Sammie Coates' grief turns to joy at Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. -- Sammie Coates' voice didn't tremble when he spoke. He didn't pound his fist or raise his voice. He kept both hands on the podium, looked each reporter in the eye and answered every question with restraint in one of the most candid interviews you'll see from an athlete on any level.

Still, it was called a rant, a tirade, a young player pitching a fit.

If what Coates said had come from an established leader or, even better, a coach, we'd look back on Oct. 9, 2012, as a seminal moment in the football program at Auburn. We'd hear common sense, passion and a determination to turn things around from a freshman acting well beyond his years. We'd see how at least one player understood that Auburn lacked leadership and how his teammates needed motivation.

"Some of us need to see the picture for what it is," said Coates, then an unknown receiver with three career catches to his name. "So many older guys want it, but don't want it bad enough."

His soliloquy went on for nearly nine minutes: "Nobody is showing how they want to win. ... We just keep falling in a hole. ... Nobody is stepping up. ... We go out there [to practice] dead. ... To win, we have to let that anger go."

But no one listened. Then-coach Gene Chizik said that Coates' message was only "one guy's opinion." Linebacker Jake Holland said he didn't see any "finger-pointing" in the locker room.

Auburn was 1-4 when Coates spoke that day. The Tigers went on to finish 3-9, winless in the SEC. The entire coaching staff was fired. Whatever "new day" Auburn's newest coach Gus Malzahn offered seemed a long way off.

Coates knew two things: He never wanted to lose like that again and he had to get better, on and off the field.

"I really wasn't into football like I was supposed to have been," Coates admitted a few weeks ago while his team prepared to face Florida State for the VIZIO BCS National Championship. "This year I'm into everything. Football, I’m more focused on that. I’m more focused on helping others and more focused on my schoolwork. It’s really helped me be levelheaded and keep a solid mind."

Coates has always had a lot on his mind. He lost his father, Sammy Sr., in a work accident when he was 10 years old and Sharon, his mother, raised him on her own while working at a gas station near their home in Leroy, Ala. A tattoo on Sammie's chest reads, "Like Father, Like Son," but outwardly he has never expressed much pain.

"He seemed to be an outgoing kid," said Danny Powell, who coached football at Leroy High. "It didn't make him inverted or anything. He's just a really good guy."

Coates lost five games in his entire career at Leroy, winning state titles as a sophomore and senior. When he wasn't playing football, he was throwing in the low 90s and drawing the attention of Major League Baseball scouts.

In other words, Coates wasn't used to failing. He was, in the words of Powell, "A big small-town hero."

It took time for colleges to notice Coates, who was then a slender 180-pound athlete with great speed and tons of untapped potential. He started drawing the attention of scouts before his junior year, but he broke his ankle and didn't make it back until second game of his senior year. He committed to Southern Miss before former Auburn assistant Phillip Lolley took a flier and invited him to camp.

Coates ran a 4.35 40-yard dash and caught a number of passes over future Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, according to Powell. Auburn offered on the spot and he signed with the Tigers a month after they won the BCS National Championship.

"He has that thing you can't teach," Powell said. "He had a knack of making the spectacular play."

Coates injured his knee his first season on campus and was forced to redshirt. The next year he got to play some, but between losing and dropping some passes, frustration grew. He'd smile on the outside -- even during his so-called "rant" he flashed appeared optimistic -- but inside he felt the need to change.

When he spoke to the media that October day, he wore a bright orange Auburn sweater that read, "Protect this house." But as he threw open the program's doors to reveal its flaws, he neglected his own.

He talked the talk, but this season he chose to walk it, too. A year after pointing out the flaws of others, he and teammate Trovon Reed were baptized.

"Really, both of us became leaders on the team, and it's one of the big things that helped us out," Coates said. "I'm so thankful to him coming up and talking to me about doing it. It was one of the biggest steps I could have made in my life."

His feet now firmly planted, Coates has emerged as one to watch in the BCS title game. At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds with speed to burn, he's a matchup nightmare for Florida State. He's in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns, and trails only Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks nationally for the most receptions of 30 yards or more.

While Auburn's running game gains most of the attention, it's Coates' ability to stretch the field that makes Malzahn's offense go. Without him keeping defenses honest, Nick Marshall and Tre Mason would face nine and 10 men in the box.

"Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him, and can jump, that’s a threat," Malzahn said.

Coates credits the entire coaching staff for being a father figure, with wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig improving his play on the field while helping him "grow up and become a better man" off of it.

But when asked about Malzahn, his eyes lit up. When Malzahn was hired, everything changed. His competitiveness and positivity, Coates said, was infectious.

"Oh, man, he's a genius," Coates said. "He is unique. He's one of those guys that loves the game and he's going to put his all into it no matter what.

Whatever complaints Coates had before are now gone. Instead of getting his message confused for a negative rant, it's all praise.

"Malzahn, he comes in and tells us it's a new day and we're not going to have what we had last year, the team really bought into it," he said. "If you weren't going to be part of his new day, he wasn't going to have you here. He was going to get rid of you. That's Malzahn's mindset and that makes you work harder. … We just bought in, we fought together, we started coming closer as a team and that really helped us."