AUBURN, Ala. — There always have been and always will be far more pressing matters.
Whatever the scoreboard reads after Saturday’s matchup between Ole Miss and Auburn, the two teams will walk off of the field as they have for four decades: amicably.
Still, the Tigers and the Rebels will battle for the 41st time because it’s required. The game is a stepping stone for the rest of the season — that’s the nature of this series.
The teams are moving in different directions. Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) has won four in a row and was unstoppable in last week’s 56-3 roasting of Arkansas. Ole Miss (3-4, 1-3 SEC) blew double-digit leads to FSU and Alabama and has since lost its last two SEC games.
For most of the last 40 years, both teams have remained fixated on beating in-state rivals Alabama and Mississippi State. They’ve gained more satisfaction from victories over LSU and Georgia than from wins in the Vaught or on the Plains against each other.
Yet there is one glaring exception identified as a true rivalry game.
It was played before the last turn of the century — shortly before Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze’s friendship started forming — when Tommy Tuberville, who coached the Rebels from 1995 to 1998 made his first trip back to Oxford as Auburn’s head coach.
The meeting on Sept. 9, 2000, was a defining moment in the future of Auburn football and the boiling point in an otherwise inconsequential series, ignited by two days and a pine box.
“Back then it was at the peak,” former Ole Miss quarterback Romaro Miller said. “Now it’s just a typical SEC West game. Now it’s a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. Back then it was a 15.”
A broken promise
The Ole Miss football program was floundering when Tuberville took over in 1995.
The Arkansas native turned around things, leading the Rebels to three winning seasons in the next four years.
At the end of the 1998 season (the Rebs finished 6-5), Tuberville implied his commitment to the University of Mississippi would last a lifetime. “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a pine box,” he declared.
“Tommy was the guy,” former Ole Miss running back Deuce McAllister said. “For him to come in and turn around a program that was dealing with NCAA sanctions, and to start to change the culture the way he did, he was the guy.”
But 48 hours after Ole Miss’ final regular-season game, an uneasy feeling overwhelmed the team. Then, sure enough, everything changed.
Tuberville was introduced as Auburn’s head football coach and nearly doubled salary totaling $900,000.
“Social media hadn’t taken off as it has now,” McAllister said. “But you wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning, phone is ringing and people are saying look, that’s your coach, your former coach, he’s on the Auburn plane and he’s accepted the Auburn job. Looking back at it now it was a financial and a business decision for him, obviously I understand that part. But when you’re 18 or 19 years old, you don’t see that.”
The move surprised Ole Miss players and set a precedent for college football coaches.
“His move changed the dynamic,” former Ole Miss linebacker Shane Elam said. “It made all of the national headlines. At that point no one had crossed from one SEC team to another, but a few years later (Nick) Saban did it. I felt like he kind of broke a rule. At that time it was like, what the hell? He just went from Ole Miss to Auburn?”
In 1999, Tuberville’s former team delivered Auburn a 24-17 loss in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The following season, as the perceived traitor prepared for his first return trip to The Magnolia State, tensions escalated.
“I remember leading up to the game the papers and media were making a big deal about how we had stolen Coach Tuberville away from Ole Miss,” former Auburn kicker Damon Duval said. “So there was still a lot of hatred coming from the Ole Miss side at that point.”
Tuberville downplayed the magnitude of the game publicly and barely addressed it with his players except to warn them about the resentment they would encounter.
While Auburn attempted to focus on football, the Rebels used the hype to their advantage.
“As a football player you try to use anything as motivation,” Miller said. “I think he (Tuberville) could have looked at us the wrong way or an Auburn player could have said something — just each little thing, we were looking for motivation. It was also a chance for our fans to give him a welcome… I guess an unpleasant welcome.”
That Saturday, a record crowd of 52,368 angry Ole Miss fans, some even carrying various types of pine boxes, filed into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Despite temperatures nearing the 90s, fans grew louder as kickoff approached.
“It was that muggy, misty type of weather,” Auburn receiver Ronney Daniels said. “You could hardly breathe.”
