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Willis' move from Auburn to 'Bama lands him title shot

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- 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 tonight 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.

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."

And now, Willis just hopes Saban's lore includes a national championship.