Auburn Afterword: NCAA Probation Could Have Been Lighter Sentence Than What Auburn Has Done To Itself

On August 2, 1995, when Alabama received three years of NCAA probation with the reduction of eight scholarships in ’95 and ’96, signing limits of 12 in ’97 and 16 in ’98, a postseason ban in 1995 and forfeiture of its nine wins in ’93, Auburn people could not have been happier.

Alabama, which had never previously received any significant NCAA sanctions, had broken NCAA rules by paying tailback Gene Jelks $24,400 in 1989 and ’90 and by allowing cornerback Antonio Langham to play in ’93 after it knew he signed with an agent in a New Orleans hotel room the morning after Alabama won the national championship on Jan. 1, 1993.

Auburn was fresh off NCAA probation under coach Pat Dye at the time and a 20-1-1 run under new coach Terry Bowden – 11-0 in 1993 and 9-1-1 in 1994 – but with postseason bans. It would be bowl eligible in 1995 for the first time since 1992. Auburn would beat Alabama 31-27 that season, as both finished regular seasons at 8-3. While Auburn went to the Outback Bowl in sunny Tampa for its first postseason since 1990, Alabama had to stay home.

“Now Alabama has been knocked off the pedestal, while Auburn will enjoy a substantial recruiting advantage in the upcoming years,” the Washington Post wrote on Aug. 3, 1995.

“Just leave Auburn alone,” an Alabama assistant coach said off camera at the time. “Sooner or later, it will screw itself.”

Auburn did not fully take advantage of the situation, however. It won its first legal SEC West title in 1997, but Bowden’s program started to fall apart in 1998 with a 1-5 start and he resigned under pressure. Even with a 46-12-1 record, Auburn didn’t even let him try to turn it around.

Despite Bowden’s incredible start, Auburn powers like trustee member and major banking magnate booster Bobby Lowder never really accepted him, even before 1998, as more than an interim coach after Dye’s unceremonious exit.

Old school Auburn powers — and that tends to be a redundant term still today — didn’t like Bowden’s progressive, aerial offense because it was not like the run-heavy Dye attack, totally missing that it was the wave of the future like that of Florida’s revolutionary Steve Spurrier. Bowden twice beat Spurrier, who destroyed Dye’s last three retro teams, 48-7, 31-10 and 24-9. It’s amazing Bowden won as much as he did at Auburn pre-1998 without the support.

After his second straight 8-4 season in 1996 while Alabama went 10-3, an Auburn sports information department release actually said that 8-4 was not of the Auburn standard. Lowder and Great Southern Wood Preserving magnate Jimmy Rane would paint the town yellow for an 8-4 season in 2022 under embattled coach Bryan Harsin.

But at the time, that statement was true. The fact that it came from the sports information office was amazing and illustrated how Auburn rarely supports its own and often eats them. David Housel was Auburn’s athletic director at the time, moving from sports information director in 1994.

Tommy Tuberville was the next “brilliant” Lowder-send (like godsend) coach, but through his first five years from 1999-2003, he was no better or not much better than Bowden, going 5-6 in his first year, and the best was a pair of 9-4 seasons and Florida bowls in 2000 and 2002.

Meanwhile, Alabama received even more serious sanctions in 2002 as the NCAA dangled the death penalty over the Capstone, handing it five years of probation with 21 scholarships taken away over three years and a two-year postseason ban because of 10 major violations involving recruiting and rogue boosters.

But again, Auburn failed to take advantage. And amid an 8-5 season in Tuberville’s fifth year in 2003, Lowder was looking for a new flavor again. His private plane flew Auburn president William F. Walker and Housel for a clandestine interview with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who was a brilliant offensive coordinator for Auburn in 2002 before Louisville hired him.

That blew up, much like the implosion of the movement to oust Harsin in recent weeks. Key word, implosion. It means “a violently inward failure or collapse of an organization or system.”

Auburn wrote the book on that. In fact, it should open a demolition company – Implodes ‘R’ Us. Auburn makes recently corruption-riddled LSU look normal.

It was amazing Tuberville won as much as he did at Auburn amid the lack of structural support from within. Then, after being on the verge of getting fired and being replaced by Petrino, Tuberville went 13-0 in 2004, shoving it up the fuselage of Lowder and others.

Unfortunately, USC and Oklahoma — each also 12-0 when Auburn was 12-0 — were deemed better by the BCS that season and met for the national title, with USC winning.

