LAST SEASON: 22-11; lost to Louisville in NCAA final eight.
GOODBYE TO: Chuck Person (21.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg).
SUPPORTING CAST: g Gerald White; f Mike Jones; f Chris Morris.
INTRODUCING: f John Caylor; g Derrick Dennison; f Jeff McFadden; sophomore f Aundrae Davis, a transfer from West Virginia.
SEE YOU IN THE SUPERDOME IF: Sophomore Jones and junior Morris give the Tigers an inside game.
A couple of years ago Frank Ford made a nighttime visit to a teammate who had been dogging it in practice. Carefully, other dorm mates crept up to the door and listened as Ford, a guard who can hit from outside, inside and with either fist, "persuaded" the goldbrick to put out more effort. "It sounded like war," says a witness.
There are power forwards and power guards; 6'4", 221-pound Ford is a powerhouse. The man will do anything to win, even if it means roughing up someone in an Auburn jersey. "If we're not playing good, I'm the guy who grabs their shirt and tells them: 'I'm gonna kick your butt,' " says Ford. "I'm not a mean person. But I don't think any of 'em wants to tangle with me."
Auburn used to be the SEC doormat, a place for Adolph Rupp and the like to stop by, rack up a quick W and be further refreshed with some just-squeezed lemonade at Toomer's Drugstore downtown. The Tigers had won 20 games only once before Ford and his "make my day" attitude arrived in 1983 to complement future NBA first rounders Charles Barkley and Chuck Person. Since then, Ford has started 97 of 98 games, and the Tigers have racked up three straight 20-win seasons. Now, without Barkley and Person around, "Frank's the one the players look to," says coach Sonny Smith. "We don't sell him as a leader—he sells himself. He's not extremely talented, but he will not let you lose."
Behind every winner is a loser who never liked it. Ford, sometimes referred to as Baby Bull, grew up stubborn in Kissimmee, Fla. Frank and his brother Jack lived next door to a family with four boys. Daily, in two-on-two games on a backyard basketball court, the Fords got whipped by the neighbors with their superior bench. After a long stretch of this, the Fords eventually pulled one out. "Then we started winning a few more," recalls Frank. "Finally we won them all."
Sonny Smith and the Tigers are an informal operation. All the players call the coach by his first name. All except Ford. That tickles ol' Sonny. "Frank just has that discipline about him," Smith says. About Coach Smith, Ford says: "He's the Rodney Dangerfield of the game. No one takes him seriously, but he knows how to get the best out of you." The same might be said about Frank Ford.