A First Class Performance By Hal Baird

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about how Hal Baird conducted the search for a new men's basketball coach at Auburn.

In the end, Auburn got just what it needed--a young, energetic, talented coach to lead its basketball program into the future.

Had there been no NCAA issues, had Cliff Ellis retired voluntarily after a big season instead of being fired, Jeff Lebo still would have been an ideal choice as Auburn's coach. Iowa State and Virginia Tech saw him as an ideal choice last year, but he turned them down.

For Auburn, facing possible NCAA sanctions and with a team that will lose eight seniors after next season, to lure Lebo when others couldn't is truly remarkable. And one man deserves a huge share of the credit.

Hal Baird conducted the most thorough and professional coaching search seen at Auburn in many years. Interim president Ed Richardson should try to talk him into permanently taking over the athletic department when David Housel officially retires as athletic director at the end of the year, but that's another issue for another day.

Baird is the most respected person in the Auburn athletic department for good reason. He is a man of courage, class, character and unquestioned integrity. His word is beyond reproach. He was that way in 15 seasons as Auburn's baseball coach and he is that way as the man in charge of the Auburn athletic department. Baird doesn't tell you what you want to hear. He tells you the truth.

If he says Lebo was the only person offered the job, bank on it. If he says he believes Lebo was the best man for the job, he means just that. With Baird, there is no double talk. He'll do what he thinks is right--not most of the time or part of the time, but all the time.

Lebo saw that early in the process, and it played a large role in his decision to leave Tennessee-Chattanooga and move his wife and children to Auburn.

"Hal has been just absolutely terrific through the whole process," Lebo said. "I had a great feel about his honesty, his integrity. I've heard so many positive things about him from everybody I've talked to.

"You ask people what they think of Auburn and they say, ‘I love Hal Baird.' That was the first thing people would say. It's easy to see why people like him after you spend some time with him."

When Ellis was fired on March 18, neither Baird nor Richardson made any secret that they thought it would be a good thing for Auburn to hire an African-American basketball coach. And it would have been a good thing--if an African-American had emerged as the best choice for the job.

UAB's Mike Anderson might well could have edged out Lebo had he been willing to visit the campus and interview with Richardson. He wasn't. He didn't budge and Richardson didn't budge.

Wednesday night, it was down to Lebo and Virginia Commonwealth's Jeff Capel. We'll never know what would have happened had Capel visited the campus with his wife Thursday as scheduled. He chose not to. The truth is that Capel's credentials aren't nearly as impressive as Lebo's. Lebo has been a head coach for six years and has rebuilt two down and out programs. He was part of big-winning seasons as an assistant to Eddie Fogler at Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Capel is 29 years old and his coaching experience consists of one year as an assistant at Old Dominion, one as an assistant at VCU and two as head coach at VCU. That's not much preparation for the shark-infested waters of the SEC.

Charles Barkley said Thursday night that all the minority candidates had better resumes than Lebo. I'm not sure what resumes Sir Charles was reading. Lebo, a star on the court and in the classroom at North Carolina, has the pedigree. He has the experience. Will he make Auburn a consistent winner? Only the events of the years to come will answer that question.

But he was hired for all the right reasons.


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