and added a flurry of points to win going away.

1999 - Auburn vs Appalachian State - Tommy Tuberville’s First Game

Perhaps this game ended up the way it did through some karmic rebalancing act, as Auburn was never supposed to meet App State to open 1999. Originally, Auburn and Florida State were supposed to play in what would have become Bowden Bowl I. Instead, Auburn fired Terry Bowden midway through 1998, and bought out the contract with the Seminoles. You can only imagine the carnage that would’ve befallen the Tigers had Bobby Bowden actually gotten a chance to play the team that fired his boy. FSU won the BCS title that season, they were good.

What happened on the Plains, instead, was that Auburn got the scare of a lifetime, and nearly became App’s first Power Five victim several years before Michigan got the chance. After scoring first on a Gabe Gross to Ronney Daniels touchdown, Auburn would go nearly two and a half quarters without scoring again. App took a 15-7 lead late into the third quarter, and Rusty Williams tied the game with his touchdown run with 2:23 to go in that period. Finally, Auburn took the lead with just 38 seconds to play on a touchdown pass from Ben Leard to Daniels, and the Tigers escaped.

1993 - Auburn vs Ole Miss - Terry Bowden’s First Game

See if you can peep who was visiting the locker room early on in that Auburn Football Review clip (hint, it’s Diddy Bowden), and check out the tie on Phil Snow!

Anyway, Terry Bowden came in and did nothing less than rip off 20 straight wins for Auburn, including each of the 11 games during the 1993 season. He got to roll right into SEC play against Ole Miss and took a 16-12 victory that was as refreshing for Auburn fans as an ice cold Coca-Cola —

Sorry, the clips from those 1993 commercials are too good to pass up. If you watch right after, Pat Dye sticks around to lend his support to Terry because he uses Colonial Bank. Different time, y’all. There’s also a fantastic Yellawood commercial featuring Dye and both Bowdens. My stars. Either way, the Tigers got a James Bostic touchdown and three Scott Etheridge field goals, and Auburn won Terry Bowden’s first game.

1981 - Auburn vs TCU - Pat Dye’s First Game

Pat Dye came to Auburn with no guff at all, and decided that he would indeed beat Alabama and indeed be the top coach in the SEC over the 1980s. Of course, he had a little ways to go with a team that hadn’t done very much over the previous decade, and there was work to be done. Still, that didn’t stop him from plopping the best teams in the country on his schedule and working the Tigers to the bone until they got better. His first game he welcomed TCU to the Plains, and Auburn was able to get a 24-16 victory over the Froggies on the back of Ron O’Neal’s two touchdown runs.

Auburn only finished 5-6 in 1981, but then ripped off a pair of consecutive Iron Bowl wins in 1982 and 1983, and four SEC Championships over the next several years.

1976 - Auburn vs Arizona - Doug Barfield’s First Game

Doug Barfield came in to take over for Shug Jordan after the latter had finished up 25 years of coaching, and Barfield, the offensive coordinator for the Tigers in 1974-75, got the big job. To be quite honest, the Barfield years were likely the darkest in the last half century of Auburn football, with no wins over Alabama to show, three out of five seasons with more losses than wins, and no bowl appearances. His first game was really no different, losing a 31-19 decision to Arizona in Tucson, and finishing the year at just 3-8 (4-7 after Mississippi State vacated some wins shortly thereafter). We’ll just skip on down to the next entry.

1951 - Auburn vs Vanderbilt - Shug Jordan’s First Game

Shug Jordan came home to his alma mater after a stint in the military (receiving a Purple Heart for the invasion at Normandy), and some years as an assistant at Georgia. In the year before he arrived, Auburn went 0-10 under Earl Brown. They got shut out SEVEN times, and lost to both Wofford and Southeastern Louisiana (Side note: I might take that result this season if it guaranteed Auburn a national title in basketball). Naturally, a change was needed.

Enter Shug, former Auburn letterman, to turn things around. He did immediately, going 5-5 in 1951, avenging the Wofford defeat, and putting up much more of a fight overall. However, the first game of the year came against Vanderbilt at home, with the Commodores entering Cliff Hare Stadium as a two-touchdown favorite.

Auburn forced and recovered three fumbles in Vandy territory, and got a combined 242 rushing yards from Homer Williams and Charles Hattaway —

— as the Tigers beat Vandy 24-14 in the debut.

Shug would go on to win 176 games in his 25 years (roughly 7 wins per season in a time where you only played 10 games max), and win Auburn the 1957 national championship.

So what does any of this mean? Absolutely nothing. HOWEVER, the only Auburn coach that had absolutely no success since 1950 lost his first game as coach, and all of the others managed a national title, SEC Championships, undefeated seasons, Heisman winners, etc. Not to say that there’s much of a correlation, but losing your first game won’t instill any confidence into the fanbase, and if we’re locked in any sort of struggle against Akron on Saturday, you may be seeing the first real measurable response to Bryan Harsin on the Plains.