Marshall: Transition Period For Auburn Teams

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about three Auburn athletic teams that have had recent coaching changes.

In the spring of 2003, things seemed to be looking up for Auburn basketball and baseball.

Though the regular season was relatively uninspiring, the men's basketball team made a spirited run to the Sweet 16 and lost by a single point to eventual national champion Syracuse.

The women's basketball team won the WNIT, a precursor to getting into the NCAA Tournament a year later.

The baseball team was a top eight national seed and hosted a regional, though it lost twice to an overmatched Ohio State team and didn't take advantage of a wide-open path to Omaha and the College World Series.

A year later, the coaches of all three teams were gone. And today things are very different.

Coach Cliff Ellis

Cliff Ellis was fired as men's basketball coach after a disappointing 2004 season. Jeff Lebo took the reins, but before he really got started, the guts of his team hit the road. There was little behind them other than freshman Tony Douglas, and he left a year later at his father's urging.

The result: Last season was a struggle for the Tigers. This season, with five freshmen in the playing rotation and four in the starting lineup, has been even more of a struggle.

Nell Fortner was named to replace legendary Joe Ciampi, who retired as women's basketball coach after the 2004 season. There was enough talent left that the Tigers probably should have been back in the NCAA Tournament, but it didn't work out. Then, most of the playmakers graduated.

Coach Joe Ciampi

The result: Like the men, the women are playing five freshmen. Like the men, they are struggling. Like the men, they seem unlikely to play beyond their final game in the SEC Tournament.

Steve Renfroe was fired as baseball coach after the Tigers failed to qualify for postseason play in 2004. Tom Slater took over a team with seven players who would be drafted, but he had little experienced talent behind them.

The result: The Tigers squeezed into a regional last season, but almost their entire pitching staff departed. The position players are strong enough this season to make a run. Whether the rebuilt pitching staff, beyond No. 1 starter Chris Dennis, is strong enough remains to be seen.

The good news is that David Marsh's swimming program is cruising right along, the men preparing to go after their fourth consecutive national championship. Tina Deese has the Auburn softball team in the Top 20.

But in the sports that matter most to most people, rebuilding is the order of the day.

Where they stand:

The five freshmen who are playing regularly for the men's basketball team are very talented. The will form the base of the program Lebo is working to build. There is increasing optimism in the Auburn administration that they can make the numbers work to build a new basketball arena, a potential boon for men's and women's basketball.

The Tigers aren't going to win many more games this season. With another strong recruiting class, they should show major improvement next season, at least enough to get into the NIT. It's not unrealistic to believe they could get back into the NCAA Tournament in 2008.

The women's basketball team is following much the same track. Fortner has shown beyond any doubt that she can recruit. Molding those recruits eventually into a team that can compete at the highest level of the SEC is the next challenge.

The women are perhaps a bit closer than the men to turning the corner. An NCAA bid at the end of next season might not be likely, but it is possible.

In baseball, Slater has the program on the fast track to big-time success. He has one of the nation's top freshman classes this season and will have again next season. The position players are the most talented Auburn group since the days of Gabe Gross, Mailon Kent, Todd Faulkner and friends.

Coach Steve Renfroe was a long-time AU assistant coach before taking over as head coach of the baseball Tigers for four seasons beginning in 2001.

There is no lack of talent on the pitching staff, but there is a glaring lack of experience. The young pitchers will get better as the season goes on. If they get better fast enough, the Tigers should be back in postseason play. If they don't, that might have to wait another year.

There's no way to know how things would be if Ellis, Ciampi and Renfroe were still in charge of their respective sports. But the reality of college athletics is that coaching changes are difficult. It takes time for any coach in any sport to put his or her stamp on a program.

Lebo, Fortner and Slater are in the process of doing just that.

Until next time…

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