Marshall: Lots of Talk, But No Substance

Columnist Phillip Marshall comments on Auburn's first year head men's basketball coach.

Jeff Lebo to Tennessee? I don't believe it. Not for a second.

It seems radio talk show hosts around the Southeast have been keeping the idea alive that Lebo is unhappy at Auburn and that he is a leading candidate to replace Buzz Peterson at Tennessee.

There are good reasons to believe that talk is all it is.

First, the much-discussed fact that he has not signed his contract is no factor at all. When Lebo took the job, he signed a letter of agreement on the major portions of the deal--salary, length of time, buyout, etc. That letter is binding on him and on the university.

Second, the idea that Lebo is unhappy at Auburn just doesn't jibe with numerous conversations I've had with him over the past year. He knew the situation when he agreed to succeed Cliff Ellis. He was proud of what his first team accomplished.

And he knew that Auburn is like most other Southeastern Conference schools. Win big and you get big crowds. Lose big and you can hear the echo of the ball bouncing.

Third, former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, Lebo's college coach, is held in incredibly high esteem by those who played for him. No way would Lebo or any of the others take a job without consulting Smith first. It should be remembered that Peterson, fired last week at Tennessee, also played for Smith. Would Smith, who strongly urged Peterson not be fired, recommend to Lebo that he now go to Tennessee? I don't think so.

Fourth, Tennessee isn't that good a job. It has a huge arena it can't half fill. It is not in a hot bed of talent. It is overshadowed on its own campus, not only by football, but by women's basketball.

The bottom line: There is no indication from any significant source that says Lebo is interested in Tennessee and no indication that Tennessee is particularly interested in Lebo.

The truth is that it is extremely rare for head coaches to voluntarily leave Auburn to take other head coaching jobs. In fact, it is almost unheard of. It hasn't happened in football since the early part of the 20th century. Sonny Smith is the only basketball coach to leave Auburn for another head coaching job. He went to Virginia Commonwealth, but it was because he felt, erroneously, time was running out on him at Auburn. He never thought VCU was a better job than the one he had.

The financial resources and commitment for Auburn to win in basketball are not lacking, but there are things that need to be done. First on the list is a practice facility. Next is doing some more work on Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum to create more of a home-court atmosphere.

The idea that the program needs to be promoted better, frankly, doesn't hold water. The only truly effective promotion is winning.

Lebo believes he can take Auburn basketball to the highest level. He has the security of an eight-year agreement. He has the full support of the Auburn administration.

I think Lebo should have been a strong candidate to be SEC Coach of the Year this season. To win four SEC games and one tournament game with the limitations he faced was remarkable.

Can Lebo take Auburn to the highest level? Can he win championships and make Auburn a consistent force in the NCAA Tournament? I believe he can and believe he will. His first Auburn team laid a foundation of work ethic and refusing to give in against the greatest of odds. He already has an outstanding recruiting class in hand and is pursuing still more big-time players.

The time may come when Lebo leaves for another job. Neither Lebo nor any of the other Smith protégés in college basketball would likely turn down an opportunity to return to their alma mater. Heck, Roy Williams left Kansas, one of the more tradition-rich programs in the game, to go home to North Carolina. If, years from now, Lebo got that opportunity, he'd probably do the same thing.

But Tennessee?

I don't believe it. Not for a second.


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