The Right Hire at the Right Time

By Posted on: March 26th, 2010 in Football Comments Off

Call this chapter in Auburn Athletics, The Tale of Two Coaching Searches. This morning athletic director Jay Jacobs has to feel better about his lot in life than he did back in December 2008. While his hiring of Gene Chizik was viewed by most as catastrophic at the time, yesterday’s formal introduction of Tony Barbee as new head basketball coach is being met with universal approval from Auburn people.

In a poll done Wednesday night, more than 80 percent of Track’em Tiger readers approved of Jacobs pick.

Is Barbee really an upgrade from Jeff Lebo? If you go by salary, he’s almost twice as good and he’s yet to win a game. After spending nearly a week flirting with Minnesota’s Tubby Smith, Auburn ultimately decided to go in a completely different direction and hire one of the hottest young coaches in America.

This move certainly won’t grab the national headlines that a Tubby Smith hire would, but in the long run it may prove more successful. On paper there’s not a lot to dislike about Barbee. He’s got the pedigree and a proven track record at a mid-major type program.  Come to think of it, he sounds a lot like Jeff Lebo six years ago. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

If there is a rub on Barbee, it’s that he’s unproven at the highest levels of college basketball. Critics will make that point over and over in the coming months. However, a quick glance around the SEC shows that most of the current coaches in the conference came from mid-major type programs.

Here’s a list of SEC coaches and where they were prior to their current positions:

  • Anthony Grant (Alabama) – Virginia Commonwealth
  • John Pelphrey (Arkansas) – South Alabama
  • Trent Johnson (LSU) – Stanford
  • Andy Kennedy (Ole Miss) – Interim Coach – Cincinnati
  • Rick Stansbury (Miss St.) – First head coaching job
  • Mark Fox (Georgia) – Nevada
  • Billy Donovan (Florida) – Marshall
  • John Calipari (Kentucky) – Memphis
  • Darrin Horn (South Carolina) – Western Kentucky
  • Bruce Pearl (Tennessee) – Milwaukee
  • Kevin Stallings (Vanderbilt) – Illinois State

There are only two coaches on the list that came from major programs (Johnson and Calipari). Seven came from mid-level programs and six served as assistants in the SEC at some point in their careers. Barbee’s arrival in the SEC follows the path of nearly every other conference coach.

His link to Kentucky coach John Calipari is being hailed as both good and bad.  The success that Calipari has enjoyed is rivaled by few. Being a former player and assistant for him, you have to like Barbee’s chances of duplicating that success in the SEC.

On the flip side, there’s the issue of Calipari and his trail of alleged NCAA violations while at Memphis and UMass. Some have voiced concern about how Barbee will recruit players to Auburn. It’s a logical question considering he’s been with Calipari for much of his professional life.

A closer look reveals that Auburn people have little to worry about on the issue. Calipari’s problems at Memphis occurred in 2007, long after Barbee left for El Paso. The problems at UMass stemmed from Marcus Camby taking $28,000 from an agent. A graduate assistant at the time, clearly Barbee had no part in this violation.

As Chizik proved, there’s no scientific formula for hiring a coach – in any sport. You just never know what you’ve got until they start coaching. Lebo was hailed as a great hire. All indicators said he would be a success. We later found out he couldn’t recruit.

Today, Barbee sits in a similar position.  Who knows how well he’ll do; but this time things feel different. We know Barbee can recruit.  We know he’s been raised on winning. Maybe it’s just crazy optimism, but something tells me Tony Barbee may have a bigger impact on Auburn than its new $100 million arena.

 Auburn may finally have done it right.

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