A Time To Listen

Columnist Phillip Marshall comments on the job being done by interim president Dr. Ed Richardson in area of athletics.

As a reporter, I like interim Auburn president Ed Richardson's willingness to address issues head on. His honesty is refreshing, especially compared to the double-talk of former president William Walker. I don't think we'll ever hear Richardson say "integrity is in the eye of the beholder."

But Richardson has a lot to learn when it comes to athletics. For starters, he needs to learn to listen to those who know more than he does.

When Hal Baird, the only baseball expert in the Auburn athletic administration, said Steve Renfroe should be given another year, Richardson should given him another year. Richardson readily admits he's no expert in such matters, yet he overruled one who is. He is apparently allowing Baird to make the call on the next coach, which is a good thing.

Richardson also needs to learn that his words carry a lot of weight. When he leaves the impression in an interview that football coach Tommy Tuberville has work to do to secure his future past this season, he plays into the hands of Auburn's rivals. Newspaper reports quickly land in the hands of recruits, who begin to ask if the coaches who are recruiting them will be around if they sign with Auburn.

Dr. Ed Richrdson

Richardson, who has spent virtually all his adult life in elementary and secondary education, even says he will evaluate how the Tigers are "adjusting to different strategies that different coaches from other teams bring in."

Is he serious? Does he really believe he can sit in the president's box and recognize and understand the strategy unfolding on the field? I know I can't often do it from the press box. It's easy to see when things work and when things don't. Knowing why is often beyond my level of expertise, and I'm pretty sure my level of expertise is beyond Richardson's.

Auburn's football program would have been much better served if Richardson had simply expressed support for Tuberville, said he doesn't expect to be in a position to have to make a decision and moved on. Instead he raised questions.

In less than four months on the job, Richardson has fired basketball coach Cliff Ellis and Renfroe and secured athletic director David Housel's agreement to retire. For good measure, he also fired Betty Dement, the vice president for alumni affairs. Women's basketball coach Joe Ciampi retired. All that has happened on the heels of last November, when Housel, Walker and trustees Earlon McWhorter and Byron Franklin slipped out of town two days before the Iron Bowl. They went to talk to Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about the possibility of replacing Tuberville.

As a result of all that, coaches look at Auburn a bit warily. Fans believe their teams should win championships every year. Coaches know it isn't going to happen. If a coach thinks he's going to be fired at the first sign of trouble, he's going to be hesitant about taking a new job.

Richardson says he's making athletic department decisions because it is important for SACS to understand that the president is in control of the athletic department. Truth is, most athletic departments are run by athletic directors, who answer to presidents. That's all SACS wants.

It's time for Richardson to back off. It's time for him to get out of the way and turn athletic decisions over to those who are qualified to make them. In the Auburn athletic department, that starts with Baird.

There's little question Richardson would like for Baird to stay on after Housel retires in January. Richardson has told people that he wants Baird to be there as long as he is there. Whether Baird wants to be there remains to be seen. If he stays or if he doesn't, the next athletic director needs to make the hiring and firing decisions in the athletic department.

Partly because of the massive changes, Auburn could be looking at a trying athletic year in 2004-2005. The football team should be good, but the men's basketball team is going to struggle. The women's basketball team doesn't look like a first-division finisher. The baseball team will have to get big contributions from newcomers to have a successful season.

If those things come to pass, Richardson will be tested. Fans will complain. They always do when their team loses and they always will. Presidents have to be above all that. There is a time for coaches to be praised and a time for coaches to be fired, Richardson is not qualified to make those decisions based on his own knowledge. He needs to seek the advice of one who knows. And he needs to listen.

Sometimes saying nothing is better than saying too much.

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