There was a time in the SEC where only football mattered. In fact, you could still argue that case today. But with more programming on television and the internet, other sports are gaining importance. For an athletic program to be successful and profitable, they need more exposure than the four months football offers.
This is where Auburn gets into trouble.
While Auburn continues to celebrate its success in football, the school is widely regarded as a one-sport program. Sure, they’ve had success in swimming and diving and track and field; but when it gets right down to it, there are only four sports that count: football, men’s basketball, baseball and women’s basketball.
Athletic Director Jay Jacobs was hailed a genius when he went against the wishes of almost everyone and brought in Gene Chizik as football coach. In the sport that matters most, he hit a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.
His track record in hiring coaches for the remaining big three sports is average at best – and that’s being an optimistic homer. With no NCAA Basketball Tournament appearances and little success in baseball, Auburn fans are left with a long wait between football seasons.
A few eyebrows were raised recently when it was reported that baseball coach John Pawlowski would return for a fifth season, despite going 58-62 in the SEC since arriving at Auburn. By comparison, Steve Renfroe was fired in 2004 after leading Auburn to the NCAA Regionals in three of his four seasons.
In a time where the stakes have been raised in all sports, Auburn seems to have lowered its standards in baseball and basketball.
The biggest disappointment has come in men’s basketball. Despite building a $92 million state-of-the-art basketball arena and hiring one of the top up-and-coming young coaches in America, things have gone from bad to worse for third-year coach Tony Barbee.
Plagued by a rash of player transfers and even allegations of point shaving against a former player, Barbee has yet to put his stamp on the program. Most pundits will again pick Auburn at the bottom of the SEC when the season starts later this year.
In two seasons at Auburn, Barbee now stands 9-23 in the SEC and 26-36 overall. It’s hard to imagine him surviving another year like this past one. Then again, Pawlowski continues to hang on each year.
Once the dominant sports program at Auburn, women’s basketball has yet to find its footing since Joe Ciampi retired. Jacobs’s latest move is to bring in former Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy.
The former Penn State player inherits a program that’s gone 44-49 overall and 18-30 in the SEC since winning the conference title in 2009. By all indications, Flournoy is the right hire, but then again we’re talking about the Auburn Basketball Vortex where good coaches are turned into bad ones.
The question begs whether a continued lack of success in these sports threatens Jacobs’s job. The logical answer is maybe. However, as long as Gene Chizik continues to win, his job is assumed to be safe.
Should the football program fall back to the middle of the pack in the SEC (and stay there) and the other major sports continue to stagnate, then an overhaul may be necessary. Success comes from exposure.
Athletes want to play at schools that get on television. Right now that’s hard to come by for the basketball and baseball programs. That has to change fast or Auburn will be left behind.
The next few years will be interesting.