Willis's move from Auburn leads him to title shot, FBC


Published: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 11:16 a.m.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (AP) — As a player, James Willis spent several November afternoons wearing Auburn orange and blue and tackling Alabama running backs in the Iron Bowl. Then he coached Auburn defenders aiming to do the same.

Now, the former All-Southeastern Conference linebacker will try to help the top-ranked Crimson Tide — and Auburn's bitter rival — win a national championship Thursday night against No. 2 Texas.

Willis finally got a chance to publicly discuss his move across the state to become Alabama's linebackers coach at Tuesday's media day, nearly a year after the fact.

"It was very difficult in the beginning," said Willis, who hadn't spoken publicly about the move because Tide coach Nick Saban doesn't allow assistant coaches to talk to media — except when required by bowl games.

"You never want to leave home, and Auburn was home for me. But at the same time there's an opportunity," Willis said. "There wasn't any kind of negative thing between myself and Auburn, but I think there was a place more for me here. It all worked out for the best."

Saban made him associate head coach, a tempting title for a leader with thoughts of being a head man or defensive coordinator. Willis' move last January rankled some Auburn fans, who weren't happy either about the prospect of him in crimson and white or about losing one of the Tigers' top recruiters. Willis had been retained by new Auburn coach Gene Chizik after some uncertainty about who would be kept on the staff.

Then Saban called, and Willis wound up leaving for Tuscaloosa.

Willis said he expected some backlash from his move to Auburn's cross-state rival. He had played seven seasons in the NFL and spent three years on Tommy Tuberville's Auburn staff, one of those as a graduate assistant under then-defensive coordinator Chizik.

"I didn't think it would get as dirty as it did from some different areas, especially some people who were really close to me who I thought were very open," Willis said. "Not just more in my camp, but more in the camp of football and this profession, instead of the whole mystique of Alabama and Auburn.

"The only thing that really benefited me and helped prepare me for it is my time in the NFL. You understand it's a business. When you understand that, you're able to move."

Willis also felt like he might be "the odd guy out" if he stayed at Auburn while Chizik filled the rest of the staff from outside. It didn't make the initial reaction much easier.

He said his son cried the next day and didn't want to go to school.

"In hindsight, I think it really worked out best for everybody," Willis said. "It was very hard for me to leave. When I got here, people made me feel so welcome. I thought I would have to come in and jump across the water as far as saying, 'I'm an Auburn guy and now I'm at Alabama.' But it really wasn't like that."

By leaving Auburn, Willis got the nice job title and the chance to work under Saban, regarded as one of the top defensive minds in college football. Former Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, an old Saban assistant coincidentally now at Texas, recommended Willis for the opening when Lance Thompson left for Tennessee.

Willis has been impressed by his new boss.

"As you're around this guy, you understand why he's so successful," he said. "That's why I really appreciate the opportunity I have. You're really in the presence of a legend, but a lot of people might not even know that right now."

One other benefit to taking the job was getting to coach All-American Rolando McClain, who won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. Willis recruited McClain for Auburn out of high school "and I knew then I wanted him bad." But his judgment was off-base in one regard.

"I apologized to him because I was wrong about him. I said, 'There's no way this guy is this big right now and he'll be able to stay at linebacker for his college career,'" Willis said of the 6-foot-4, 258-pounder. "You go back and look at him now and it's unbelievable. For somebody to be that big and move the way he moves, it's like a freak of nature almost. It only happens every once in a while."

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