Lebo Determined To See Things Through

Columnist Phillip Marshall recently sat down with men's basketball coach Jeff Lebo and the second-year coach had some interesting things to say.

Jeff Lebo has seen many of his more talented players leave for other schools. He went through his first season as Auburn's head basketball coach with a team that would have been undersized in many high school leagues. He is saddled with facilities that are far behind those of his competition. Fans stay home in great numbers.

But anyone looking for Lebo to feel sorry for himself will be disappointed.

Lebo moved to Auburn in April 2004. In the 15 months since, he says, he has learned why so many people told him Auburn was such a special place.

"We love Auburn," Lebo said. "We've fallen in love with Auburn in a short period of time. This university community is a great fit for us. It's a great place to raise our children. This is really a dream come true for me to coach at this level and be in a community like this. We love it. This is a place where I could certainly see myself for a long, long time."

As a player in high school and at North Carolina, as an assistant coach and as a head coach, Lebo has won championships. He says he came to Auburn to win some more, and he intends to see it through.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could do that," Lebo said. "Things need to happen, but they can happen. What makes a special program is consistency. That's a hard thing to get, but I think we can get that here. You may not win a championship every year, but you have a chance."

Lebo lost Marco Killingsworth, Lewis Monroe, Dwayne Curtis and Brandon Robinson before he ever coached a game last season. With no player taller than 6-foot-5 in the playing rotation, the Tigers went 13-17.

It was a season that was sometimes maddening, often frustrating. The trouble didn't end when the season ended. Toney Douglas, a freshman All-American and last season's leading scorer, left in June. But, for Lebo, last season was one that will always occupy a special place in his heart.

"I wouldn't wish it on anybody as a coach, but I think it's been a valuable experience for me," Lebo said. "I've been fortunate to play and coach on some teams that won championships and have had some good teams, championship teams, as a head coach.

"Not one team that I was a part of came as close to reaching its maximum potential as that team last year. That's a credit to the seniors who decided to stay."

The job of making Auburn a winner again really starts this season. And it won't be easy. The Tigers will look more like a basketball team, but there is precious little experience. "You have jobs that are rebuilding jobs and jobs that are massive rebuilding," Lebo said. "We have a massive rebuilding job we are going to start in Year 2."

With nine players signed, the job of restocking the roster is done. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs and president Ed Richardson must take the next step by beginning the expensive job of bringing basketball facilities up to 21st-century standards.

"If you look at our facilities overall, it is odd," Lebo said. "In what has been done here to help Auburn basketball student-athletes, we are behind, and not just compared to the SEC. I think Jay knows that and Dr. Richardson knows that."

Lebo says he is confident the needs will be addressed.

"We are anxious, obviously," Lebo said. "We are in a situation where we couldn't get on our court for 100 days of the year."

Lebo knows what it's like to play in front of huge and rabid crowds. It's that way at every game when you play for North Carolina. But Auburn is not unlike many schools in the SEC. Win and they'll come. Lose and they won't.

"(Attendance) doesn't really bother me that much," Lebo said. "You are in the Southeast. Basketball overlaps football. No one is really interested in November. December is an awful month for a lot of reasons – school is out, Christmas parties, vacations. People don't start getting interested until football is over and the conference seasons starts. That's kind of the way it is unless you are at North Carolina or Kentucky."

Auburn never will be North Carolina or Kentucky in basketball, but Auburn can win. Lebo showed me last season that he is the right man at the right time to make it happen. All he needs is time and support.

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