June 29, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN - When the history of Auburn's greatest football days is written, Joe Whitt's name will be written in bold.
In its history, Auburn has won seven Southeastern Conference championships. Whitt has been part of six of them, five of them as a coach. He has been a part of three perfect seasons. He's been a part of one national championship, but he'll tell you quickly it should have been three. Former head coach Pat Dye speculates that Whitt has recruited more big-time players to Auburn than any coach in school history.
Generations of Auburn football players still look at Whitt as a mentor, a father figure and a friend. Even when their hair has turned gray and their waistlines have expanded, they bring their families to visit.
When Dye was named Auburn head coach in 1981, he quickly plucked Whitt out of Montgomery's Robert E. Lee High School. For 25 seasons, Whitt roamed the sideline on the staffs of three head coaches - Dye, Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville.
After the 2005 season, Whitt moved into administration, where he does his part as a highly successful fundraiser. A son of the segregated South who grew up in Prichard, he played college football at Alabama State. But it was at Auburn that he built his legacy and raised his family.
And don't tell Whitt that first-year coach Gus Malzahn picked a bad time to come to Auburn, what with Nick Saban on a run of three national championships in four seasons at Alabama. Whitt doesn't buy it.
"It's the best time in the world to come to Auburn," Whitt says with conviction. "I wouldn't want to be here any other time. I've been out of coaching since '05 and have no aspiration to coach again, but where they are right now almost makes me want to coach again. If you don't want to be a coach at Auburn right now, you aren't the person we are looking for. It's tough times and it takes tough people that are willing to work from can to can't and get the job done."
When Whitt arrived at Auburn in early 1981, times were hard. Doug Barfield had been fired after five seasons. In those same five seasons, Alabama coach Bear Bryant had won two national championships, narrowly missed a third and was closing in on breaking Amos Alonzo Stagg's record as the winningest college football coach of all time.
"The excitement is in the challenge," Whitt says. "If you're afraid of the challenge, don't come. If you don't like a challenge, do something else. You don't need to be a coach. This is the right time to be at Auburn, right now. When you get it done, you've done something."
Whitt spends his days talking with Auburn people about investing in the future, about good things even in hard times. He he says there is a sense of optimism in the air.
Dye, Whitt says, did more than win that SEC championship and three more in the next six seasons. He did more than beat Alabama four straight times and six times in eight seasons, even more than play a major role in the enlarging of Jordan-Hare Stadium and insisting Auburn should play its home games against Alabama at home. He made Auburn people believe again.
That's why, Whitt says, as dreadful as last season's 3-9 collapse was, the bad times won't last. Auburn people stood up to be counted when 83,000 showed up for the A-Day game.
"If I had to use something as a gauge, I would use the A-Day game," Whitt says. "The word I would use is hope. `Give us a leader and we'll follow you.' That's what I saw, the largest A-Day crowd in the history of Auburn.
"I spoke to an Auburn club that had been defunct since 1984, and they did not have enough room. Standing room only. If you say we are down, we're not. We are going to fight and we are going to fight together and we're going to come back. That's my belief."
It didn't take Dye long to convince his new coaching staff and Auburn people that good things were going to happen. In 1983, his third season, Auburn went 11-1 and won the SEC championship. Like the unbeaten 2004 team, the players and coaches who were part of the 1983 team will believe until they die they should have been national champions.
And Auburn football has never been the same.
"In 1981, from a football standpoint, we were playing second fiddle," Whitt says. "The goal was to reverse that and turn it around and get on top. We were able to do that. We were on equal footing, equal respect, same type program. Wherever you went, you were as good as anybody in the country."
Success, Whitt says, didn't come accidentally, whether Dye or Bowden or Tuberville was in the corner office.
"Everybody had to do what had to be done every day, every hour," Whitt says. "Absentee coaches don't get it done. I think what had been put in place allowed a good system to go on and be successful and go forward. Even in this tough time, we are in a place with a different feeling about ourselves. Auburn people know that's not who we are and where we are supposed to be, and they believe it will change."
Whitt makes it clear he believes Gus Malzahn, the fourth head coach in his 32 ½ years at Auburn, is the man to make it change.
"The only thing that matters is the end result over a period of time," Whitt says, "but I will tell you without question that I like everything he has done. I like the people he's hired, the people he's put in place, the way he's going about things. I feel very good about it. I feel like it's rolling in the right direction."
Over the past seven-plus years, Whitt has done his part not just for football, but for Auburn athletics in general. He has helped raised money for the Auburn Arena, the indoor practice facility and much more.
But more remains to be done. That's why Whitt doesn't talk about retirement.
"I feel like there is still a mission," Whitt says. "We have buildings to complete, buildings to pay for and build. As long as I can be productive, I'll do it."
More from Whitt:
On dealing with outside distractions
"I don't get overwhelmed with good stuff or bad stuff. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth. When it comes to football and my business, I always felt like I knew my job better than anybody else. They pay football coaches a heck of a lot of money, and the guys that do it well make a lot of money. If you can sit on the sideline or sit in the stands or you are a doctor or attorney or contractor, whatever you are, if you can do that and still have all the answers in coaching, then you are in the wrong profession. You ought to be coaching, because they are paid a whole lot of money."
On growing up in days of segregation and overcoming stereotypes
"I never felt inferior to anybody. I feel like I'm pretty dang good. Always have. I was raised that way. Feel that way. I fear the Good Lord, I fear snakes and that's about it. I guess I just believed, even back when it was segregated."
On spending more than three decades at Auburn
"I was 31 years old and had just got here from high school. You are trying to go day to day, year to year. You are trying to be the best person and best coach you can be, take care of all the business assigned to you at the highest level possible."
On what has made him successful on and off the field
"There are a lot of people smarter than I am. A lot of people have a heck of a lot more money than I do. But I don't believe anybody understands people, character and love and stands for the right things more than I do. With that in mind, you don't ever fear anything. You do what's right. If it's not right, you leave it aside."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: