The Decision On Cliff Ellis

Columnist Phillip Marshall comments on Auburn's decision to make a change in basketball coaches.

Thursday was a sad day for a lot of people.

It was sad for Cliff Ellis, who was told after 10 seasons that he wasn't wanted anymore as Auburn's basketball coach.

It was sad for Auburn's players. They wept together as they heard the news from their coach that he wouldn't be with them when another basketball season starts next fall.

It was even sadder for Shannon Weaver, Tracy Dildy, Charlton Young, Jacob Ridenhour and Reggie Sharpe, who wonder now where they'll be working a few months from now.

It was sad for those of us who have come to know these men, good people who have truly given heart and soul to Auburn basketball and the young men who play it.

Had I been making the decision, I would have taken note of the fact that the Tigers were in the Sweet 16 just a year ago, asked Ellis for a detailed plan of how he planned to get the Tigers back near the top and given him another year to show he was going to do it.

Cliff Ellis

Interim president Ed Richardson didn't see it that way, and that is his right. He's the man in charge and he made the decision. You can make a case that Ellis should have been given a reprieve and you can make a case that Richardson did the right thing.

There can be disagreement, but there should be no controversy here. Hiring and firing decisions aren't democratic ones. Richardson gets paid big bucks to make those decisions, and by all accounts, he made this one after thoughtful consideration.

We'll soon hear wailing from the faculty about the $750,000 buyout. There's nothing strange or unusual about such a buyout. And those who scream about such things overlook the fact that athletic programs at Auburn and Alabama spend not one cent of state money. They are fully self-supporting.

Ellis, at 58, can coach again if he chooses to. If he doesn't, he is financially set. That didn't make it any less painful for him. No matter how much money one has, being rejected creates an emotional whirlwind.

The assistants will do their jobs until a new coach is hired. When it's over, they will land on their feet because they are good men who are good at what they do.

The real question for Auburn basketball now is what happens in the future.

While Alabama plays in the NCAA Tournament, Auburn is beginning the search for a coach. And, no, Auburn has not been "left behind as road kill" like my friend Kevin Scarbinsky wrote in Birmingham. Hard to see how you can say that because Alabama won by a single point in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a year after Auburn went to the Sweet 16 and lost by a single point to eventual national champion Syracuse.

But, hey, everybody has an opinion.

There is, however, no question that Auburn basketball is tottering on the edge of big trouble. It is going to take strong leadership to turn it in the right direction. If all goes as expected, Hal Baird will be the man in charge of doing that. And he is just the man for the job--tough, classy and as honest as they come. Anybody who suggests that he will be anyone's lackey doesn't know the man.

The Tigers have a chance to be good next season. They have most of their key players back, a couple of big-time signees and probably as many seniors as any SEC team has ever had. They could and probably should be an NCAA Tournament team. The NCAA Committee on Infractions could change that if it hits the program with postseason sanctions, but most knowledgeable people I talk to don't expect that.

The real trouble for Auburn could come in the 2005-2006 season. The best-case scenario, unless some players are redshirted (and that was in the works before Ellis was fired), is that there would be eight scholarship players on the roster. Can you win with eight? You can, but it's difficult. Georgia was pretty darned good at the end of the season with just seven scholarship players. What the Bulldogs had going for them that Auburn won't have is that four of those seven were seniors.

Don't buy the talk that Auburn won't be able to attract a good coach. There are lots of coaches out there who want to try their hand in the SEC. And a job that pays close to $1 million a year will not go without qualified candidates.

The key is choosing the right coach. He needs to be relatively young and enthusiastic. He needs to have the ability to motivate players and to excite the fan base, particularly the students. He needs to be willing to take on some of the nation's top teams in the pre-conference season, even if it means going on the road and not getting a return game. He needs to be willing to go head-to-head with Alabama for the top players in the state, and if he loses one or two or three, to keep right on trying.

It would be good, in my opinion, if he is an African-American. I don't think that should be an absolute prerequisite, but I think it should be a priority consideration.

There needs to be a facilities upgrade. I don't see Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum as the drawback that some do, and a new arena is out of the question. But Beard-Eaves could be spruced up more, starting with replacing those ugly, brown upper-level seats with padded blue ones like are on the lower levels. There needs to be a nice practice facility. Will that help win games? Probably not, but most big-time programs have such facilities now. They will soon be a recruiting necessity.

Ellis did a lot of good things for Auburn. He won a championship at a school that had not won one since 1960. He went to the Sweet 16 twice. He signed good people, and they earned Auburn degrees.

But what happens from this day forward is what matters most now. Auburn can go forward with determination and enthusiasm or it can sink to the bottom of the SEC.

In the weeks and months ahead, it probably won't be hard to figure out which way it is going.

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