Tigers Need To Put A New Hoops Coach To Work

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn's search for a new men's basketball coach.

Auburn needs a basketball coach. And it needs one in a hurry.

It's been almost three weeks since Cliff Ellis was fired, and Tiger players are getting restless. Brandon Robinson has already said he will look at leaving school a year early. Marco Killingsworth could do the same. Though neither would be likely to play in the NBA, either of them could make a six-figure salary playing in Europe.

Brandon Robinson

It's an open question whether freshman center Dwayne Curtis will stay if assistant Tracy Dildy, who recruited him from Chicago, goes elsewhere. In the worst-case scenario, Auburn could go into next season without a post player of any description.

Speaking of worst-case scenarios, should Auburn receive postseason sanctions from the NCAA--unlikely but certainly possible--all eight seniors could transfer to other schools without sitting out a year. The next coach could be left to play a Southeastern Conference season-maybe two--with mostly walk-ons.

It was short-sighted last year to sign three junior college transfers and just one freshman. That decision mortgaged the future to try to win last season. It didn't work.

The NCAA's unpopular "8-5 rule" decrees no school can sign more than five basketball players in a year or more than eight in two years. That means that, even without NCAA problems, there would have been no more than nine players on scholarship in 2005-2006. With Auburn having penalized itself one scholarship already, it can sign just one player this spring. The maximum number of players who could be in scholarship for 2005-2006 is now eight. If the NCAA adds more scholarship penalties, that number could drop even more.

The eight rising seniors believed, even after last season's debacle, that the Tigers would be among the SEC's better teams next season. No player in any sport wants to go through a coaching change before his senior season. Now Auburn has a team filled with unhappy seniors and no coach.

It's similar to the situation in which Dennis Felton found himself when he took the Georgia job last year. The Bulldogs played last season with just seven scholarship players, four of them seniors, and still managed to have a decent year. They will be extremely short-handed next season.

The next coach's first job will be to recruit the players already on campus. The more time passes, the more difficult that job might become.

It is likely that the job will at least be offered to someone by the end of this week. VCU's Jeff Capel was on campus Monday. UT-Chattanooga's Jeff Lebo will be on campus Wednesday.

The situation with UAB's Mike Anderson is murky. He is clearly high on Auburn's list. He clearly wants the job, but he doesn't want to come to campus to interview with interim president Ed Richardson unless he is assured of getting the job. That stalemate could end up in Anderson staying at UAB or even going to Miami. Why Richardson doesn't go somewhere else to meet Anderson is a mystery.

Any of the three--Capel, Lebo, Anderson--would be solid choices to replace Ellis. In fact, under the circumstances, Auburn would be fortunate to get any one of them.

I have never believed Auburn's program to be the wasteland many portray it to be. Compare Auburn and Alabama for the past five years and they are almost identical. Each has won an SEC championship. Each had two seasons with winning SEC records. Both made stirring NCAA Tournament runs after going 8-8 in the SEC. Auburn has been to the Sweet 16 twice. Alabama has been to the Elite Eight. Auburn has won once in Tuscaloosa and Alabama has won once in Auburn. The truth is, over the long haul, the only SEC program that stays at or near the top of the SEC year in and year out is Kentucky. Everyone else goes through cycles.

Auburn can win big in basketball. It's happened before. But a combination of forces--NCAA issues, too many seniors, the firing of Ellis--have put the program in a crisis. Something needs to happen this week. Otherwise, Auburn's basketball program could come unraveled and could be a long time recovering.

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