In the business world, the saying goes that you’re supposed to dress for the job you want, not the job you have. The same holds true in the world of sports. But instead of dressing for success, programs and franchises have to build for the team they want, not the one they have.
There has never been a better example of this than Auburn University basketball. When the powers that be at Auburn decided to move out of the cavernous and depressing Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum and into the new Auburn Arena, there was virtually nothing to like about Auburn basketball. And there was no reason to believe things would be getting better anytime soon.
It’s not hyperbole to say Auburn was the worst major college basketball program in the country when the decision was made to build the area. In the decade before the doors opened for the first time in October 2010, Auburn’s SEC record was 52-92. They were no better immediately after moving into the new arena, going 34-88 in the first seven years in their new home. But that’s the point.
The new arena—with a price tag of $86 million and complete with two practice courts, 12 suites, a weight room and offices for the coaches—was not built for the basketball program Auburn had. It was built with the idea that one day a coach like Bruce Pearl would arrive, and in order for him to succeed, he was going to need all the advantages enjoyed by his rivals. They built for the program they wanted, not the one they had.
What has followed has been remarkable. The Tigers began selling out the 9,121 seats long before the team on the court justified the enthusiasm.
Now the product on the court has arrived. The Tigers won a share of the SEC regular-season championship last year before claiming the conference tournament this year on their way to the Final Four.
As great as Pearl has been for Auburn basketball, he’s not the brightest star of this incredible turnaround. That distinction belongs to former athletics director Jay Jacobs and the members of the board of trustees who supported and funded the building of Auburn Arena without any promise that their decision would ever be applauded the way it is today.
Jacobs is gone from Auburn now, as are many of the members of the board of trustees who approved the building of a basketball arena that was far better than what the product on the court warranted.
Now, that kind of leadership and forethought is needed again at Auburn.
Gus Malzahn may or may not be the answer for long-term success in Auburn football. But that’s beside the point. The first Auburn basketball coach to call Auburn Arena home was Tony Barbee, quite possibly the worst coach in SEC history. He won less that 40 percent of his games at Auburn, and less than 28 percent of his conference games.
Despite that severe lack of quality leadership, the decision to commit to the program has proven to be the right one.
Auburn currently needs serious upgrades in its football facilities. Except for the “Jaybo-Tron” at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Jacobs didn’t do much to help Auburn football keep up with the competition. Today, Auburn football is in desperate need of a football-only building that is on par with Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and the growing number of programs that continue to show their commitment to competing on the highest level.
In Mobile, we’ve seen that kind of leadership and forethought on one front, and a lack of the same in another area.
The University of South Alabama has shown its commitment to football by steadfastly pursuing an on-campus facility that will be as good as any in the Sun Belt Conference. The new Hancock Whitney Stadium will open in 2020. There’s a great chance we will one day look back on the decision to build the stadium in the same way we look at Auburn’s decision to commit to Auburn Arena.
The leaders at South Alabama deserve praise for building for the program they want, not the one they have.
There will be no such positive ending for professional baseball in Mobile. The cities of Montgomery, Pensacola, Biloxi and Birmingham all committed to state-of-the-art parks for their teams in the Southern League. The results have been overwhelmingly positive in every case. Huntsville is now making a similar commitment to the future, which is why the Mobile BayBears will be relocated there after this season.
Huntsville, just like Auburn basketball and South Alabama football, decided to build for the franchise they want, not the one they have had in the past.
That type of decision is almost never an easy one. But it has almost always proven to be the right one in the long run.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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