'97 Iron Bowl changed Arians' career

December, 7, 2013
12/07/13
12:00
PM ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Every Iron Bowl is its own story.

Some are memorable, like last weekend’s. Some are truly forgettable.

[+] EnlargeArizona's Bruce Arians
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriA controversial play call in the Iron Bowl helped launch Bruce Arians' NFL career.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians knows what it’s like to be part of an Alabama-Auburn game that stirred the emotions of both fan bases and still riles up Crimson Tide fans 16 years later.

In 1997, Arians was the Tide’s offensive coordinator under coach Mike DuBose and in charge of a gritty young quarterback named Freddie Kitchens, now the Cardinals’ quarterbacks coach. The Iron Bowl that season was a meaningless game for Bama. At 4-6, it couldn’t qualify for a bowl and was sitting in the cellar of the SEC West.

Auburn, on the other hand, was 8-2 and ranked 13th in the country.

But weird things happen when these two teams meet. Always have. Always will.

Alabama outplayed Auburn, holding a 17-12 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Tigers began their comeback with 9:06 left in the game, climbing within 17-15. After Bama’s defense stopped Auburn at midfield just as it was gaining a full head of steam, Kitchens led the offense back on the field for what was expected to be the drive to kill the clock.

But weird things happen when these two teams meet. Always have. Always will.

On four straight runs, Alabama, up two, gained 17 yards and faced a third-and-8 on its own 36-yard-line. Another run most likely would’ve forced Auburn to call a timeout before Alabama punted, which would’ve pinned the Tigers deep in their own territory, leaving the outcome in the hands of the Tide’s defense. A pass, risky as it was, could’ve gotten the first down, and Bama would’ve run out the clock for its first win in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

It’s rare for a single play to be a career-defining moment for a coach, but it usually happens on a bigger stage than usual with brighter lights and greater stakes. The Iron Bowl had all three.

Nick Saban knows.

Last weekend, he fought for one second to be kept on the clock at the end of regulation and sent out a freshman kicker to attempt what would’ve been a game-winning 57-yard field goal. The kick was short, Auburn returned it the length of the field for a touchdown and punched its ticket for the SEC Championship Game on Saturday.

Saban’s decision to avoid overtime cost the Tide a third straight national championship.

That much wasn’t on the line in 1997 when Arians called the play in to Kitchens.

He rolled right and came back left, hitting a high school teammate, fullback Ed Scissum, in the flat. If the play works, Scissum scoots up field, gets the 8 yards and Alabama wins. If it doesn’t, Bama loses and Auburn goes to the SEC championship game.

“Honestly, I remember thinking we’re about to win the game right here,” said Kitchens, in his seventh season with the Cardinals. “It was a great call. All we had to do was get the block, which we got all the time. It wasn’t that difficult of a block if your left guard or right guard, I forgot who it was, our left guard, I think, had made his block, he would’ve gone for 50 yards. It was a great call.”

Scissum caught the pass, turned and took two quick steps before he was hit by an Auburn defender. The ball rolled out of his hands, and Auburn recovered with 42 seconds left.

The Tigers hit a field goal with 15 seconds remaining. Alabama’s last-second field goal try missed.

Auburn 18, Alabama 17.

Almost instantly, Arians’ decision to throw the ball was questioned. Even DuBose expressed a doubt or two after the game.

“I should have been more involved in that situation,” DuBose said in 1997, according to The Associated Press. “If we don’t drop the ball and get a first down, it is a good call. If we drop the ball, it’s a bad call. But I won’t second guess.”

With the aid of time as his instant replay, Kitchens still believes the pass was the right call.

“If the guy just hadn’t have fumbled, nothing would’ve ever been thought of of the call,” he said. “It’s not that bad of a call. You’re up by two. It’s third-and-8, instead of just handing the ball off and punting, because they had timeouts, but you know, that’s the way it works. You got to lay it out there. And see if you can do it.”

Dabo Swinney, the Clemson head coach, was Alabama’s wide receivers coach in 1997, and he agreed.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “A brilliant call.”

Not everybody thought so.

According to reports, Arians was fired four days after the game. He had just built a house, too, Kitchens remembered. Whether that call was the reason is up for debate. DuBose couldn’t be reached for this story.

Bob Bockrath, the Alabama athletic director at the time, doesn’t think it was one particular play that cost Arians his job.

“I think people who developed those kind of scenarios are stretching things,” Bockrath said from his home in Prescott, Ariz. “There are critics and people are saying we shouldn’t have thrown the ball. I don’t think that is why he was let go.”

Whatever the reason, it might have been the best thing to happen in Arians’ career.

He was hired the next year to be the quarterbacks coach for the Indianapolis Colts and was charged with managing the career of some kid from Tennessee who had hung 38 on Alabama the previous season. For the next three seasons, Arians tutored Peyton Manning, which kick-started an NFL career that eventually landed Arians a head-coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals at 60 years old.

“Yeah, it changed his whole career and it ended up for the best, very much so,” Kitchens said. “The guys he was able to coach. … He went from coaching me to coaching Peyton. There’s a big difference there.”

But what if Scissum had turned up field and the correct block had been made? What if he had gotten the first down? What if Bama had won?

Arians might not have been fired. Then the whole trajectory of his NFL coaching career would have been thrown off course. But, looking back, Arians was glad Alabama gave him the ax.

“Lots of great things happened [that], if I would’ve stayed, wouldn’t have happened,” Arians said. “That’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”


Josh Weinfuss

ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter

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