GLENDALE - Cam Newton sat with the Zona Zoo on Sept. 5, 2009, a guest of the Arizona Wildcats in the season opener against Central Michigan. "I could see myself play that offense," he later told Rivals.com. "I feel with my ability, I can help that program."
If only, right?
It was Newton's first recruiting visit during his sophomore season at Texas' Blinn Junior College. He mixed with Arizona's Sterling Lewis, Travis Cobb and Herman Hall, all transfers from Blinn JC. They took pictures together, partied, and talked about meeting again.
Newton left town the next day, and he did not look back. Such is the fleeting nature of college football.
Monday night in the BCS Championship Game, Newton was back in Arizona, but this time in an Auburn uniform, this time a Heisman Trophy winner, this time a national champion.
College football is no longer so predictable and so difficult to change. It's no longer Ohio State and Michigan and USC bullying the field. It's TCU winning the Rose Bowl, and it's Boise State getting more attention than Penn State.
On the day Newton left Tucson, who would have bought a national championship game between Auburn and Oregon 16 months later?
The morning Newton arrived on Arizona's campus on that Labor Day weekend, 2009, the Oregon Ducks were in the news for all the wrong reasons. They had lost to Boise State a night earlier, a sloppy game, 19-8, after which UO tailback LeGarrette Blount punched a Boise State player and ruined the coaching debut of a relative unknown from New Hampshire, Chip Kelly.
On the same weekend, Auburn opened an ordinary 8-5 season under its new coach, Gene Chizik, who entered the season with a career record of 5-19.
And on Monday night, Chizik's team beat Kelly's team 22-19 for the national title. In a season of theatrics and gripping finishes, the last game was the best game.
That's the beauty of college sports in the 21st century. Butler is one possession from beating Duke for the NCAA basketball title, and the Texas Longhorns go 5-7 in football.
Auburn, which fired its football coach, Tommy Tuberville, after the 5-7 season of 2008, was essentially one player short of a national championship. That player, Cam Newton, sat in the bleachers at Arizona Stadium, evaluating how he would fit at Arizona, in the same month the Wildcats discovered quarterback Nick Foles and started a journey that saw them beat USC and finish second in the Pac-10.
You never know in college sports any more.
If you have not embraced the BCS system, if you think it is unfair to TCU and Boise State and all the little guys, you may want to look closer. Monday's title game was the 13th in the BCS series, and it was the 10th time that the top two teams met. As good as the Horned Frogs were this season, 13-0, winners over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, it's difficult to imagine they could have held up against the Ducks or Tigers in the championship game.
Chew on this: Before the BCS was established, the top two teams in The Associated Press poll met in a bowl game just eight times dating to 1954. The system is flawed, certainly, but it has rarely failed to deliver in the end. A computer wasn't necessary to identify the two best teams this time.
Oregon and its fans will debate this with you, but there was no loser on Monday.
The Ducks have changed the way college football is played; it is more freewheeling, it is faster, and it is fun. They have done for an oft-stodgy old game what the Oakland A's did for baseball in the early 1970s: more style, more personality and a new template on how the game can be played successfully.
It's unlikely the Ducks will ever get back to this stage; in the Pac-10, only USC has won an outright national championship in modern football. Even the epic Washington team of 1991 (a national co-champion) didn't get close to a repeat. In a national sense, the Ducks are likely to be remembered for their style more than anything else.
A chance at the title is as fleeting as a chance at having Cam Newton as your quarterback.
When the Pac-12 commences its initial season in September, the Ducks are sure to be the favorite. They lose 11 starters, including six total linemen, but they'll simply reload with quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James and start scoring 50 again.
Stanford will likely be the No. 2 choice in the Pac-12 North. The Cardinal loses 11 total starters, but quarterback Andrew Luck is enough, much like Newton at Auburn, to be the difference in most conference games.
After that, take your pick. With USC in the NCAA jail, Arizona and ASU should go 1-2 or 2-1 in the Pac-10 South. Utah? Not yet. UCLA? No.
Next season could look a lot like this season. Or not. That's what makes it so fun.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org