A New Era For Auburn Athletics

Dr. Ed Richardson and Hal Baird have made obvious changes in the way things are done in Auburn's athletic department since taking over the job.

As I sat in the conference room next to interim Auburn president Ed Richardson's office last week, I was struck by the contrast.

For 40 minutes, Richardson looked me in the eye and answered every question without flinching. He had a clear vision of his mission and how he intends to accomplish it.

Five months earlier, almost to the day, I had sat in that same room and listened to former president William Walker defend the indefensible and play fast and loose with the truth in the wake of the scandal that came to be known as Petrinogate.

Just over a week later, Auburn was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools. Things looked so bleak that one wondered how the school was ever going to recover. The Auburn Family was in an uproar.

After more than six weeks of turmoil and anger, Richardson was named interim president on Jan. 20. Everything started to change for Auburn University on that day. Richardson had never been a university administrator, but he had been state superintendent of education. He knew about running a large operation, about identifying issues and taking them on. That's just what he did.

He took office proclaiming that his No. 1 focus would be on getting Auburn off SACS probation and quickly set out to do it. He took a large step in that direction Friday, getting board approval for a wide range of measures that make it clear that the president, not the Board of Trustees, is in charge.

Earlier, he fired basketball coach Cliff Ellis, fired vice president for alumni affairs Betty DeMent and secured athletic director David Housel's promise to retire at the end of the year. He turned day-to-day operation of the athletic department over to Hal Baird, by far the most respected administrator in the department.

Richardson was the right man at the right time for a troubled university. And he's a long way from finished. He said Friday that he will be taking a close look at operations in all university departments.

In less than four months on the job, Richardson has changed the culture of governance at Auburn. No one who is paying much attention doubts that he is, in fact, running the show. Richardson, you see, didn't need the job. He was on the verge of retirement anyway and could walk away today. He told Gov. Bob Riley and trustees from the start that he would take the job only if they understood he would tolerate no interference. Only a man in that position could have suggested the changes that were made Friday. Who would have imagined a month ago, a week ago, that the Board of Trustees would vote to abolish the athletics committee? That happened because Richardson wanted it to happen.

Richardson is a personable, engaging man. He studies issues and gets input before he makes decisions. At the same time, he is hard-nosed and unafraid to make hard decisions. That is a valuable combination.

And then there is Hal Baird.

Shortly after Housel announced he would retire, Richardson named Baird athletics assistant to the president and put him in charge of the day to day operation of the athletic department. It was a masterful move.

I have known Baird since he came to Auburn as baseball coach in 1985. I have never once known the man to blink at a challenge. I have never once known him to be deceitful. He is a scholarly, compassionate and caring human being. At the same time, he is as tough as they come. He strongly believes that the Auburn athletic department, or any athletic department, exists to help educate student-athletes and to win. As long as he is in charge, those are the goals he will pursue. He's in it for all the right reasons. Like Richardson, Baird doesn't need the job. He was planning to retire in August. He'll make the decisions that need to be made and won't look back. He has earned respect at all levels of the department. Coaches respect his intellect, respect his toughness and respect the fact that he has been where they are.

It's a new day for Auburn and for Auburn athletics.


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