In the midst of the fiery atmosphere, Tuberville remained calm — at least to some.
“Coach Tubs acted like he really wasn’t concerned,” Daniels said. “But you could tell he was real tensed up and you could tell he really wanted the game.”
The head coach wasn’t the only eager Tiger. Auburn’s new running back Rudi Johnson — who won two national titles and the NJCAA player of the year honor at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas — had long been preparing for his first SEC road game.
The junior college transfer had studied opponents he would face, familiarizing himself with Ole Miss defensive players and Rebel running back Deuce McAllister. Johnson was determined to prove he too belonged in the conference by reviving Auburn’s rushing attack — Auburn finished 112th in the nation the previous season.
“The game was an ESPN prime-time Saturday night game, so of course you put a star next to it when you got the schedule,” Johnson said. “It was a game that a lot of people back home in Virginia, a long way from Auburn, got to see. That was awesome in itself. I was always anxious. They had a great running back on their side in Deuce and it was one of those things where it was like a chess match. I wanted to continue on the path I was on, but on a bigger stage, one of the biggest stages of my life. That’s why I went to Auburn.”
Auburn started the game attempting to pass down the field. But it was Ole Miss and Miller who struck first through the air. On the second drive the Tigers realized they could move the ball on the ground.
“We really paid attention to what player kind of had the hot hand,” Auburn quarterback Ben Leard said. “Not to mention, with Rudi, as big and versatile as he was as at tailback, he just wore people down. That’s the way we were able to break a defense’s spirit. Just pounding it. … Their lack of depth really kind of reared its head at that time. We just kept on them.”
Leard scored on a 1-yard run with just less than one minute to go in the first quarter to tie the score at 7-7.
That’s when Tuberville decided to wager.
The Riverboat gamble
In the short time he’d been at Auburn, players came to expect the unexpected from Tuberville.
The head coach had informed Duval the team likely would attempt an onside kick. After the first touchdown, Tuberville called for it. Auburn recovered the kick and scored again at the end of the first quarter.
“That he was willing to roll the dice and do some trickery that other coaches weren’t really doing at that time and we recovered it,” Duval said. “It was a huge momentum swing for us. That got their crowd out of it.”
Both teams added a score before halftime and at the start of the third quarter McAllister rushed for another Ole Miss touchdown. Rebel kicker Les Binkley missed the extra point — his first miss in 46 attempts — and Auburn led 21-20.
Auburn expected McAllister to get his share of yards, but they weren’t anticipating what came next.
Glimpse of the future
For the last 16 years, Ben Leard has wondered if the soundtrack to Deuce McAllister’s long punt return was a figment of his imagination.
Just as McAllister caught the football, “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne simultaneously began to play over the loud speakers.
“I was really surprised that they kicked it, particularly to me,” McAllister recalled. “Normally they’d kick it out of bounds or away from a returner. I was really, really surprised. When they did and I caught it, there was one guy I had to beat. You can go back and look at Coach Tuberville’s face and you can just see he’s thinking like, ‘What are you thinking?’ He was livid because it was right up their sideline as well.”
At one point an Auburn defender appeared to be in position to stop McAllister, but the 6-foot-1 back sidestepped the player with ease, breaking for an 87-yard run that would stick with players on both sides for nearly two decades.
“That was the first time I personally got to see how fast Deuce McAllister was,” Duval said. “I was trying to chase him down the sideline and I thought for one second I had a chance. It was just a foot race with me and him. I was pretty quick and could move a little back then, but he could move a little faster than I did. Then I realized for how big of a guy he was just how fast he was moving. I think I dove inside the 5 to try to knock his heels together. There wasn’t a chance in the world I was getting him.”
Ole Miss led 27-21. Leard turned to Auburn center Cole Cubelic on the sideline.
“Not many running backs of his size returned punts,” Leard said. “To be that athletic and have that good of ball skills to be able to do that, it really proved what a good ball player he was all around. I’ll never forget turning to him (Cole) and saying, ‘We’ve got our work cut out for us, this is going to be tough.’”
