The Times West Virginian

December 6, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Days later Iron Bowl finish still shocking

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — In reality, Shelly Poe had thought she’d seen it all but she had no idea what was awaiting her.

There she was, down on the sideline, caught up in a thrilling renewal of the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, the score tied and regulation seemingly over when Alabama coach Nick Saban, a one-time West Virginia neighbor of hers, so to speak, got one second put on the clock.

It was enough time for the two-time national champions to kick a field goal that would change history, only not as anyone imagined.

“We had a guy out there playing back and then switched and put Chris Davis there, our main punt returner. We were all down there thinking, ‘Maybe we can bring it back,’” Poe said. “Never seen it before but they did put Chris out there.”

Of course, who in his right mind could possibly believe anything like that would happen after what had transpired the week before.

Auburn was playing Georgia then, the oldest rivalry in the South and one almost as intense as the one with Alabama, when the Tigers pulled off the greatest miracle in school history – a 99-yard touchdown pass that would go down forever as “The Immaculate Deflection”.

Shelly Poe had been in this sports information business for nearly three decades, rising to assistant athletic director for sports information at Auburn University, and she thought she had seen it all.

Then came Alabama’s errant 57-yard field goal attempt that Davis gathered in nine yards deep in the end zone and ran on a wing and a prayer … probably more prayer than wing.

“Right about at the bench area there were only a few Alabama guys left and he had an angle,” Poe explained from Auburn before loading up with the team to go face Missouri for the SEC championship and maybe a place in the national championship game.

Davis, you might have read or seen on television a couple of thousand times, went all the way.

“We were stunned for a second, then pandemonium,” Poe said. “The people were so happy. I wouldn’t say it was a riot. It was just a joyous celebration. People were crying and screaming and hugging and running around like crazy.”

Not a couch was burned, though.

“Down here, they put toilet paper in the trees. Even though our trees are gone, they still toilet papered the whole town,” she said.

The trees Poe referred to were landmark oak trees at Toomer’s Corner that symbolized Auburn victories and were toilet papered by celebratory fans. A 64-year-old Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke poisoned the trees, forcing them to be removed.

This did not cut the celebration short at all.

“There was toilet paper up to 15 minutes from campus and my whole neighborhood was covered,” Poe said.

This normally would be a once in a lifetime thrill for any fan, even for longtime SIDs, but Shelly Poe has been blessed.

“The closest I came to seeing anything like this that they can identify with in West Virginia was Eddie Hill catching that pass to complete a comeback in the fourth quarter (against Boston College in 1993) when it seemed like everything was lost. It seemed like a miracle had happened.

“This was the same here, except we did it two weeks in a row against the two teams that are our top rivals and both very good teams.”

Poe also has a perspective on rivalries that almost no one can match, having served as sports information director in the West Virginia-Pitt rivalry, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and Auburn-Alabama.

Having tasted each, what are her observations?

“They all have a different flavor,” she said.

Ohio State and Michigan maintain the taste of the rivalry that was at its hottest when Woody Hayes was the Buckeye coach and Bo Schembechler was at Michigan.

“You went through the same routine at Ohio State they did when Woody was there. They kept those traditions going, and it was important to the game,” she said.

But Ohioans lived in Ohio and Michiganders live in Michigan and that makes it different from what happens in the Auburn-Alabama game.

“Here, you are living in the same state. Basically, you are either one or the other and you don’t like those guys all year long,” Poe said. “It’s hard to explain, but I think Ohio State and Michigan was more intense between the programs and the teams, but I think here it is just the fans. It is the way they live all year long.

“In Ohio, people did get along with people from Michigan for 11 and a half months a year for the most part. Here they don’t talk to them, they draw the lines and fly their flags.”

And this year, it is the Auburn flag that is waving the highest.

Her first year as full-time SID at West Virginia was 1988, and you know what happened then, an unbeaten regular season behind Major Harris and a shot at a national championship in the Fiesta Bowl.

There was another unbeaten regular season in 1993, that giving her a nearly comparable thrill when they clinched that perfect year when Darren Studstill led a comeback to beat Boston College on a miracle pass to Eddie Hill.

From West Virginia she went to Ohio State in 2007. The year before the Buckeyes went to the national championship game but lost to Florida, and after Poe arrived all she heard was “I don’t know how we’re going to be.”

“Well, I remember calling Coach Nehlen and saying, ‘Their players still look a lot better than ours.’ I think they’re going to be OK,” she said.

They were.

“We were one of those teams that played for 12 straight weeks and finished before Thanksgiving. The final two weeks in the season we were fifth in the BCS and by the time everybody dropped off, including West Virginia losing to Pitt, we were No. 1. We wound up going to the championship game and lost to LSU.”

So blessed was Poe that she wound up going to a BCS bowl every year she was at Ohio State before leaving for Auburn.

“I went to New Orleans twice and the Rose Bowl once, which is still one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of, and then the Fiesta Bowl,” she said.

And now she may be heading back to another national championship game … or at least a BCS bowl.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.