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Auburn at a Crossroads

On the eve of Gene Chizik's first game as Auburn head coach, the football program finds itself at a crossroads similar to what it faced in 1981. While the focus this weekend will be on Chizik and his revamped team, Auburn's chance of success down the road goes far beyond this coaching staff and team. There's a tidal wave of change sweeping the SEC and it promises to reshuffle the pecking order of the conference for the foreseeable future.

Phillip Marshall writes an excellent piece this week on the state of Auburn football (subscription required) at his site, Auburn Undercover.  The story examines Auburn's ability to recruit, its athletic administration, fan support, facilities and money. How each of these categories are addressed in the next few years will go a long way toward cementing Auburn's future - for better or worse.

Today's SEC is vastly different from the conference we knew even five years ago. Love him or hate him, Commissioner Mike Slive has put the conference on-par with some professional leagues in this country. The recent $3 billion television contract with CBS and ESPN guarantees more exposure and competition for each league member.

Former Auburn athletic director David Housel once famously said the athletic department was in a building war with every program in the country. It's safe to say that war has expanded to marketing and exposure. Certain SEC schools, primarily the state institutions, hold a natural advantage over schools like Auburn who must work harder and spend more just to stay on par with its competitors.

It's widely accepted that Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and LSU make up the top tier of the SEC. These six schools have traditionally won the most games, claimed the most conference and national titles and gotten the most exposure.

This was not always the case.

Ole Miss fans can attest to nothing staying the same. Once a great Southern football power, the Rebel program has remained stagnant now for more than 40 years. They enjoyed tremendous success under legendary coach Johnny Vaught, winning five SEC championships, the last coming in 1963. Georgia Tech had similar success under Bobby Dodd, winning four conference titles before leaving the SEC in 1964. They too have seen their fortunes take a nose dive over the last half century.

As hard as it is to believe today, Florida was hardly an SEC powerhouse until just prior to the turn of the century. Before winning the league title in 1991, the Gators had never claimed an SEC championship. Since then, they've gone on to win seven more conference championships and three national titles. Times do change.

Auburn came close to a fate like Ole Miss in the late 1970's. Had it not been for some forward thinking school leaders who pushed to keep Auburn relevant, the Tigers could easily be in the same boat as the Rebels today.

There were two seismic events that ushered Auburn to the head of the pack and helped ensure success for the next 30 years.

The construction of the west side upper deck at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 1980 ushered in an era of new respect for Auburn football. For the first time, the school had facilities that were on par with others around the country. It meant Auburn no longer was forced to play Tennessee and other big name opponents at Legion Field.

Alabama would follow the Volunteers in 1989, making Birmingham games a thing of the past for Auburn. As small as it seems now, this simple upgrade sent a message to the college football world that Auburn was ready to play big boy football. It later led to visits by Texas and Nebraska. Auburn was officially part of the new world order.

The hiring of Pat Dye was the final piece of the puzzle. Unless you lived through it, it's hard to describe the psyche of Auburn people following the retirement of Shug Jordan in 1975. When Jordan finally said goodbye, he was the third winningest active coach in college football. However, his final season ended in a disappointing 4-6-1 record.

From the '75 season through Doug Barfield's final year in 1980, Auburn posted a 32-32-1 record, including nine straight losses to Alabama. At the same time, Paul Bryant was hitting his stride in Tuscaloosa, claiming national titles in 1978 and 1979. To make matters worse, Auburn's other rival, Georgia, claimed a national title in 1980 behind the running of future Heisman winner Herschel Walker.

Auburn was at a crossroads. Were they going to join Ole Miss and Georgia Tech as SEC has-beens or would they - could they - step up and compete with the big boys of the conference?

We know the rest of the story.

After being rebuked by Georgia coach and Auburn alumnus Vince Dooley in 1981, Auburn turned to another UGA graduate in Dye. Within two seasons he'd beaten Alabama, forced Bryant into retirement and not only taken control of the state, but quickly grabbed dominance of the SEC and held it for most of the 1980's.

Was it luck? Good fortune? How did Auburn meet the challenge 30 seasons ago and what lessons can we take away from that time? When the Tigers kickoff tomorrow, the program will meet head-on many of the same challenges faced during Dye's early years.

Today's SEC finds its top tier teams pulling away fast from the other institutions in terms of wins, money, exposure and facilities. The recent renovations of stadiums, locker rooms and practice facilities at Alabama, LSU and Florida have put them in a different category from the rest of the SEC.

