Marshall: Time for Football Early Signing

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes on several football and basketball topics in his latest column.

Despite my best effort, I don't have documentation to back it up, but I feel certain last Tuesday's crowd was the smallest for an Auburn-Kentucky game since Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum opened in 1969.

It's puzzling, really puzzling.

Oh, I know this team has lost five straight games. I know a lot of people are turned off by the aging arena. But a crowd of 6,600 (a liberal estimate) for Kentucky? Even by Auburn basketball crowd standards, that's pitiful.

Auburn has a classy and talented young coach. It has a young team that anyone with basketball knowledge knows is headed for good things in the years to come. Yet, instead of growing, interest seems to be lower than at any time in years.

Auburn basketball needs many things, starting with a massive facilities upgrade. But that doesn't explain away the thousands of empty seats, even for the more attractive games.

The biggest question of all is why the student turnout is so consistently poor. It's an obvious problem, but I don't see any serious move toward doing anything about it. Silly promotions during timeouts sure aren't going to do it. It's going to take more than that.

When Hal Baird was senior associate athletic director, he visited Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley to talk about what the Gators had done. It turned out that Florida, which once struggled like Auburn does to draw fans, had reserved prime seats all around the court for students. The students received free hot dogs and other incentives. Going to basketball became the thing to do. Students add energy, which makes the atmosphere such that it encourages others to come.

Baird came back and offered a proposal that Auburn do something similar. He was turned down flat.

Why? I can only guess, but sometimes it is difficult to convince people to think outside of the box in which they have lived for many years.

Freshman forward Rasheem Barrett takes a jump shot vs. Kentucky on Tuesday night.

The other question is why in the world are students charged for tickets? Many, if not most, schools don't charge students for basketball tickets. At Auburn, with a desperate need to increase attendance, students have to pay. And the money that generates doesn't make a blip on the athletic department budget.

Schools like Auburn, those not located in metropolitan areas, have a built-in disadvantage in drawing basketball crowds. Fans in Mobile or Huntsville, if they have to work on Thursday morning, are going to have a hard time going to a game on Wednesday night. Of course, Saturday afternoon crowds aren't much better.

The students have to set the pace. To do that, they have to be encouraged.

It's been shown that Auburn fans will turn out en masse to support a great team. The 1999 SEC champions and the 2000 team played in front of mostly packed houses during the SEC season.

But as soon as championships were no longer in the picture, the big crowds went away. Auburn isn't going to win championships every year and it isn't going to sell out every game, but the current situation is nothing short of embarrassing.

Auburn basketball is at a crossroads. It is time for facilities to be brought up to par with those of other sports. But even before that, it is time for some creative thinking.

Moving on…

Until the 1980s, the Southeastern Conference had an early signing period for football. Players could sign conference letters-of-intent in December. The letters were binding on SEC teams, but not on other teams.

As time went on, that didn't work so well. Though the SEC had agreements with the ACC and area independents to honor those letters, schools from other conferences didn't have to scout. They'd see who signed with SEC schools, then spend the next two months trying to lure them away.

But I see no reason why an early national signing period wouldn't work. It might even turn down the volume that surrounds recruiting, and goodness knows it needs to be turned down. Wednesday, national signing day, ESPNU will have six consecutive hours of high school students announcing their college choices. Some of those players will actually become great players. Most won't.

A December signing period would allow those who want to end the process to end it. Some of the hype, at least, would be diminished.

It works well in basketball. Why not football?…

The release of Auburn's football schedule has been delayed while the Mid-American Conference works to provide an opponent for Sept. 23. It's all part of a confusing set of circumstances that started when Tulane had Auburn and LSU scheduled for the same day.

Turner Gill

The most likely scenario now is that Auburn will play Buffalo, a MAC member that recently named former Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill head coach, on Sept. 23. If that falls into place as expected, the Tigers will play at South Carolina the following Thursday, Sept. 28…

Until next time…

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