A Look At Auburn's Big Three Sports Programs

Columnist Phillip Marshall comments on the controversial comments of a member of the university's board of trustees.

When Jimmy Rane, the chairman of the Board of Trustees athletics committee, labeled Auburn's athletics program mediocre last week, he was really talking about football, basketball and baseball.

Based on last season, it would be difficult to prove him wrong. But what about what really matters? What about the future? Let's take a look.

Football

Tommy Tuberville inherited a disintegrating situation when he arrived as head coach shortly after the 1998 season. The talent level was dropping faster than the stock market. Morale was even lower. That Tuberville won the Southeastern Conference West and got to the championship game in his second season was a remarkable accomplishment.

Even then, Tuberville knew the job was far from done. The Tigers are still paying the price for poor recruiting years before Tuberville arrived. He and his staff have steadily built the talent base. The Tigers can match speed and athletic ability with most now, but there are still areas where experience is lacking.

Certainly, the coming season could be a good one. If sixth-year senior Daniel Cobb or sophomore Jason Campbell steps forward at quarterback, it could be a special season. But 2003, realistically, is the year that Auburn could contend for a national championship.

The darkest cloud hanging over the football program remains what happened on Nov. 17 of last season. An Alabama team that had won just four games romped to a 31-7 victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium. That demon won't be exorcised from the Auburn psyche until Alabama is beaten, and that won't be easy at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the coming season.

Last season was, in fact, mediocre. With the loss to Alabama, one of four in the last five games, it would be hard to call it anything else. But Tuberville has things going rapidly in the right direction. There is little doubt that, given time, he will be a big Auburn winner.

Basketball

Mediocre would be a kind way to describe last season. A 4-12 SEC record made the championship of 1999 a distant memory.

Head coach Cliff Ellis is feeling the heat. Even with the defection of Adam Harrington, he has most of his top players back. The problem is that most of the top players in the SEC are back. Auburn should be better, but most other SEC teams should be better, too.

Two returning players could hold the key for Auburn's season. Sophomore point guard Lewis Monroe must take a huge step forward. Junior center Kyle Davis must finally begin to reach his immense potential and become a complete player instead of just a shot blocker.

Marquis Daniels will be an All-SEC caliber player if he is left to play his natural small forward position and not moved all over the place. Senior Derrick Bird and sophomore Brandon Robinson could play for most teams.

The Tigers have a chance. How good a chance? Time will tell.

Baseball

Last season was neither the best of times nor the worst of times for the Tigers.

They finished fifth in the SEC with four freshman position players in the starting lineup and a freshman closer, good enough to be called better than mediocre. They went two-and-out in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, disappointing enough to be called mediocre or worse.

Next season, the third as head coach for Steve Renfroe, should be a good one. The Tigers return most of their top position players and pitchers. They had a terrific recruiting class.

The real question could be the pitchers. Eric Brandon and Cory Dueitt were outstanding freshmen, but both struggled last season as sophmores. Colby Paxton, another sophomore, was brilliant at times and woeful at times.

If freshman position players like Sean Gamble, Tug Hulett Chuck Jeroloman improve as they should and the pitchers regain their confidence and consistency, the Tigers should be far better than mediocre next season.

Rane says he strongly believes that Auburn can and should compete with the best in the nation in every sport. He points out that the commitment has been made in terms of finances, facilities and support.

But the Tigers live in shark-infested waters. Winning championships year after year in the SEC is a tall, tall order, particularly in football, basketball and baseball. Others have all the things Auburn has. Some have more. Auburn finished 19th in the race for the Sears Cup, which goes to the nation's top athletic program. That's a fine accomplishment, but five SEC teams finished higher.

It will all start again in just over two weeks when freshmen report for the start of two-a-day football practices. It'll be interesting to watch.


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