Unable to keep it together, as Auburn brass tends not to stay together, Tuberville descended to 5-7 in 2008 and resigned “under pressure,” which could be an alternate Auburn nickname.

The next hot coach Lowder fell in love with was Gene Chizik, a former defensive coordinator at Auburn from 2002-04 who was Iowa State’s head coach. In his second year in 2010, Chizik went 14-0 and won the national title with transfer quarterback and Heisman winner Cam Newton, who was Joe Burrow before Joe Burrow.

But Newton left like Burrow did, and Chizik became Ed Orgeron before Ed Orgeron, dropping to 8-5 and 3-9 and getting fired.

Gus Malzahn, another former Auburn coordinator beauty queen on the offensive side from 2009-11, took over. And in his first year, he reached the national championship game at 12-1. He soon found himself in the Bowden zone though, never losing less than four games again and was about to get fired from 2016 on. Finally, he was let go after a 6-5 season in 2020.

It’s amazing Malzahn won as much as he did after the early success amid the lack of support. He did go 10-4 and 7-1 in 2017. He did beat Alabama and coach Nick Saban three times.

It’s amazing how much Auburn has won since 1993 despite constant coaching turnover amid almost annual in-fighting, constant drama and lack of support for the head coach. This illustrates just how much potential the program has, particularly if it ever finds that great coach, or just a very good one that it sticks with long enough for him to great. Auburn’s fiercely proud fans and alumni deserve better than what they usually get. It really is a wonderful school and town. Harsin needs to realize that.

Do not blame Lowder or Rane or any of the money people for Harsin’s fall from 6-2 to 6-7 in 2021. He is the first non-Lowder-involved hire at Auburn since Doug Barfield in 1976. He also is on the way to being the worst one since then. An Auburn athletic director, Allen Greene, actually made the hire. And it could get him fired.

Harsin is Auburn’s worst first-year coach since Dye went 5-6 in 1981. But Dye had Bo Jackson beginning in 1982. There’s no Bo coming this year. He left last year – starting quarterback Bo Nix that is. Harsin will enter 2022 with a depleting roster and a chance to break the Guinness world record for longest time as a lame duck coach.

It is mid-February, and Harsin does not have an offensive coordinator or a defensive line coach. His new coordinator will be his fifth in just over a year. He has no one listed as a recruiting coordinator, and he didn’t have one last year either. He signed no one on the second national signing day two weeks ago, and his class of 18 finished eighth in the SEC.

He has lost 19 players, including Nix, to the NCAA transfer portal since the end of the season and brought five in for a net of 14.

Auburn is not on NCAA probation, but it may as well be. Harsin has lost 14 scholarships. The roster has approximately just 75 on scholarship – 10 below the limit – and major problems on the offensive line. The offensive coordinator and defensive line cannot recruit off campus or on campus because they don’t have an offensive coordinator and defensive line coach.

Auburn should proactively offer up the above scholarship limitations and coaching vacancies as a self-imposed penalty for any future NCAA violations. Because it might have to cheat to start winning again any time soon.

Auburn at least made the right decision by keeping Harsin. No new coach could win with this roster. Not even Saban. And it would have cost about $18 million to fire Harsin without cause, as Auburn had as much trouble finding cause as Harsin’s offense did scoring last season.

Money may grow on preserved wood around Auburn, but not on trees, and it might be wise not to just throw money at Auburn’s football problem again for at least a year. Wait a year and the head coaching prospects out there may improve. Remember the coach Alabama settled on late in the game after Mike Price was fired in May of 2003? Mike Shula.

Auburn is not going to win big any time soon anyway with Alabama and Georgia – to its immediate west and east, respectively – never better at the same time in history on the field and in recruiting. So, it should take its time, take its lumps, save some money, try to get the athletic department and the money department on the same page and slowly look for a new coach in secret. Perhaps commercial flights this time.

And at least pretend you’re behind Harsin.

And who knows, maybe Harsin can do what Tuberville did – win big after nearly getting fired before getting fired.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

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  1. Comparing Cam Newton to Joe Burrow is an insult to Burrow. No one has EVER suggested that Burrow’s people were shopping him around the SEC like Newton’s people actually did.

    Newton’s dad, I’ve read, suggested the price was $250k to get him. Auburn was the only place that met that.

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