AU president Dr. Ed Richardson fired Ellis 19 days ago following a disappointing 2003-2004 season for the Tigers. He has appointed Baird as his special assistant to head the search for a new men's coach as well as a new women's basketball coach to replace Joe Ciampi, who is retiring after 25 years at AU.
"We are moving forward in the process and it took on a little different dimension this week," Baird said on Tuesday when asked about the men's coaching search. He and Richardson had their first on-campus interview on Monday when VCU head coach Jeff Capel toured Auburn's facilities. Tennessee-Chattanooga head coach Jeff Lebo is expected to be on the Auburn campus on Wednesday.
"The time-line can be no more than tentative because, frankly, we haven't narrowed down the total list of who is coming and who may come," Baird notes. "It has been very fluid. It has changed on almost a daily basis. At one point we anticipated someone to be here (Tuesday). I do feel like we are getting closer to the point where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"As far the women's search is concerned, we are following exactly the same procedure--it is just a couple of weeks behind on that," Baird adds. "We are still looking at a total list of names and not begun to narrow any down at this point. I think it is possible, if we can conclude the men's search in a reasonable time, I think the women's search could move faster because of the more stable NCAA situation and because I have had a little practice in the process."
Baird says approximately 20-25 candidates have expressed interest in the women's job and the associate athletic director says he is pleased with the quality of coaches on the early list. However, he notes that until the process gets further along it is too early to tell how serious each candidate's interest is. Baird says by next week he hopes that AU well be well along in the process of narrowing the list of women's candidates.
On the men's search, Baird says he is not sure how many candidates will be formally interviewed on campus. In addition to Capel and Lebo, Baird discussed the job with UAB's Mike Anderson during the Final Four week in San Antonio, Tex., but Anderson has not been interviewed on the AU campus.
Baird says the Tigers may interview as few as "two or three" on campus or as many as "five or six or more" before Dr. Richardson makes his decision. "It simply has to be open-ended until somebody is named as coach," says Baird, who notes that all of the candidates that Auburn is considering are current head coaches.
Baird says it is possible that the new man will be named this week, but adds, "It would have to be something that fell into place quickly."
Unless AU's interim president changes the procedure, all of the candidates for the job must meet with Richardson on the Auburn campus. "Dr. Richardson is very interested in the process and to him the process meant having candidates sit in front of him on campus like all the others, whoever they may be," Baird says. "I guess there could be a time down the road where that would not be exactly the way he saw it, but it is now. Frankly, there has not been a whole lot of reluctance to do that."
Baird says the lack of word from the NCAA Committee on Infractions on what sanctions the Tigers will receive has been a problem in the coaching search process. "It would have been far, far easier for us to sit down to a candidate and say, ‘These are the penalties, or these are the lack of penalties, whatever it is.'"
Baird says that there is a possibility that the Tigers will hire a new coach before the university learns what the sanctions are. "We have tried to be imaginative and creative when we talked to candidates because we just couldn't wait until we had it to go forward," he says. "We have been trying to address it in a way that would have contingencies involved if we get this or we get that. That has not deterred, at this point, anyone.
"It is a serious issue," Baird adds. "It is the number one thing in front of any of them's minds as it would mine or you, but again we have tried to be ahead of the game about what we may do regarding commitment to them, term of commitment and those kinds of things to allay their fears and to assure that they would have chances to work and build a program through whatever sanctions we get."
AU officials have contacted NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to try to get word on when to expect news on the committee on infractions' findings regarding the AU basketball program. "We have tried, but it has come to no avail," Baird says. "They have indicated essentially to us it is their time-line and they will get to us as quickly as they can within the parameters in which they deal."
Baird met with the current AU basketball players before they left town for last week's spring break. He plans to update them on the coaching search later this week because he says they are concerned about their immediate and long-term futures. "It is very uncertain," Baird says. "I know that the uncertainty builds as we go further in the process. This is probably the part of this that I am most concerned about. It is tough for them. I believe it is tougher in basketball than it would be in football and baseball because of the numbers involved and the coach/player ratio is so much smaller than it is in football and baseball."
Baird notes that the coaching search has had its ups and downs and says that Richardson told him, "‘You get me smiling one day and crying the next.' That is kind of the way I have been. As the process moves forward, it has been predictably unstable and uncertain because of some of the things we are dealing with. If I ever do this again, and I don't think I will, shooting with a full deck of cards at Auburn must be like shooting fish in a barrel because to have great interest from great candidates considering some of the things in front of us is an incredible testimonial to what is good about this school."
One of Auburn's primary candidates, Anderson of UAB, is expected to interview for the vacant job at Miami. Baird says the fact that other colleges are looking for coaches may make AU's job tougher. "We know that St. John's is open, Georgetown and Miami," he says. "I watch TV every once in a while and I saw last night when one of the networks (ESPN) had all of those jobs filled. That was pretty good. I didn't realize we hired a guy." ESPN reported that UTC's Lebo was the likely pick to fill the AU vacancy.
Baird says the Tigers plan to offer an attractive package to their new coach that will be "very competitive by SEC standards" that should be in the "middle to high middle" range among the league's men's basketball coaching salaries.
Cliff Ellis coached 10 seasons at Auburn.
Baird is also recommending to Richardson that the new coach's contract be set up so the coach will have to buy out the contract from AU if he wants to leave before it is finished and that Auburn will have to buy out the contract if it changes coaches before the contract is completed.
"I don't want to give up the ranch, or anything else," Baird says. "We are looking at a long-term thing. I hope Auburn will be in a position five, six or seven years from now to command a salary like the very best in the SEC because two things will have happened. Our program will have grown with a new coach to the point where everything is in a position to do that--attendance, winning, a coach making a long-term commitment to us.
"It would make me the happiest guy in the world if the coach we hire, hopefully soon, will be the highest paid one in the league. We will have all done the right things if that ends up being the case. I do think it is important that we prove we are committed to changing the basketball atmosphere and culture and we make a long-term commitment so it (compensation package) is going to be competitive. There may be some wiggle room for negotiations. The president will make a decision on that. That has been my recommendation that we put a good one together and go get a guy."