Fifty-two years separates the player for Auburn football who broke the color barrier in the Iron Bowl and the Auburn head football coach who will do it next Saturday.
There might be an interim tag line ahead of coach Carnell Williams, but he is making permanent history for the state of Alabama. Iron Bowl week is here, and with it comes a new measure of significance for this game that also stands as a cultural lodestone. Williams will be the first Black head coach in the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama.
Let me repeat it.
Williams will be the first Black head coach in the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama.
It matters in a way that is more than twice as important as the game itself.
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Waste not these days of Thanksgiving in celebrating that truth. Do not shy away from the moment, or leave it for another generation to fully appreciate. Williams is a Black man from Attalla, Alabama, and now he is a beloved Black head coach in the Iron Bowl.
And the man they call Cadillac is doing it in brilliant, beaming, beautiful style.
Williams is 40 years old. This is his first time being a head coach at any level of football. Before this, he coached the running backs. When Auburn fired its previous head coach on Oct. 31, Williams was unexpectedly given the duty of interim head coach. Almost overnight he changed the trajectory of Auburn football. In the history of the SEC, there have only been five Black head football coaches. For the past two seasons, there hadn’t been any before Williams was promoted under impossible circumstances.
He was thrust upon this stage without seeking it, and yet he was innately prepared for it. Williams was asked about Auburn’s coaching search. Let his answer from him be cast in bronze and displayed at Toomer’s Corner.
“I really don’t care,” Williams said. “My seat doesn’t dictate my service. Auburn is special. Those kids are special.”
God, I love it. Williams is new-school swag with an old-school soul. And he is destined to lead.
Maybe Williams will have to go elsewhere if he wants to be a permanent head coach, but that’s not on Williams. I’ve head people say maybe Williams could do it in the future. Yeah, maybe so, but Williams is good enough to be Auburn’s permanent head football coach now, and he has proven beyond a doubt that he brings something to the table that no other coach could. He’s not just a good fit for Auburn. Williams is Auburn. He is Alabama.
James Owens of Fairfield, Alabama, is the player who broke the color barrier for Auburn football. The 1970 season was his debut with the varsity team. Owens was a running back for the Tigers, but he actually played linebacker in his first Iron Bowl. Alabama jumped out to a 17-0 lead at Birmingham’s Legion Field, but Auburn stormed back behind quarterback Pat Sullivan and won 33-28.
Owens passed away in 2012 at the age of 65. Looking back on his time at Auburn, he later said that his role as the first Black football player for Auburn was done in service for people other than himself. Here on the 10-year anniversary of Owens’ death, Williams is echoing those same words.
The power of his message is bright and awe-spun. It has transformed the image of Auburn. It has brought people together. Just think of all the people in Alabama who are going to wish for a Cadillac for Christmas.
There is enchanting power to what Williams has accomplished, but it was not done by magic. It happened because Williams is good at his job. Auburn is 5-6 on the season, and the team celebrated its 41-17 victory against Western Kentucky on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium as it had just clinched the SEC West. The scenes from Jordan-Hare Stadium gave me goosebumps and not for the first time. It has been an extraordinary fortnight on The Plains, and it was made possible by the potential of college football in the Deep South to reveal the power of opportunity.
Williams simply asked people to believe, and so now reflect on all that has been gained from the energy radiating from Auburn in these forms of love and faith. There is a purity to what Auburn has unlocked with an interim coach — a Black head coach — that was hidden inside a box I never knew existed.
Look at what Williams has accomplished in two week’s time. No, less than two weeks to be precise. Auburn is going into the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa as a team of new hope. Williams is 2-1 as interim head coach and the only thing separating Auburn and a perfect record with Cadillac is an overtime loss on the road to Mississippi State after just a handful of days to prepare.
And Auburn stormed back in the second half in that game.
The result of the Iron Bowl matters, of course, but a loss for Auburn at this point will do nothing to take away from what Williams has accomplished. Auburn football is playing with a spirit that no other coach could have inspired except for the one turning three weeks in November into a march towards the power of togetherness and the shattering of perceptions.
But, make no mistake, Williams isn’t going to Bryant-Denny Stadium in search of a moral victory or a pat on the back from Nick Saban. Williams is taking Auburn to the Iron Bowl to win the game.
“Whether it’s the Dallas Cowboys or the University of Alabama, we aren’t going to blink,” Williams said. “We’re going to lay it on the line and see what happens.”
I’ve seen what happens with Williams as the coach of Auburn, and it’s like the barriers that seemed so insurmountable only a few weeks ago have all been run over by a tank.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’”🇧🇷 You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr🇧🇷