PHOENIX, Ariz. - My second trip to the Valley of the Sun in just more than four months has been quite different than the first.
Senior Editor Phillip Marshall
For one thing, I haven’t a single Auburn fan – unless you count Christian Westerman, who is an Auburn signee. In January, Auburns fans were in every restaurant, at every hotel and generally making themselves heard on the streets of Phoenix and surrounding cities.
I drove out to University of Phoenix Stadium, and it looked kind of forlorn compared to the last time I saw it, when Auburn and Oregon made it the center of the college football world.
But nonetheless, it’s been a good trip.
I had very interesting visits with Christian Westerman, who will soon be an Auburn football player, and Andrus Peat, who is the apple of coaches’ eyes at Auburn and just about every other school in the country.
Both are very impressive physically. They are more impressive in the way they talk and carry themselves.
Talking to high school football coaches – in this case Thomas Joseph at Corona Del Sol and Steve Belles at Hamilton – is always fun. The high school guys do it for the love of the game and the kids that come their way. They haven’t been burned by the hot glare of the spotlight that shines so brightly on big-time college coaches.
I’ve often said that the most fun I ever had in this business was when I covered high schools. It’s the purest form of sports. Most of the players won’t play another down after their senior seasons. The coaches are not wealthy and have not insulated themselves like so many do in the college game. The players are happy to see you coming.
Of course, high school coaches and players don’t have to dodge bullets from reporters and columnists whose main mission in life is to catch somebody, somewhere, somehow doing something wrong.
Talking to coaches so far away, it’s clear that winning the national championship has significantly raised Auburn’s profile. They asked me some questions about Auburn, as you would expect. But you know what was interesting? There was not a word from coaches or players about all the junk that has flown around since last November.
I ran into old friend Rick Trickett, now the offensive line coach at Florida State, who had stopped by to visit Peak. Trickett, who spent five seasons at Auburn, is one of the more interesting people I’ve met in college football, and one of my favorites. He’s as hard-nosed as it gets, but he has a heart of gold and cares very deeply for the players he coaches.
Around lunchtime today, I’ll get on an airplane at the Skyharbor International Airport and head east, back to Teresa, back to familiar surroundings. A day later, I’ll head out again for Knoxville to cover what has to be the strangest Auburn baseball team I’ve ever seen as it tries to win a second consecutive SEC West Division championship.
For the past two months, I’ve expected that, sooner or later, these Tigers would start playing or at least come close to playing midweek games like they do SEC games on the weekends. It didn’t happen. I couldn’t watch Tuesday night’s game against South Alabama, but it’s clear it wasn’t a pretty sight for Auburn.
Ah, well. I’ll be glad to be back. I’ll have to say I don’t look forward to a four-hour airplane flight. But it could be worse. I could be in one of the more miserable places on (or above) earth.
In the middle seat.