The Auburn Tigers won the BCS National Championship on January 10, 2011, beating Oregon 22-19 on a last second field goal.
With that one cathartic, emotional victory, the one thing Auburn fans always wanted, that last piece of the comprehensive puzzle fell into place. National Champion Auburn Tigers. How long Tiger fans have waited to string those four words together?
The Auburn family finally had the joy of watching their coach and their players hoist the crystal football. But before the last piece of confetti had fluttered to the ground a question began to take form in the back of many Tiger fan's mind, "What now?"
There was once a dog who lived at a house on top of a hill. Every morning the dog awoke, stretched and perched at the top of the long sloping driveway anticipating the passing of a shiny gold car.
The dog would watch through the trees and as soon as he saw the first glint of the car's chrome winking through the foliage, he'd launch himself down the driveway in full pursuit of the vehicle.
Some days he would barely get started before some mishap derailed his effort. He might slide in the gravel, skid through some leaves, lose his footing or take the wrong angle.
Other days he would come so close he could taste it. He'd be right there, close enough to almost touch it and then the car would accelerate and pull away. The dog would be left standing in the street breathing the exhaust. Those close calls renewed the dog's sense of purpose.
On days the car didn't come the dog thought about it. He dreamed of the shiny gold car at night. Rain, snow, sleet or hail didn't deter the dog from his lifetime mission: catch that car.
For years this daily ritual went on. Car, chase, disappointment, determination.
Then one morning the dog saw the car heading his way and exploded from his perch. There were no leaves, no ice and no pebbles to alter his pursuit. His timing was impeccable, his angle precise. He burst from the driveway at the exact moment the car entered his range. This was it, the dog could feel it in every sinew of his body.
And the car stopped. He'd caught it! Finally after all these years, he'd caught the car that invaded his dreams and consumed his thoughts.
For a second or two, the dog panted in glorious relief. Then he cocked his head and looked quizzically at the car. What to do? Bite the tires? Pee on the bumper? Growl at the headlights? Wag his tail?
After a minute or two, the car started moving again. The dog stood quietly in the road and watched it drive away. With a sigh, he trotted back up the hill toward his favorite sleeping spot. By nightfall he was thinking about how he could catch the car again.
Auburn finally caught the car. What do we do with it?
In the wake of Auburn's national championship, we've bought the merchandise. T-shirts, hats, cups, artwork, stickers, magnets and everything else that can be adorned with a championship logo.
We'll make the trek to Auburn next weekend to cheer the trophy presentation in Jordan-Hare.
But what then?
We've been counseled to "enjoy it." But what exactly does that entail?
Already talk has turned to next season. Ridiculously early pre-season polls are out. Discussion of recruiting and filling the holes left by graduation and defection to the NFL dominates the landscape.
Maybe we expected too much. Maybe we expected the tea to be sweeter, the air to be cleaner, the sun to be brighter and the rival fans to be a little less bitter. Maybe we expected transformation. Maybe we expected that those who'd never given us the credit we deserved would finally wake up and realize that Auburn has essentially dominated the state of Alabama over the last 30 years. That Auburn is one of the SEC elite. Maybe we thought a championship would give us the respect we are due.
As the glow from January 10 slowly faded, what this Auburn fan came to realize is that it doesn't matter what the naysayers, the haters and the envious think. Auburn is not and never will be defined by the perception of others.
Auburn historian David Housel noted that at Auburn, it's about the journey not the destination. A friend recently reminded that Auburn has never been obsessed with titles. Neither the identity nor the measure of an Auburn fan relies on screaming some random number of titles. If that were what we are about, we'd simply pencil whip a plethora of championships as our neighbors across the state are known to do. There are plenty of possibilities and defensible numbers all the way up to nine. But that's not who we are.
Auburn is family. It's bigger than the BCS. We are and always have been all in. The championship run was great and will be long remembered by those of us who yearned for it for so long. But it doesn't define us and it won't change us.
What do we do now?
We keep on living in the Auburn spirit. We salute the players and coaches who brought us a championship and then we climb back to our spot at the top of the hill to wait for the next chance to make that chase. What could be better?
This year we get to do it wearing new t-shirts that say we're the best. We already knew that, but it's nice to be noticed.