NEW ORLEANS — The controversy that never dies in college football reduces to this question: In a close, tough game, if there's a chance to tie it in the final minutes, do you take the tie, or do you play to win?
--In a famous game from long ago, Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian settled for a tie and has never lived it down.
--At USC, by contrast, John McKay always played to win, and so in the big games of that era, the Trojans won some and lost some.
--As recently as a few weeks ago, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden probably lost the national championship when he gamely played to win his biggest game with a two-point play that failed.
--Later, college football's coach of the year, Dick MacPherson of Syracuse, played to win his 11th straight game, and won it, with a two-point conversion at the end.
But . . .
In the 54th Sugar Bowl here Friday, with four seconds remaining and the ball on the Syracuse 13-yard line, Auburn Coach Pat Dye went for a tie and got it with a field goal to catch Syracuse, 16-16.
It's a decision that Dye will live with, and be asked about, for a long time.
Auburn quarterback Jeff Burger, for one, deserved better. In the last 1:59--after Syracuse had taken the lead with a somewhat controversial field goal of its own on fourth-and-inches--Burger's passes brought the Tigers 62 yards down the field and into position to win it with one more throw.
Burger, a pro-style quarterback playing effectively in Dye's well-conceived pro-style offense, completed 10 of 11 passes on that final drive.
There was time for only one more play--a throw into the end zone or a kick over it--and Dye sent in his kicker, Win Lyle, whose game-tying third field goal was a 30-yarder.
For Syracuse, Tim Vesling's third field goal had carried 38 yards.
And so one of the most dramatic and best played of all the Sugar Bowls ended in a Superdome controversy before a crowd of 75,495.
Syracuse quarterback Don McPherson, the outstanding player on the field, managed to keep the Orangemen in it for four quarters although Auburn was clearly the better team--as Burger and his exceptional 6-foot 4-inch wide receiver, Lawyer Tillman, showed at the end.
The tie preserved Syracuse's undefeated season. The Orangemen finished 11-0-1. The Tigers finished 9-1-2.
Afterward, Dye defended himself.
"My decision was not to get beat," he said.
He added that he had carried the same message to his players.
"I told them you had too good a season for us to get beat," he said.
Dye's decision shocked MacPherson, who said he had ordered the field goal that put Syracuse ahead with 4:43 left, 16-13, because he expected Auburn to go for a touchdown all the way.
"I knew our defense could keep them out of the end zone," he said. "So I told our team that a field goal was just as good as a touchdown.
"If I had thought in my wildest imagination that (Auburn would settle for a tie), I would have gone for a first down instead (of ordering the field-goal attempt)."
MacPherson said there's a difference between bowl games and conference games, meaning that he favors playing to win on New Year's Day.
"If Auburn needed a tie to get to the Sugar Bowl, I would do the same thing," he said. "I'm not in a conference, so I never go for ties."
Burger didn't think it was such a great idea, either. "But," he said, "every quarterback wants to go for the end zone."
Although the Syracuse players plainly agreed with their coach, Vesling said: "We've been instructed not to say anything negative (about Auburn) so I won't."
Speaking for most of the Orangemen, free safety Markus Paul said: "I was very surprised they decided on a field goal. Lawyer Tillman is a great wide receiver, and I thought they would go to him (in the end zone)."
It had been a strange game from the first whistle. Syracuse seemed to be just hanging on--but Auburn scored only one touchdown, Burger to Tillman, 17 yards, for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
The only Syracuse touchdown, McPherson to wide receiver Deval Glover, 12 yards, made it 7-7 in the second quarter. And thereafter, neither side was ever more than three points up.
The one Syracuse blunder was unforgivable--if indeed it was a blunder when the Orangemen were flagged for delay of game in the third quarter on the Auburn one-yard line.
With four shots at the end zone, they might have had a touchdown there. Instead, eventually, their second field goal momentarily tied the game, 10-10.
The Syracuse players said the officials threw the flag before time ran out.
"Donnie (McPherson) thought he got the ball off," MacPherson said.
Otherwise, it was a game in which MacPherson's coaching and McPherson's runs and passes held Syracuse even with a superior team.
The tough Tiger defense was kept off balance by a Syracuse attack based on power runs, option plays, dropback passes, occasional wishbone sallies, and even quick kicks.
When Auburn expected the option, Syracuse struck straight ahead with trap and counter plays. And when it was ready for all that, McPherson dropped back and threw the ball, completing 11 of 21 attempts for 140 yards.
On most plays, the Auburn defensive line was in the Syracuse backfield a moment after the snap. Regularly, the Tigers came at McPherson down the middle and from both sides--sacking him five times--in spite of which he somehow kept the ball moving much of the day.
There are college quarterbacks who can handle the option as well as McPherson, and others who can pass on the run with his efficiency. It's rare when one player has both skills.
In Syracuse's high-risk offense, McPherson neither fumbled nor threw an interception.
Auburn played like a pro team, calling a flea flicker and a reverse back to back in the first quarter and eventually throwing 34 passes. Burger completed 24 of 33 attempts, mostly short, for 171 yards.