By MIKE HERNDON
Carnell Williams’ stint as interim head coach at Auburn will likely end with the 2022 season. There are already reports that Lane Kiffin will be headed to the Plains as soon as the Egg Bowl is over (though Joey Freshwater has thrown shade at that report as only he can).
What Williams has given Auburn in these few short weeks, however, has been invaluable.
In three games, Williams has brought life back to a program that was flat-lining. It is clear the players love him and play their backsides off for him. It is clear the fans love him. They didn’t pack out Jordan-Hare Stadium for a November game against Western Kentucky because of “the Auburn family” or some supposedly unique affection for their university and team.
They did it because of Carnell Williams, and the way this team has responded to him.
I was at Jordan-Hare in 2012 when Auburn was 1-6, Gene Chizik’s moving van was already rented and scalpers couldn’t give away tickets to a home game against Texas A&M. The upper deck was basically general admission, plenty of good seats available. By the third quarter, the lower bowl was, too. The team had mailed in the rest of the season by that point, and so did the fans.
I don’t care what kind of family you think you are, no one is coming to watch a team that doesn’t care anymore. This Auburn team, on the other hand, is playing harder than it has all season. And the reason is Carnell Williams.
How has he done it? How has he turned what seemed to be a lost season into the feel-good story of the year? How has he lit a match under a sleepwalking team and energized a fan base already looking forward to basketball season?
By being himself. By being genuine. By telling the truth. What a novel idea.
I have written before in this space that a significant part of coaching is performance art. Coaches have to convince players to believe even when the odds are against them, even when the coaches themselves don’t really think they can get it done. Turning that trick usually requires a show. That’s part of the job.
Many coaches do this by channeling used car salesmen: Let me tell you why you don’t want to walk off this lot today without buying this Buick. Salesmanship is inherent in every facet of the job. They have to sell recruits on signing with them. They have to sell their players on believing in the process. They have to sell boosters and fans on continuing to support the team. They are constantly selling. What’s it going to take to put you in this fine luxury Oldsmobile today?
But Carnell isn’t selling anything but the truth. When he was named interim coach, he told everyone – his players, fans, the TV viewing audience – that he wasn’t really sure what he was doing. He told them he was scared. He told them he needed their help.
This is not something we are accustomed to hearing football coaches say. Part of the sales job is that the coach has all the answers: “Follow me and I will take you where you want to go.” But Williams was honest with his players. He told them he wasn’t sure if he was ready for this, and they encouraged him to just be himself.
He is, and it’s working. Look at how hard this team fought to rally and force overtime against Mississippi State. Look at how hard they played to beat Texas A&M. Look at how they put their foot on the throat of a Western Kentucky team that many were expecting to upset the Tigers last Saturday.
Maybe players – even those who are 19 and 20 years old – are smart enough to know when someone’s being honest with them and when they’re not. Maybe admitting one’s faults and weaknesses is a virtue and not a cardinal sin. Maybe there’s a lesson here for all of us.
There are limits to all of this, of course. If Alabama steamrolls the Tigers in Saturday’s Iron Bowl, some grumbling from the fan base is to be expected. If Williams were given the head coaching job and Auburn struggled again next year, it wouldn’t matter how genuine and likeable he is. Even those Auburn fans who love him now would be calling for his head. It’s the nature of the beast.
But in these few short weeks, Auburn’s first African American head coach has shown us that you don’t have to put on an act to get people to believe in you. You can allow yourself to be vulnerable. You can be yourself.
And I will be shocked if the Tigers don’t make Alabama work for every yard it gets on Saturday. With the Crimson Tide’s annual goal of the College Football Playoff now out of reach, it wouldn’t even be that surprising to see Auburn shock the world. We all know stranger things have happened in the Iron Bowl.
Whoever Auburn’s coach is next year, Williams should have a prominent role on the staff. He’s earned it. Whoever the new coach is should be smart enough to recognize it. Auburn should demand it.
Despite his claims to the contrary, he knows what he’s doing.
Categories: College football