The three framed pictures on a wall in his comfortably appointed office serve to remind Al Borges that X's and O's are useless without the young men who bring them to life. The middle photograph is of Tigers quarterback Jason Campbell. He is bracketed by action shots of the guys who did the most to take the pressure off him in 2004. They are tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams, who served, more than any other pair of players, as the engine that powered Auburn to its first undefeated season since 1993 and its first 13-0 season.
Don't be deceived by Borges's jolly mien, or by the Hawaiian shirt draping his stocky frame. He is a shrewd, calculating man. After accepting the job as offensive coordinator at Auburn after the 2003 season, he elevated one task to the top of his to-do list. "First thing I did when I got here," he recalls, "I called both those kids in and told 'em I wasn't gonna turn this thing into a passing circus." Those kids were Williams and Brown, Cadillac and the Hummer. Borges, a practitioner of the West Coast offense who'd spent seven of the previous nine seasons coaching in the Pac-10, didn't want his stud backs to get the wrong impression.
His version of that system, Borges assured them, was predicated on balance. He would confound defenses by putting both backs on the field at the same time. (After all, says Borges, the prototypical West Coast offense, "the Bill Walsh 49ers offense," often featured split backs.) Borges would line up his backs as receivers, throw more passes their way than they'd ever seen. "The idea," he says, "was to take advantage of all their abilities: receiving, catching and blocking. They would run the ball well here. I wasn't going to try to fix anything that wasn't broken."
It was an important sales job. Williams and Brown were both heading into their senior seasons. Had they decided to make themselves available, both would have been taken in the 2004 NFL draft. It was Auburn's fortune that neither back was in a hurry to experience life beyond The Plains. "I just thought, if it was meant for me to play in the NFL, then it wouldn't really matter when I got there," says Brown. "If I was gonna make it, I was gonna make it."
"Some folks would try to tell me that with Ronnie in the backfield, I wouldn't be getting enough carries," says Williams. "What I told them was, I know I'm not gonna get 25, 30 touches a game. Defenses are gonna gang up on our running game, and I got another great running back besides me. We need to spread the ball around. I know all this, and I'm willing to accept it."
If the 2004 Auburn Tigers had one signature characteristic, it was this selflessness, this pervasive lack of concern over who got the credit for a job well done. "You can't play this sport--or coach it--unless you've got some ego," says Auburn headman Tommy Tuberville. "But there's less ego on this team, from Ronnie and Carnell, to our quarterback, all the way to the scout team, than any other I've ever been around."
Brown was already around when Williams arrived on The Plains for the 2001 season. A star at Cartersville High in northern Georgia, Brown had jilted Tennessee, committing to the Vols, then changing his mind to become a Tiger. While Brown redshirted his freshman year at Auburn, Williams was tearing it up in his senior season at Etowah High, in Attalla, Ala., scoring 23 touchdowns and averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. Like Brown, he was wowed during a visit to Tennessee and committed to the Vols. Hearing this, Tuberville arranged a home visit with Williams, arriving with six assistant coaches. The gang persuaded Williams to at least visit Auburn. The result: more bad news for Tennessee.
Upon reporting for practice his first season, Williams was prepared for the cold shoulder from Brown. Williams, after all, wanted Brown's job. Instead Brown taught him, helped him, gave him tips, showed him the ropes. "I was excited about being able to compete against someone who had a good work ethic and was going to make me give my best every day," Brown explained to The Huntsville Times. "We brought out the best in each other."
While Brown had emerged from spring drills as the first-team tailback, it was Williams who led the team in rushing in the '01 season. The true freshman rushed for 614 yards to the redshirt freshman's 330. The next year Williams fractured his left fibula during the second quarter of a game at Florida, forcing him to miss the final six games. With Cadillac in the shop, it was Brown's turn to lead the squad in rushing--with 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns. While Williams bounced back statistically in '03, piling up 1,307 yards on the ground (compared with 446 for Brown), the season was a comedown for all Tigers. Picked by some media outlets as a preseason No. 1, Auburn started the season 0-2 and finished 8-5, not dreadful, but disappointing. Having survived an ouster attempt engineered by then university president William Walker and athletic director David Housel, Tuberville hung onto his job, then brought in Borges, his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. After meeting with the man in the Hawaiian shirt, the two running backs talked things over. One day before the deadline for juniors to declare for the NFL draft, Brown and Williams paid a call to Tuberville in his office. They told him they would both be returning for the '04 season.
"That," recalls the coach, "was a good day."