The Change In Auburn's Athletic Scene

Phillip Marshall writes about football, basketball and other sports in his column on Auburn and SEC athletics.

As we wait to learn the fate of another Auburn coach under fire, I long for the kinder, gentler days.

My earliest memories of Auburn athletics are of Ralph Jordan and Joel Eaves, Jeff Beard and Bill Beckwith, of college girls selling mums on crystal blue autumn Saturdays, of lemonade at Toomer's, of excitement and disappointment without rancor.

The Auburn of those days--the town, the school and the athletic program--were far different than they are today. Cliff Hare Stadium had 43,000 seats, with a few thousand more available for standing room on a grassy hill. The Sports Arena, with fewer than 3,000 seats, was one of the tougher places in the country for opponents to play. An overnight visitor could stay at the Heart of Auburn or at the Holiday Inn, where catfish swam in the motel pool during the cooler months.

Auburn people wanted to win, but by dang, it was their school, they were proud of it and they'd walk with their heads high, regardless of the outcome. Coaches came to town to live, not to visit for a few years.

From my perspective, it started to seriously change in 1975. Jordan announced in April of that year that he would retire at the end of the season. It was announced on the same day that offensive coordinator Doug Barfield would become head coach.

Barfield was a popular choice among one segment of Auburn people, a very unpopular choice among another. There was a major split, and he never had a chance.

Contrary to popular belief, Barfield was a very good football coach. He inherited a program bereft of Southeastern Conference talent and got better every year. In 1979, the Tigers were 8-3 and could easily have been 10-1. They led eventual national champion Alabama deep into the fourth quarter.

But the forces that had opposed Barfield from the start still opposed him. Expectations were high in 1980 when Tennessee came to town and romped to a 42-0 victory before the largest crowd in Auburn history. It was as good as over for Barfield. After a disappointing 5-6 record, he was fired.

I was sports editor of the Montgomery Advertiser by then. Barfield was the first coach in any sport I'd seen put on the road in more than 20 years of watching Auburn athletics. There was grumbling about Jordan after a 4-6 season in 1966. Bear Bryant's dominance certainly caused plenty of angst. But not one seriously suggested Jordan should be fired. Bill Lynn was gently removed as basketball coach and took another job in the athletic department. It was an unusual event. It is no longer unusual or even surprising for jobs to be lost.

Auburn has taken it to a new level this year. Cliff Ellis was unceremoniously dumped as basketball coach after 10 seasons and just one year after going to the Sweet 16. Athletic director David Housel was pushed into retirement, effective at the end of this year. Football coach Tommy Tuberville would have been fired had the infamous trip to Louisville not been exposed. Women's basketball coach Joe Ciampi retired after 25 seasons, but it at least was his decision. A year after his team was the No. 4 national seed, baseball coach Steve Renfroe, a good and loyal Auburn man, waits and wonders today whether he'll be back for a fifth season.

I don't want to come across here as an old codger talking about the good old days. Times haven't just changed at Auburn. They've changed everywhere.

It used to be a lot of trouble for an unhappy fan to make himself heard. He'd have to sit down, write a letter and mail it. Now that fan can fire off an angry email, call a radio talk show, post anonymously on an Internet message board. Media coverage is far more intense than it was even in the 1970s. Where there used to be one college football game televised each Saturday, now there are dozens.

But the overriding reason things have changed is money. Auburn's athletic department budget was $44 million last year. It will probably approach $48 million this year. Bills must be paid. Fundraising has become as much a part of big-time college athletic programs as recruiting players. People who give money want a say in the affairs of the department. When they are unhappy, their complaints are heard. Football and basketball coaches are paid salaries fit for a king. With that windfall comes the demand that they produce and do it in a hurry.

Those kinder, gentler days are never going to return. There will probably never be another coach who stays 25 years in one job as Jordan did. Nick Saban is a hero at LSU--for now. All it would take is a couple of disappointing seasons for the wolves to be at his door. No coach is secure for long.

The athletes are better now than at any time in history. The coaching is better. The facilities are better. The games are more entertaining. Those are good things.

It would be nice if everyone would step back, take a deep breath and remember that it's all supposed to be fun. It hasn't been much fun at Auburn since last September.

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