When Alabama completes its next phase of renovation, Bryant-Denny Stadium will be the fourth largest stadium in college football seating more than 101,000. This follows an upgrade a few years back making the facility one of the most beautiful in the country. Even an Auburn person has to admit it's impressive.

A lot of people questioned why Auburn didn't expand its stadium rather than spend $100 million on a new basketball arena. The truth is, why would they? While University officials often announce crowds of more than 86,000 for home games, those who attend can tell you Auburn didn't have a hard sellout all last season.

And yes, there are still plenty of good seats available for Saturday's opener with Louisiana Tech. It's hard to disagree with Marshall, who writes, "There's no way to put a positive spin on that (not selling out) for a program that had one bad season after averaging 10 wins a year for the previous five."

While it would be great to expand Jordan-Hare, the simple truth is, there's not a demand. At least not today.

Athletic Director Jay Jacobs has been a lightening rod of controversy and one of the most unpopular figures in school history. But when it comes to managing the budget, you have to give him props. He's managed a budget of more than $80 million annually and has maximized every penny the school brings in.

But it still may not be enough.

As good as Jacobs is at keeping a budget, his mere presence may be part of Auburn's bigger problem. School officials will point to a sagging economy as a primary reason for the decline in ticket sales. But Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Tennessee are dealing with the same recession and they don't seem to have a problem filling its seats.

Auburn's lack of ticket sales runs deeper than the recession or a poor performance last year. Since the 2003 Jet Gate debacle where Auburn officials tried to hire Bobby Petrino away from Louisville, the Auburn family has been divided.

One faction sits with board of trustee member Bobby Lowder and is widely thought to include Jacobs and Dye among its ranks. While believed to be small in size, until recently its influence and money gave the group unrivaled power in athletic department affairs. Lowder's recent fall from grace after the collapse of Colonial Bank gives fans hope that the end is near. His term on the board of trustees is set expire in 2011.

On the other side sits most mainstream Auburn fans and is assumed to include the vast majority of school graduates. While there's no shortage of money or manpower, until now there's been a lack of political clout needed to move Lowder and Jacobs out. There have been several organizations formed in recent years with the sole intent of retaking the University. So far, these efforts have seen minimal results.

Many believe the perceived lack of support by way of donations and ticket sales is a direct result of alumni finally drawing the line and withdrawing its support of the program - call it tough love. Most fans seem to have reluctantly rallied around Chizik and wish him the best, but he's still perceived to be in Lowder's camp - which for fans is the wrong side of the fence.

Privately some alumni acknowledge that failure by Chizik coupled with Lowder's financial problems may finally free the University of this 30 year stranglehold. It's also widely held that failure on Chizik's part will spell the end of Jacobs' tenure.

Unfortunately this theory, true or not, could spell big trouble for the football program. Things such as recruiting, facilities improvements and marketing are moving at such a fast clip among conference schools that an Auburn divided runs the risk of seeing the football program fall behind other member institutions. While a Chizik failure may result in the Lowder/Jacobs regime coming to a close, it could also mean that Auburn loses its status among the elite in the SEC.

"For most of the past decade, Auburn has been able to look the best in the SEC and the nation in the eye," Marshall writes. "But Florida, Georgia, Alabama and LSU have flung down the gauntlet. Can everything it takes for Auburn to keep up come together?"

That's the most important question facing Auburn Nation as it prepares to kickoff the 2009 season. Auburn drastically needs a coach that not only wins on the field, but who can bring Auburn people together. Dye was never the most endearing coach to fans, but his actions on the field far out shadowed any hang-ups fans may have had about him. The secret to his success off the field was his ability to keep everyone on the same page - something that hasn't been achieved since his departure in 1992.

Can Chizik achieve success on the field and perhaps just as importantly off it? It won't be easy. Winning soothes the soul. It makes problems appear smaller. Tommy Tuberville was able to mask many issues simply because he won. When things went south, the problems became bigger. Realistically it should be a while before Chizik competes with the likes of Florida, LSU and Alabama. Can he hold it together that long?

The bigger question is whether Jacobs can ever repair his image with Auburn people. Will they ever trust him? Right now, it seems unlikely. His biggest sin seems to be guilt by association. Whether or not he and Lowder have a relationship is anyone's guess, but perception is reality. Many believe peace will not come to Auburn until both are out of the picture.

With this as a backdrop, Auburn starts a new era Saturday night.

Good luck Coach Chizik.  We're pulling for you.