On the opposite sideline Miller and other Rebels were captivated by their teammate.
“It was fun for me being a quarterback, I knew I had a guy back there who could do all of those things,” Miller said. “I think he was the fastest guy that I probably ever played with. When we came out he was 225 pounds and he was the fastest guy on the team.”
Then, as the fourth quarter began, Auburn had a chance to move their own knight.
Rudi, Rudi, Rudi
Trailing by 6 points, the Tigers faced fourth-and-2 from the Ole Miss 42. Tuberville went for it. Leard handed the ball to Johnson. The big back broke through a tackle and darted up the Ole Miss sideline for a 42-yard touchdown run.
“It was the icing on the cake,” Johnson said. “I got a green light from my teammates and they trusted me with the offense. The coaching staff put trust in me and gave me the ball and let me do what I do.”
Auburn still had nearly a whole quarter left to keep or extend its 28-27 lead and the heat was affecting players. An Auburn starter began cramping and defensive back Courtney Rose entered the game.
“Our defense was ticked off that we let him (Deuce) get loose on us like that so we wanted to go out and slow him down,” Rose remembered. “We felt good about having to go out there and get a stop. We pressured Romaro Miller and made him throw an errant throw. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. That was a pretty special moment for me”
Rose intercepted a pass about halfway through the third quarter. He finished the game with a sack, an interception and seven tackles. The following week he learned he’d been named SEC defensive player of the week for his performance.
Johnson led the Tigers on another scoring drive capped off by another 1-yard Leard TD run. Johnson finished with 29 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns. Auburn’s Stanford Simmons picked off another Miller pass as time was running out to secure the 35-27 victory.
“It was one of those games where you’re so mentally wound up and I guess, over-focused and tense,” Miller said. “We didn’t execute and the penalties and the mistakes that we had kind of showed. That was one of the worst feelings that you can have, especially as a competitor and as a quarterback. We went down the year before and beat them in Auburn. That gave our fans a lot of joy. Then when he came back to Oxford and beat us the second time we felt like we let the fan base down.”
On the Auburn sideline the celebration began. Rose ran straight for a giant Auburn flag and several players hoisted Tuberville on their shoulders.
“This was the first time I’ve been back to Oxford and it was kind of hard,” Tuberville said after the win. “When we pulled in, I saw 8-to-10 thousand Auburn fans ready for the Tiger Walk. It was relieving. I’m glad this game was close to the beginning of the year, so that we could get all the hype over with.”
Immediately after that game, players on both sides started looking forward to deeper rivalries remaining on the schedule.
“The seniors didn’t have as much success as we would have liked in our time there, so we definitely wanted to go out and establish some type of positive trend before leaving Auburn,” Rose said. “It was important for us to get out and give the Auburn faithful some wins, something to be proud of and try to get things turned around — 1998 and 1999 were rough years.”
Auburn went on to beat LSU and Georgia. The Tigers’ win over Alabama in 2000 was the first of six consecutive during Tuberville’s time on the Plains — one of the defining achievements of his career.
Though Auburn fell to Florida in the SEC title game and then to Michigan in the Citrus Bowl, many players believe the win over the Rebels provided the spark leading to the 9-4 season.
The game would have a greater impact in the coming seasons. Though Auburn’s redshirt freshmen didn’t make contributions in 2000, they would four short years later. Players like running back Ronnie Brown and quarterback Jason Campbell would lead Auburn to an undefeated season in 2004.
“I think it helped them going to the SEC Championship Game, being a part of that experience,” Rose said. “I think that kind of helped them set some goals and to help them bring some winning tradition back to Auburn.”
Auburn has defeated Ole Miss 12 times since 2000. At times the rivalry has been reheated, but hasn’t reached a flash point.
Yet for as long as Auburn fans roll the oaks at Toomer’s Corner and Ole Miss fans gather under the trees in The Grove, the two schools will always be connected by the old pine box.