Tough Situations For New Coaches

Phillip Marshall takes a look at Auburn's major sports teams and the coaching situations for each.

The decisions have been made. Coaches have retired and been fired. Replacements have been hired. Agree or disagree with moves made by interim president Ed Richardson and athletics assistant Hal Baird, it's time for Auburn athletics to move forward.

There are still changes to come in athletic administration, but those will have minimal immediate impact on winning and losing.

Auburn's three new coaches, Jeff Lebo in men's basketball, Nell Fortner in women's basketball and Tom Slater in baseball, face different kinds of challenges.

Considering all that's happened in recent weeks, Lebo's is the most daunting. He will play his first Southeastern Conference season terribly short-handed. For their own reasons, Lewis Monroe, Marco Killingsworth and Dwayne Curtis are gone. Brandon Robinson probably will be next, and won't be eligible the first semester under any circumstances.

Auburn will be the odds-on choice to finish last in the SEC next season. With only one player taller than 6-6, the Tigers will be physically outmanned inside in every SEC game. Does that mean they can't win? No, I suspect they'll win more than some people expect, but winning enough to get to postseason play is almost certainly too much to expect.

In Lebo's second season, he will have recruited help inside. But the help will be young and the odds will still be long. In his third season, if he and his staff recruit well, the Tigers should again be a serious factor in the SEC West.

Fortner will also be short-handed inside this season, but her circumstances aren't as dire as Lebo's. She has two of the SEC's top guards in Natasha Brackett and Nicole Louden and an inside force in Marita Payne. The Tigers aren't likely to be championship contenders, but they could make a run at a first-division finish and an NCAA Tournament bid.

Slater inherits a baseball team with significant holes and significant strengths. Shortstop Chuck Jeroloman and second baseman Tug Hulett, who played together for three years, must be replaced. Steven Register, last season's best pitcher, and outfielder Sean Gamble are also gone. Centerfielder Clete Thomas is one of the SEC's better players. There is depth and talent on the pitching staff. Though Josh Bell struggled at the plate last season, he is potentially a big-time home run hitter. Slugging first baseman Karl Amonite, whose injury contributed greatly to last season's 12-18 SEC record, should be back at 100 percent.

Like Fortner, Slater might face more difficult challenges in his second season than his first. On the plus side, it is far easier to recruit players who can make immediate impacts in baseball than it is in most other sports.

That brings us to football. Tommy Tuberville, of course, survived the clandestine move against him last November. His team should be a contender in the SEC West. To move from contender to champion, the Tigers will probably have to handle defending national champion LSU at home in the season's third game. Because it is a division game, the showdown against LSU takes on more significance than the November home game against ancient and honored foe Georgia.

This should be Tuberville's year to make a statement that he's at Auburn for the long haul. With a fifth-year senior quarterback in Jason Campbell and two of the nation's top running backs in Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown in their final seasons, it is reasonable to expect that there could be something of a dip in 2005.

Like Richardson or not, agree with his moves or not, he certainly has changed the landscape of Auburn athletics. Whether he has changed it for good or bad won't be known for several years. One thing is certain. Auburn supporters are going to need some patience, and that has been in short supply in recent times.

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