A few weeks back following Auburn’s basketball win over Alabama, a friend of mine, who happens to be an Alabama graduate, was walking back to my car with me when we got into a discussion about the state of college basketball at both schools. I wondered aloud why both universities have never been able to sustain successful programs. Sure there have been stretches where they have competed nationally; but on the whole, it’s a sport that neither has been able to conquer over the long haul.
With yet another heartbreaking loss to Miss State on Saturday, Auburn again seems destined for another coaching change at year’s end. Would of, could of and should of will forever define Jeff Lebo’s tenure on the Plains. Call it bad luck, poor recruiting or just fighting bad history. Whatever the reason, Lebo has zero chance of returning next year.
Today his sixth Auburn team sits 12-13 overall and 3-7 in SEC play. Despite winning 24 games a year ago, he’s yet to sniff the NCAA Tournament during his tenure. He’s won only 31 conference games and lost a non-conference match-up with Sam Houston State back in December. Lebo’s been so close on so many occasions that it’s hard for the casual fan to see where the train actually came off the tracks.
It’s real easy to place all the blame on the sixth year coach. But we all know better. It runs much deeper. There’s not a more apathetic fan base in America than Auburn’s when it comes to basketball. That sounds funny considering the University is spending $100 million on a new arena for a sport that’s nothing more than a diversion between the end of bowl season and spring football practice. It hardly seems fair to place all the blame on Lebo.
Auburn officials are gambling big that a new arena will bring new enthusiasm and success to a program that has truthfully, never been a whole lot. In the short term, it almost certainly will work. Auburn fans will flock to check out the new arena. Next season will break all attendance records, even with the new arena being smaller than Beard-Eaves. Hiring the right person will also add to the renewed excitement.
Does building a state-of-the-art facility and hiring a new coach cure all the ills of a program that has floundered for a century? As one person asked on a message board this weekend, would hiring Urban Meyer at Vanderbilt change its fortunes? If only it were that easy.
Cracking the code to long-term success in the SEC and the nation is one that neither state school has figured out. With Birmingham and Atlanta situated only a few hours from campus you would think recruiting would be easier. Unfortunately, there’s much more to it. Unlike football, basketball must deal with AAU coaches, summer leagues and the NBA. It goes without saying that recruiting becomes more difficult when your fans just really don’t care. It’s not a knock on Auburn people, it’s just a fact. There’s nothing wrong with it unless you are investing $100 million and need to turn a profit.
Few fans understood the significance of the blow Auburn received back in 2004 when among the sanctions levied by the NCAA was a ban on any dealings with summer league guru Mark Komara. Because he was labeled an Auburn booster by the NCAA, the program was prohibited from dealing with him. The sanctions have long since expired, but the no-contact order remains in place.
Because Komara has such influence in Alabama, it’s virtually impossible to recruit anyone in-state to Auburn. This season, Frankie Sullivan is the only Alabama player on scholarship for the Tigers. Even with new facilities and a new coach, it’s still a steep, uphill climb. Turning Vanderbilt into Florida in football is no easy task. It’s probably not doable. Comparing this scenario to the Auburn basketball program may not be fair, but it’s not all that much farfetched either.
Auburn officials will catch heat for the new facility. Many will argue the money would have been better spent on Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s a solid argument. However, at the end of the day it was the right move. Renovating Beard-Eaves would be throwing more good money down the drain. As a member of the SEC, Auburn has a responsibility to try and be competitive in all sports. Continuing to play in that outdating facility would guarantee failure.
The question now is whether all this money and a new coach will spell success? There are many variables to overcome, but at the end of the day, one big question remains.