Before Auburn went to the Final Four, heck, even before Auburn stopped being the laughingstock of basketball in the SEC, the culture around the program had already changed.
Yes, it had something to do with the hiring of a coach who was a proven winner. But Bruce Pearl’s 16-38 SEC record in his first three seasons was barely better than his struggling predecessors.
No, the culture started to change around Auburn basketball the very first time a student or alumnus or sidewalk alumnus wanted to go to a game but was told there were no more tickets available.
Saturday’s home game against Kentucky — beginning with the presence of ESPN’s College GameDay and ending with a raucous victory celebration — was just another Saturday on the Plains these days.
Give credit to Pearl, the players and supportive fans. But also recognize it all started with a forward-thinking vision. When Auburn basketball needed repairs to cavernous and depressing Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum, the Auburn Board of Trustees said we will do you one better. They said let’s build a state-of-the-art arena with all the bells and whistles but with 1,500 fewer seats than the previous building.
More than $86 million was spent on Auburn Arena, with its seating capacity of 9,121. Every seat is within 43 feet of the court. Students, who have the best seats in the house, have their own entrance, lobby and concession area.
I was reminded of all of this as I checked on the progress of Hancock Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama last weekend. If you haven’t been on campus lately, you might be surprised there is an actual stadium on campus now.
It’s not ready to host a game, but it’s complete enough that if you had a ticket you could find your seat.
Now that it’s so close to completion, I was a little taken aback at how small it looks. Then it hit me — that’s part of the appeal.
The 25,000-seat stadium has an opportunity to create demand in the same way Auburn’s smaller basketball arena did for the Tigers.
The stadium is going to be beautiful and a source of pride for all of Mobile.
One of the big questions on the table for Mobile is what is going to happen with the Reese’s Senior Bowl and LendingTree Bowl.
South Alabama officials, led by athletics director Joel Erdmann, are on record that they welcome the opportunity to bring both events to campus. Of course, terms would have to be mutually beneficial.
But because of the way both games are set up, no move is likely going to happen without the blessing of the city.
That could be a problem.
When Auburn had to decide about its basketball future, there was never any doubt what was best for Auburn as a whole was the goal of everybody on the Board of Trustees.
Does anyone have the confidence that the same attitude is what will prevail when our City Council is discussing their recommendations for both games? I certainly don’t.
When Auburn built its arena, there was the idea of us (Auburn) against them (Alabama and the other competitors in the SEC and beyond).
When deciding the future of our bowl games, it should be what is best for us (Mobile) against them (anyone who might try to jeopardize the continued success of the two games in Mobile).
Recent history has taught us it’s likely going to be us (my district of Mobile) against them (your district). That may be a fine strategy for getting re-elected, but it’s an embarrassing and reprehensible way to act as a city leader.
This year’s impressive Senior Bowl crowd of more than 38,000 may indicate the game could have a long and successful run at Ladd-Peebles Stadium;
Auburn officials certainly could have thought that way when Beard-Eaves sold out once or twice a year when Alabama and Kentucky came to town. If they had been content with that, we wouldn’t have ever enjoyed anything like last Saturday’s celebration.
Make no mistake, 25,000 people in a 25,000-seat stadium is better than 30,000 people in a 40,000-seat building, especially if a large majority of those 25,000 people are actually paying for their seats. The demand for tickets will lead to more value for every seat and more buzz surrounding every event.
South Alabama should get that boost this fall when the Jaguars open the season at Hancock Whitney Stadium. Whether they are joined by the Reese’s Senior Bowl and LendingTree Bowl has a lot to do with the kind of vision people have for the games and the city.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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