Auburn Administrators Create A Major Mess

Columnist Phillip Marshall analyzes the latest developments with the Auburn football program.

I don't believe I'll ever forget the week of Thanksgiving 2003. It was truly one of the stranger and sadder times I have witnessed in 34 years as a reporter.

I wrote hurtful things about someone who has been a friend of mine for even longer than those 34 years. I saw other friends of mine and their families in anguish. I discovered once again that good men can do bad things.

And now I wonder where all this is to lead.

Will any of those involved in the unwise and unethical decision to sneak away to interview Louisville coach Bobby Petrino be held accountable? Will President William Walker be held responsible for putting out statements on consecutive days that contradict each other, one of which has now been shown to be an outright lie? Apparently not. It looks like the president, at least, is going to escape with his job.

William Walker

Gov. Bob Riley, who said last week he would consider calling a special meeting of the Board of Trustees, now says he is satisfied with Walker's "apology." Are you kidding me?

If Riley doesn't take action, he will show himself to be no more interested in honor and integrity than the men who were on that airplane. Jim Main, the governor's senior legal counsel, said last week Riley would consider a special meeting if it was still an embarrassment early this week. It's still an embarrassment, but Riley says he is satisfied. He might be satisfied, but I have yet to hear from a member of the "Auburn Family" who is satisfied.

The governor might be the only one with the clout to make anything happen. It became clear yet again over the weekend that honesty and integrity are not Walker's strong suits. He said in his original statement that a "search firm" had identified Petrino as a candidate. His spokesman admitted Saturday that the "search firm" is one person. In other words, there was no search firm. In other words, Walker lied. His spokesman also said there are no plans for Walker to face the media after Monday's meeting. He will issue yet another statement. In addition to having a problem with the truth, the man has no courage. And this man is the president of a university?

Then there's the question of just what all this means to Auburn's football program.

Tommy Tuberville and his staff have worked tirelessly to build that program since the day they arrived in November 1998. A 7-5 record--more disappointing to coaches and players than to any fan--wasn't enough to their program. That can be overcome. But can the events of the past two weeks be overcome?

It would be unrealistic to believe that this year's recruiting class is not going to take a hit. Prospects will be told over and over again that Tuberville is on shaky ground, that he might not be around for long. Some won't believe it, but some will. Some haven't paid attention to the torrent of criticism that has hit Auburn since the clandestine trip was exposed last Tuesday. Some have paid attention.

When they go on the road recruiting this week, Tuberville and his staff will face the biggest challenge they've faced since their early days in an Ole Miss program devastated by NCAA sanctions. As it was then, it's a challenge because of the actions of others.

What happens between now and signing day won't have much of an impact on next season, but sooner or later, there will always be a price if a recruiting year is lost.

Can the wounds be healed? I believe they can, but it's going to take strong action. The Auburn Family is angry, and with good reason. Even those who thought Tuberville should be replaced are angry. Auburn, as an institution, has been terribly embarrassed. If all that comes of it is more half-hearted, shallow and transparent "apologies," real trouble could be ahead.

Tuberville is scheduled to meet with Walker and athletic director David Housel on Monday morning, a meeting I don't believe should take place. Are these two guys--both of whom were prepared to put a knife in his back--going to have the gall to "evaluate" Tuberville and his program? If anyone has to answer questions, it should be them.

I talked for a long time Friday night to Ralph Jordan Jr., the son of the late Ralph "Shug" Jordan. He is an Auburn man if anybody is an Auburn man. He is on the national Alumni Association board of directors and various other committees. He is involved in a coming capital campaign to raise $500 million, $90 million of it for athletics. He and Housel are long-time friends.

"If you try to go forward with people who have no credibility and are being criticized for lack of integrity and character, you have no chance," Jordan said.

David Housel

Like most Auburn people, Jordan was hurt and embarrassed when word came that Walker, Housel and trustees Earlon McWhorter and Byron Franklin had flown on a Colonial Bank jet to visit Petrino two days before the Iron Bowl.

"It's unconscionable," Jordan said, "that somebody could imagine what they were doing is in the best interest of the program."

What is in the best interest of the program, Jordan said, is to line up solidly behind Tuberville.

"I'm still a supporter of Tommy's," Jordan said. "If you are a supporter of the Auburn program, you've got to get behind this coaching staff and help them through these periods. For the long term, the best thing is to build a program on a solid foundation. Nothing has convinced me he's not the best answer for Auburn.

"People need to be a little more patient. It's fair for people to be critical, but after all, most of them doing that analysis aren't football coaches. If Tommy is as smart as I think he is--and I think he's very smart--he knows he needs to make some changes and will do it."

Jordan said no one could blame Tuberville if he wanted no more part of Auburn after what was done to him.

"I'm sure he'd just like to pack his stuff, walk out the door and find a program that would appreciate the things he's done," Jordan said. "I would hope Tommy would look beyond the events of the last week. I would hope he would look beyond the actions of some of the leadership, and I'm using that term loosely. I hope he'll think about the way the fans and supporters rallied around him."

Publicly, Tuberville is going to take the high road in all this. He will emerge from Monday's meeting, say what he has to say and go on the road recruiting. Other than that, it's anybody's guess what will happen in the coming days.

What is certain is that the good name of Auburn's athletic program and Auburn as an institution has been tarnished.

If there can be anything good in such an awful situation, it is that a huge majority of Auburn people are of like mind. They are angry and they want action. Will the arrogance that led to this embarrassment also lead to deaf ears being turned to the screams of Auburn people?

I'm afraid so.

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