Phillip Marshall Column: A Puzzling Situation

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn basketball, football as well as SEC football in this column.

As I looked around almost-empty Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum before Auburn's game against Southeastern Louisiana on Tuesday night, I was struck by a question.

Do Auburn people really care?

No question, Auburn people would like to win championships in basketball. But do they really want a top-of-the-line basketball program enough to do what it takes to have one?

Auburn's largest home announced crowd so far this season was 4,238 for McNeese State, and that was an extremely liberal estimate. The estimate of 3,476 for Southeastern Louisiana was even more liberal.

How much better will it be Sunday when Temple comes to town? Probably not much. Not until Southeastern Conference play starts will the crowds pick up, and there'll still be thousands of empty seats at most games.

In the sport that in which the home crowd can have the most impact, at a school where athletics matters, at a school where fans are famous for their loyalty, basketball languishes as a second-class athletic citizen.

It's hard to figure.

Win big, of course, and the crowds will come, at least for the big games. Sellouts became the norm in 1999 as the Tigers drove toward their first SEC championship since 1960. Beard-Eaves became an intimidating place to play. But that didn't last, on the court or off. Two of the best players in SEC history--Charles Barkley and Chuck Person--affected attendance in the 1980s more on the road than at home.

And that brings us back to the original question. Do Auburn people really care?

Interim president Ed Richardson promised Lebo, now in his second season, when he took the job that he would have a new indoor practice facility within two years. There has been talk, but nothing concrete has happened. Preparing for one of their tougher tests of the season, the Tigers couldn't practice on their own court for two days because of graduation. They had to practice in the auxiliary gym, not-so-fondly dubbed the "hot box."

The basketball arena isn't as bad as some say, but it needs work badly. The scoreboard hanging over midcourt is a relic of times gone by. Surely, the Auburn athletic department could afford a new scoreboard with modern electronics.

It's often puzzling that Auburn students who fight over football tickets largely ignore the basketball team that plays on their campus. Fraternities have chapter meetings on Wednesday nights, the nights SEC games are played, and seemingly have no interest in changing.

The War Eagle Supper Club will have larger crowds of students on a good night than Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum draws for nonconference games. The older folks don't do a lot better. They come mainly for the big games, if then.

Auburn can win in basketball. It's been done. Sonny Smith took the Tigers to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments. Cliff Ellis took them to a pair of Sweet 16s. Given an equal opportunity, there is no reason Auburn can't compete with most SEC basketball programs. Equal opportunity costs money.

Lebo is striving mightily to build a winning basketball program and to do it the right way. Though few people show up to watch, his freshman-laden team plays very hard and the day will come when they play very well.

Does anybody really care?

Moving on…

As hard as some might try to spin it another way, Huffman offensive lineman Andre Smith is no longer a target in Auburn's recruiting efforts.

Auburn coaches are no longer recruiting Smith, rated the top prospect in the state and one of the top prospects in the country by almost everyone. They were convinced sometime back that he was probably headed to Alabama and certainly not headed to Auburn.

If Alabama has to fight to get Smith to sign, that fight won't be with Auburn...

For what it's worth, here's how I would rank the SEC football teams going into next season:

West: 1. Auburn, 2. LSU, 3. Alabama, 4. Arkansas, 5. Mississippi State, 6. Ole Miss. East: 1. Florida, 2. Georgia, 3. Tennessee, 4. South Carolina, 5. Kentucky, 6. Vanderbilt...

Even now that it's over, I still shake my head in amazement. A one-hour national television special on a high school quarterback? It's called "The Chosen One?"

The hysteria that surrounded quarterback Tim Tebow's commitment, the show, all of it, is nothing to be proud of for the adult fans who got caught up in it, for ESPN, who helped create it, or for his parents who let it happen...

Until next time...

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