The greatest athlete in Auburn history is undoubtedly Bo Jackson. It’s likely he’s the greatest athlete in state history and he’s possibly even the best this country has ever produced.
But is he the best in any sport in Auburn history? The answer is no.
In football he won the Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft in 1986. But Cam Newton accomplished both of those feats in addition to winning a national championship while carrying the Tigers to the 2010 National Championship. While Jackson battles multiple injuries during college, Newton was healthy for every game and was the main reason Auburn won every Saturday.
As a baseball player, Jackson hit 28 (often monstrous) home runs and posted a career batting average of .338. As a pro, he made an All-Star team while playing for the Kansas City Royals. But Tim Hudson hit .396 with 18 home runs and 95 RBIs in a single season in 1997. During that same season he was the best pitcher in the SEC, posting a 15-2 record and 2.97 ERA. Frank Thomas was a superstar at Auburn then became the first former SEC player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jackson was such a star on the track that he qualified for the NCAA nationals in the 100-meter dash in his freshman and sophomore seasons. His best time in the event was 10.44 seconds. But Harvey Glance was an Olympic gold medalist and ran the same distance in 9.9 seconds.
Jackson probably could have starred in basketball (but he almost certainly wouldn’t have been as good as Charles Barkley). The same is true for swimming (where he would lag behind Rowdy Gaines) or even golf (behind Jason Dufner).
The point is that Jackson — the most famous and jaw-dropping all-around athlete in the history of the entire state — wouldn’t make Auburn’s list of the greatest single performer in any sport.
The “starting five” of Newton, Barkley, Hudson, Gaines and Glance is tough to crack at Auburn. In fact, that fivesome is in the conversation for being the best of any university in the country.
For comparison, let’s take a look at the starting five from five different sports at Alabama. For this discussion we will include their success in college and beyond.
For Alabama, the list might include Joe Namath, Robert Horry, Dave Magadan, Justin Thomas and Calvin Smith.
Namath was a star on a national championship and Super Bowl team. Horry starred at Alabama then became one of the most clutch shooters in NBA history. Magadan was the best player in college baseball then a solid Major Leaguer. Thomas led Alabama to the national championship in golf before going on to win the 2017 PGA Championship. Smith was even faster than Glance, running the 100-meter dash in 9.93 seconds.
Alabama gets the nod over Auburn in football but only one other head-to-head matchup. Barkley is much better than Horry, Hudson is light years ahead of Magadan, and Glance had a better overall track career than Smith. I’ll give the slight edge to Thomas over Gaines in a matchup of two athletes in different sports.
So, if Auburn is the state champion in this made-for-newspaper sporting event, then how would the Tigers fare nationally? Here are a couple of the best schools at producing star athletes in various sports. Remember, only one player from each sport can make the list.
UCLA: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jackie Robinson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Arthur Ashe and Karch Kiraly (maybe the best volleyball player in history).
Ohio State: Jesse Owens, Jack Nicklaus, John Havlicek, Eddie George and Kyle Snyder (the youngest wrestler to win Olympic gold).
Stanford: John Elway, Tiger Woods, Mike Mussina, Katie Ledecky (swimming) and Julie Foudy (soccer).
Texas: Earl Campbell, Kevin Durant, Roger Clemens, Jordan Spieth and Cat Osterman (four-time All-American and two-time Olympic medalist in softball).
Kansas: Gayle Sayers, Wilt Chamberlain, Gary Woodland, Lynette Woodard (women’s basketball) and Al Oerter (four-time Olympic gold medalist in the discus and the first athlete to win gold in four straight Olympics in the same event).
North Carolina: Lawrence Taylor, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Davis Love III and B.J. Surhoff.
Between those strong contenders I will go with Texas as the best for these two reasons. All five Texas athletes were superstars and very famous while still in college. And all five went on to Hall of Fame-level careers as professionals.
As good as the Auburn five are, they fall a little short in both of those categories. Maybe if Newton resurrects his career and becomes a Hall-of-Famer the Tigers will rise to the top of this made-up competition.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on the new Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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