Auburn Programs Paying The Price For SACS

Several Auburn athletic programs are currently struggling and a lack of depth and talent is the major reason why.

It was the year of SACS, the year of jetgate, the NCAA investigation of the basketball program, the year of great upheaval at Auburn University. There is a price for those kinds of times, and that price is being paid today by teams that wear Auburn uniforms.

It is easy to blame coaches when things don't go right. They are paid a lot of money to do their jobs, and their jobs are to win. But the pain and agony that has characterized 2006 for Auburn men's basketball, women's basketball and baseball started before Jeff Lebo, Nell Fortner and Tom Slater arrived to coach.

In the 2003-2004 school year, Auburn athletics became a tough sell to potential athletes and even some potential coaches.

When the football team failed to live up to expectations, former president William Walker led his gang on their secret trip to talk to Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. The trip eventually cost Walker and athletic director David Housel their jobs and will forever be known as jetgate.

Days later, SACS placed the university on probation. Though academics weren't ever an issue, it was reported as "academic probation." Opposing recruiters gleefully took advantage.

In February 2004, Auburn officials went before the NCAA Committee on Infractions to defend their basketball program. They weren't successful. The program was placed on probation, hastening the end of Cliff Ellis' tenure.

Legendary women's basketball coach Joe Ciampi retired, and at the end of a disappointing baseball season, head coach Steve Renfroe was let go.

As all this was happening, the athletic department was in a state of transition. Housel was still athletics director but was no longer in charge of the day-to-day operations of the department. Hal Baird brought honesty and integrity to his job as athletics assistant to the president, but it was well-known he planned to retire as soon as possible. No one knew who the next athletic director or next president would be.

It was against this backdrop that Auburn coaches went to recruit. For both basketball programs and the baseball program, it became almost a lost recruiting year. That fact is obvious in the number of third-year juniors or redshirt sophomores on their rosters.

The baseball team that struggles now toward the finish of what will be the first losing Auburn season in 23 years, has one player from that class. And he wasn't a baseball signee. Centerfielder Bruce Edwards came to Auburn to play wide receiver.

The men's basketball team has Frank Tolbert, who was signed by the previous staff before the scandals hit, and Daniel Hayles, who was signed after Lebo arrived.

Guard Frank Tolbert stuck by the Tigers during trying times.

The women's basketball team has Alexis Ogubie, Aileen Rossouw and Juanita Wallace. None of them were regular starters last season.

Football was not immune. Seventeen players remain from that recruiting class, but not one has yet emerged as a certain starter for next season. That's one reason it might be wise to temper expectations that seem about to soar of control. The Tigers have and will play against players who would have worn orange and blue in better times.

Because of that lost year, the struggles of 2006 were not only predictable, but probably unavoidable.

The impact is even more pronounced in baseball, because most players with professional aspirations leave after their junior seasons. This Auburn team and Auburn season would have an entirely different look if Clete Thomas was in centerfield, Josh Bell was catching and Josh Sullivan and Michael Nix were pitching.

The good news for Auburn supporters is that the future looks much brighter than the present.

The major elements in any college sport are coaching, talent and experience. There is no reason to doubt the ability of Slater, Lebo or Fortner. All three are rebuilding their talent bases. Talented young players are gaining experience.

Despite the painful struggles of this season, the baseball team is probably the closest to turning the corner. This season's shaky freshmen will be next season's confident veterans. Slater already has signed up another outstanding recruiting class. The Tigers should be back in the postseason in 2007 and a championship contender in 2008.

Good news is coming in basketball in the form of plans for a historic facilities upgrade. Both teams should be significantly better next season and even better the next.

The price for the bad times has been high, but it is almost paid.

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