Auburn needs a lot more than just a touch-up
A huge banner bearing the name of the Lake Martin Auburn Club covered the electronic bingo board at the Elks Lodge in Alexander City, Ala. New Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville, dressed in a gray pinstriped suit, rose to address 130 Auburn alumni and boosters. After the crowd welcomed him with a standing ovation, he squinted and said, "I hope you're standing this time next year."
The seven months since Tuberville's predecessor, Terry Bowden, abruptly resigned with a 1-5 record have been turbulent for Auburn. Bowden's departure spawned allegations that university trustee and Montgomery banker Bobby Lowder was wielding undue influence on decisions made by the school's athletic department. The Tigers blew a 17-0 lead in losing at archrival Alabama and finished 3-8. Then, in February, Auburn canceled its 1999 season opener at Florida State and took a lot of heat from the Seminoles and the ACC for backing out of the game.
"The program is down," says Tuberville. "People are looking for somebody to be honest [about that]." He has been honest, at times too much so. He took away scholarships from six players after spring practice ended, saying, "Some of these guys we wouldn't have recruited." Only after a public uproar did the university say it would offer the players nonathletic scholarships.
Tuberville tried to infuse the Lake Martin boosters with confidence that Auburn football can again flourish. But when he said, "We're here to win a national championship," no one reacted. It was as if he had walked into a soup kitchen and promised the patrons free oil changes for their Cadillacs. Right now, the Tigers' boosters just don't want to be embarrassed anymore.
Tuberville took responsibility for the Florida State cancellation brouhaha. As if playing a highly ranked team wouldn't have been tough enough for Auburn, which may not be much better than it was a year ago, Tuberville also feared that—with Terry's father, Bobby, on the other sideline—the Tigers would have had to run another gantlet of questions about Terry's quitting. Enough is enough, he decided. "If we go through another season like we did, it will be a disaster," he says. "It might be anyway."
That brings to mind Auburn's offense, which averaged a meager 2.6 yards per carry last season. The Tigers' signal-caller is Gabe Gross, who as a quarterback is an outstanding leftfielder. Gross, who's hitting .375 this spring, completed just 44.7% of his passes as a freshman last fall. Still, he's the best quarterback at Auburn. When baseball forced Gross to miss a spring scrimmage against the first-team defense, the offense allowed 12 sacks and threw eight interceptions.
Tuberville's revoking of the six scholarships after spring practice was only one of the personnel issues in which he has become embroiled. Earlier this year he suspended Auburn's best returning receiver, junior Clifton Robinson, after Robinson was accused of statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. Then there's the case of receiver Robert Baker (1,214 all-purpose yards in 1996), who's on parole after serving 10� months for cocaine trafficking. Baker, who has missed two seasons of football, is trying to regain his academic eligibility and rejoin the Tigers. When an elderly alum asked about Baker at the Elks Lodge gathering, Tuberville said, "Whether we like it or not, Robert Baker came to Auburn to play football. He's one of us. I don't know if the kid will ever play here. Probably won't. I want him to get on with his life. Make something of himself. We don't need to shun him. We're not going to do anything stupid."
After the speech, Tuberville, assistant coach Terry Price and four others left in Price's SUV to make the 40-minute drive south to Auburn. Tuberville asked Price to step on it Minutes later a state trooper pulled them over for speeding and gave Price an $88 ticket. Rebuilding, it seems, will not be hurried.
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