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One team Jordan fielded was the 1957 national champion. And that brings up the question of whether Auburn might be self-satisfied after last year. "Not hardly," says a Dixie writer who knows Auburn—and Jordan—well. "Remember 1958, following the unbeaten team of a year before? Auburn was 9-0-1. You don't get fat playing for Shug. Besides, there's not much else for a boy to think about at Auburn except playing football."
In Shug Jordan (pronounced like sugar, a nickname tracing back to a childhood urge for sugar cane) Auburn has a coach who has been forced to prove under the most devilish circumstances that he is one of the best in the business. Jordan was hit with three harsh blows in the late 1950s—two NCAA probations that were to last six years, and the arrival of Bear Bryant as the coach at Alabama. The combination all but destroyed Auburn's recruiting in its home state, but there were—and remain—excellent resources to call on. First, Auburn does not have to depend solely on Alabama for its athletes. Located 24 miles from Georgia and 150 miles from Florida, Auburn looms as the nearest major campus to both southeast Georgia and northwest Florida, each a deep reservoir of high school talent. On Auburn's roster this season there are, to be sure, 28 players from Alabama, but there also are nine from Georgia (including Gross, Punter Jon Kilgore and Tackle Jack Thornton) and seven from Florida (including Frederickson. Cody and Center Mike Afford).
The second resource is Jordan himself. A soft-voiced, contented man at 53, Shug is an old Auburn athlete with a lifetime contract, a philosophy of the game that embraces fundamental power and simplicity of execution, an experienced, loyal staff that puts every second of Auburn's brisk 90-minute workouts to expert use and that enviable ability to "get it out of the boy." His record for the past seven seasons is a glistening 55-12-3.
"I guess everybody has to go through a 'tower coaching period' in his career," says Jordan. "I had one of those platforms rigged up, but I got rid of it a year or so ago. Came back to earth. We believe in the bare essentials. You can't fool a team as good as you are. You either whip 'em or you don't. Therefore we like to use from six to 10 plays and perfect them. We don't eat ourselves alive in practice, either. It's unthinkable for us to lose a Saturday game in our Tuesday scrimmage."
As for the problems of recruiting, Alabama and the still-lingering effect of the marathon six-year probation, Jordan says, "Oh, we're holding our own now in Alabama. And we offer the rural boys from Georgia and Florida more of a home atmosphere than they can find anyplace else. The long probation cost us three bowl games and undoubtedly some athletes. But the worst thing it did was probably knock my two top assistants. Buck Bradberry and Hal Herring, out of head coaching opportunities. As for the Alabama game, it'll always be a good one."
For Auburn to be No. 1, it must survive some rugged Dixie opponents, not the least of which is Alabama, which it plays in a televised game on Thanksgiving. But even before that one, Sidle and Frederickson and friends must reckon with some top running backs from highly improved Kentucky (Rodger Bird) at Lexington, where it always has trouble, Georgia Tech (Gerry Bussell), Mississippi State (Hoyle Granger) and Florida (Larry Dupree). Alabama, which should be the nation's seventh-best team, plays some of the same teams, plus a new opponent, LSU. With Joe Labruzzo, Don Schwab and Pat Screen, LSU has its finest backs since Billy Cannon. Ole Miss, never without players, is a third SEC power rated among the 11 Best.
If any other conference in the nation looks as strong, it is the Big Eight, which has been gaining momentum steadily since a flood of enthusiastic young coaches started chasing Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson into politics about 1958. That was the year Missouri got Dan Devine, Kansas got Jack Mitchell and Iowa State got Clay Stapleton. They quickly transformed the Big Eight into something more than a basketball league. Missouri won the championship in 1960, Colorado in 1961 (under another new man, the now-departed Sonny Grandelius), and after Oklahoma reclaimed some honor in 1962 Nebraska, now headed by the immensely successful Bob Devaney, won last year.
The Big Eight is certainly anybody's league this year and any of four extremely strong teams—Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska—could win the conference title. One, in fact, should it be fortunate enough to beat the other three (they all play each other), could shove Auburn out of the top position. Like Auburn, all are running teams. At Kansas are Sayers, the best breakaway back in the nation, and his halfback accomplice, Mike Johnson. Johnny Roland has blazing sophomore Charlie Brown and Gary Lane to help him at Missouri. Nebraska's Kent McCloughan will be helped by some of the best backs ever to come up from the freshman team. And Oklahoma has a whole stable of threats, headed by Jim Grisham, Larry Shields and Lance Rentzel, that could be the equal of Auburn's.
In the face of this powerful challenge from the Big Eight and the SEC—not to mention Illinois and Ohio State of the Big Ten and Washington and USC of the West Coast's AAWU—chances of the University of Texas repeating as the national champion would seem hopelessly remote. Over the last 30 years only four teams have repeated: Oklahoma (with Tommy McDonald) in 1955-56, Notre Dame (with Johnny Lujack) in 1946-47, Army (with Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard) in 1944-45, and Minnesota (with Bruce Smith) in 1940-41.
Coach of the Year Darrell Royal lost heavily from his unbeaten Texas team but retains enough of his steady defensive men (all the ends, linebackers and secondary), plus the grandest collection of runners he has ever had, to warrant more than casual consideration. Texas surely will be one of the best again, though Royal may have to settle for an 8-2 record which, for the coach who has won more games than any other (44-5-1) over the last five seasons, must look something like a fatal disease.