An Iron Bowl that for years had Paul "Bear" Bryant guiding Alabama and Ralph "Shug" Jordan leading Auburn will present the most unique coaching matchup in series history come Saturday afternoon inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Nick Saban vs. Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.
While Saban is nearing the end of his 16th season in Tuscaloosa with a sparkling track record that includes eight Southeastern Conference championships and six national titles, Williams is 2-1 as an interim coach since Auburn parted ways with Bryan Harsin. Williams was a stellar running back for the Tigers two decades ago who returned to his alma mater in 2019 as Gus Malzahn's running backs coach, and he was retained by Harsin after Malzahn was let go following the 2020 regular season.
A 39-33 overtime loss at Mississippi State on Nov. 5 got the interim Williams regime off to a heartbreaking start, but the past two weekends have yielded a 13-10 topping of Texas A&M and a 41-17 dumping of Western Kentucky before a packed Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"He's done a great job -- the energy, the enthusiasm, and the way their guys are competing and playing," Saban said Monday in his weekly news conference. "They're playing to win, and that was his personality as a player. I remember when I was the coach of Miami Dolphins, and Ronnie Brown and Cadillac were both coming out at the same time in the same draft.
"We thought they were both great competitors, and I think his personality shows in the way his team competes."
Saban was guarded in his remarks when asked if he's noticed a difference since the switch from Harsin to Williams, saying, "I'm not making an evaluation. I think they've played hard all year long, and they've just played really well in the last three games."
Alabama is 9-2 and ranked No. 8 entering Saturday's showdown, while Auburn is 5-6 and fighting for a 10th consecutive bowl trip.
The Iron Bowl winner won four consecutive national championships from 2009-12, when the Crimson Tide claimed three crowns and the Tigers one, and Auburn nearly made it a five-year stretch before losing the 2013 BCS title game to Florida State in the final 13 seconds. Alabama won the 2017 national championship despite losing at Auburn 26-14, but there are no titles up for grabs in this version other than best in state.
It will be historical, however, as Williams will be the first Black coach to lead a team into this storied rivalry.
"I'm sure later on that I will reflect on it and truly, truly enjoy it," Williams said Monday. "Right now, I'm just in the moment. I know the responsibility of having that or being the first of any to do anything, and I'm honored and blessed. I give credit to the people before me who paved the way for myself to have this opportunity.
"Lord knows there are a lot of guys who look just like me who actually can do a doggone good job in this seat, so I'm honored, but I'm just in the moment and chopping wood and trying to win a ballgame. That's it. That's all I'm focused on right now."
Williams was a five-star Auburn signee in 2001 who experienced three Iron Bowl wins in four seasons with the Tigers while enduring a variety of emotions along the way. As a freshman, Williams had five carries for 39 yards on Auburn's first possession before suffering a broken collarbone, and the Tigers completely collapsed in a 31-7 home loss.
A broken ankle prevented Williams from playing in the 2002 Iron Bowl, which was a 17-7 Auburn win in Tuscaloosa, but he was the star of the 2003 game in Jordan-Hare, ripping off an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage.
"It was a lead draw, and the offensive line did a good job of knocking a hole in the defense and getting me on the safety," Williams said. "The least I can do is make the safety miss, and the rest of it is history. Usually whenever you have long runs like that it's a total team effort, and the receivers did a really good job blocking downfield.
"It's one of the most memorable plays in my football career, and it's something I'll always be proud of. Hopefully we can have a couple long runs like that in Bryant-Denny Stadium."
Williams finished the 2003 Iron Bowl with 204 yards and two touchdowns in Auburn's 28-23 victory, and he scored the go-ahead touchdown as a senior the following year, when the Tigers won 21-13 to complete a 12-0 regular season. Before picking Auburn over Alabama and Tennessee, he took an official visit to LSU, which was coached by Saban.
"I respect Coach Saban and what he stands for and how he challenges his players and how he pours into his players," Williams said. "His record and what he's done throughout his career speaks for itself, and I think very highly of him. He got the opportunity to have Ronnie Brown play for him, and he enjoyed him.
"Most of his players truly enjoy him, not only as a coach but as a person."
As Williams enters this pairing for the first time in this role, he does not want the focus on him but rather a group of seniors who have yet to win in Bryant-Denny. The Tigers have had more fun competing under his guidance, but this is an entirely new assignment.
"There are no magical words or no magical speech that I can give," Williams said. "It's the Iron Bowl. If they can't get up for this game and for these seniors, then something is wrong. Truly it feels like a lot of stuff that is understood really doesn't need to be said.
"I'm looking for our guys to come out and fight and compete, and we're not backing down at all."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.