Disappointing Year Nearing An End

Phillip Marshall recaps Auburn's disappointing season in the big three sports.

One of the more disappointing Auburn athletic years in recent memory essentially ended Sunday at Plainsman Park when the baseball Tigers blew a 7-2 lead and lost 12-11 to South Carolina.

Oh, it's still possible something good could happen over the last two weekends of the regular season and the Tigers could squeeze into the SEC Tournament and get an NCAA regional bid. But, barring a turnaround that at this point seems highly unlikely, Steve Renfroe's fourth team will be his first that stays home for the postseason.

With apologies to swimming coach David Marsh's championship machine, Joe Ciampi's final women's basketball team and the softball team that is having its best season ever, the truth is that athletic success is largely measured by what happens in football, men's basketball and baseball. Auburn went into all three of those seasons with high expectations. All three ended in disappointment.

What happened? What does it mean for the future? Let's take a look.

Last August, there was unprecedented excitement about the football team. The Tigers were picked to win the national championship by several publications and were ranked No. 6 in both major preseason polls. Southern California was coming to town for a nationally televised opener. We all know where it went from there. The final record was 8-5, not bad but not nearly good enough in a year of such promise. Putting Hugh Nall and Steve Ensminger in charge of the offense, for whatever reason, didn't work. The defense played at a championship level. The offense did not.

After the plot to fire head coach Tommy Tuberville was exposed, he got a one-year contract extension. What does that mean? Not much. Tuberville, like every other SEC football coach, has to win. He has turned the offense over to coordinator Al Borges, who certainly made a strong impression in spring practice. He just might give Tuberville the most potent offense he's had at Auburn. The 2004 Tigers will again be quite talented, but five of the front seven on defense are gone. The new guys might have more talent than last season's bunch, but they don't have nearly the experience. And the value of experience in college football, especially up front, can't be underestimated.

The schedule is more sensible than last season's. Other than national exposure, there is little to be gained for an SEC team in playing the likes of USC. Had LSU played USC last season, the Bayou Bengals probably wouldn't have been playing for the national championship. There won't be much national championship talk going into this season, but the Tigers will be ranked highly enough that they can make a run if they're good enough. The season could turn on home games against LSU and Georgia, two teams that will probably be ranked in the preseason top five.

The basketball team was picked to finish second in the West going into the season. Instead, it finished dead last in the West and overall in the SEC race. It didn't help that point guard Lewis Monroe suffered a broken foot in preseason practice and that freshman center Dwayne Curtis was ineligible until late December. But those injuries weren't enough to explain a 5-11 SEC record. In the end, it was a season that cost Cliff Ellis his job after 10 seasons as head coach.

The biggest mistake that Ellis made was mortgaging the future, signing one freshman and three junior college transfers last season. He was left with a team with little leadership and inconsistent focus.

Hiring Jeff Lebo as Ellis' replacement was a masterful stroke by interim president Ed Richardson and Hal Baird, the athletics assistant to the president. Those who should know say Lebo will get it done at Auburn. At one time it looked like he would have a fighting chance for a big first season, but that has changed. Curtis has transferred to Ole Miss. Marco Killingsworth is considering leaving early. Brandon Robinson is in danger of being ineligible. Lebo could be left without a legitimate post player. Even if Killingsworth returns, he could be the only inside presence available. And you can't win that way in the SEC.

The baseball team also was picked to finish second in the SEC West and also had injury problems. The loss of slugging first baseman Karl Amonite was a major blow. Had Amonite played this season, it is unlikely the Tigers would face the dire situation they face. There are other problems not so easy to understand.

Early on, the Tigers struggled at the plate. Renfroe's track record said they would improve, and they have. It's the pitching, particularly in the bullpen, that has gone south.

Auburn has given up 12 or more runs on three of the last four SEC Sundays. In those three games, they have lost 19-0 to Alabama, 22-8 to Florida and 12-11 to South Carolina. It's not a new problem. Eric Brandon went from dominating freshman to little-used junior. The same has happened to Colby Paxton, who turned down big bucks as a high school senior to sign with Auburn and is now a college senior with no apparent future in the game. Senior Cory Dueitt has been good but has not reached the promise he showed as a freshman. The Tigers have been inconsistent on the mound for most of Renfroe's tenure. Finding out why must be an offseason priority.

Renfroe believes he's in the process of having a special recruiting year. He'll need it. Left fielder Sean Gamble, second baseman Tug Hulett, shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and pitcher Steven Register, all juniors, are likely to go play for money. Pitcher Cory Dueitt is a senior. On the bright side, Amonite plans to return for his fifth year. Renfroe said before the season this would be his most talented team. That talent level was reduced by the loss of Amonite and third baseman Tyler Johnstone, but not enough to justify a 10-14 SEC record. This team should have been better than it's been. It is unlikely Renfroe's job is in jeopardy, and it shouldn't be. It was just last season that the Tigers were 18-12 in the SEC and the No. 4 national seed. But next season could be a pivotal one in Renfroe's career.

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