No matter how bad it gets, Auburn football will win big again. That’s a truism with a century of history to back it up.
Because of that history and the commitment of the school, Auburn can go recruit the top prospects in South and in the country with the knowledge that most of them will listen. If one coach can’t get it done at Auburn, another one will.
Basketball at Auburn is a much different thing. The Tigers must find a way to overcome a history of struggles.
In football, Gene Chizik could lose his job after a terrible season two years removed from winning a national championship. In basketball, winning even an SEC championship would buy a coach a lot more time than that.
Expectations and history dictate it.
It’s been 10 years since Auburn played in the NCAA Tournament. Since 1960, more than half a century, Auburn has won one SEC regular-season championship and one SEC Tournament championship. Cliff Ellis took three of his 10 Auburn teams to the NCAA Tournament, but only two of his teams had winning records in SEC play.
Not since Sonny Smith’s Tigers played in five consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1984-88 has there been any real consistency. And before Smith, you’d have to go to back to Joel Eaves in the 1960’s.
Maybe things would be different had then-interim president Ed Richardson not vetoed the hiring of Mike Anderson from UAB back in 2004. But that didn’t happen.
The university itself has made an unquestioned commitment. Auburn plays in a $90 million arena. Head coach Tony Barbee makes $1.5 million a year and has an essentially unlimited recruiting budget. But it’s still not happening.
Auburn is mired in a slump, having lost 10 times in 11 games. It is not nearly the team it was when SEC play started in January. Body language says it is a team having no fun and playing with little passion. In his third season, Barbee has not won more than five SEC games in a season since he arrived and seems unlikely to do that this season.
Does that mean there should be a change at the top? Those in positions of power say privately that’s not the answer. There are ample examples of coaches who took over down-and-out programs and, given time, made them winning programs. The most obvious at the moment is Tom Crean at No. 1 Indiana. His first three seasons were worse than Auburn's last three.
Barbee said from the start he is building a program, not building a team. The process, so far, has been painful. Progress is not easy to see. I don’t claim to know if Barbee will make Auburn a consistent winner. At Auburn, history says that’s a challenge not easily met.
Barbee says he remains convinced it will happen and that his program is headed in the right direction even if this team isn’t.
Barbee is almost certainly not in danger of being fired after this season. But the wolves are howling louder with each loss, and his fourth Auburn season promises to be a very important one in his coaching career.