After former Auburn basketball great Charles Barkley screamed racism following the hiring of Gene Chizik in 2008, the NBA legend virtually disappeared from Auburn circles. He commented publicly at the time that he felt no longer welcomed in the Auburn family. As Chizik exceeded expectations last fall, Barkley stayed away from football talk and stuck to NBA basketball. Like most of us, he spent last fall eating crow.
Now with an Auburn basketball coaching change looming, Barkley is back and more than ready to help athletic director Jay Jacobs make the right choice this time. Speaking to Jay G. Tate of The Montgomery Advertiser this week, Barkley said he'd already had a conversation with Jacobs.
"I told him anything he needs me to do, I'll do, Barkley said. "There's not a person in basketball I don't know or can't find out about. If he wants me to do a background check on any coach in the country, I can get it done. I can find out the truth. I'm there for him.
"We need to bring some excitement into the new building. We can't hide behind the crutch that we don't have a good building anymore ... or good practice facilities. You can win at Auburn. Auburn is a good program. We're never going to be North Carolina or Duke, but we've had success and if you put the right coach in there, we can be successful again."
While Barkley was outspoken in his support of former Buffalo coach Turner Gill for the Auburn football job, this time around he's backing off the call for a black head coach. "I've never demanded that they hire a black coach," says Barkley.
"I said I thought Turner Gill's resume was better than Gene Chizik's. And it was. Gene did a great job. I wish him success. Most people always think the white guy is the best guy for the job. That's why we have no minority coaches in football -- because a majority of the people who run these schools are white. They're always going to hire a white guy. The best candidate? That's B.S. I don't care who Auburn hires. I just want them to hire a good coach."
There's plenty to take offense with in that comment. While Chizik was clearly not the fans first choice, there were plenty of concerns around Gill. Alarm bells went off for many when Syracuse passed on him despite Gill recruiting and competing just a few miles away.
I've talked with literally dozens of fans in recent days about the basketball coaching search. Race has yet to come up. In fact, Monday's poll here at Track'em Tigers overwhelmingly favored UTEP coach Tony Barbee, who's African-American. Whether it's football or basketball, most Auburn fans just want the best coach. It's time for Barkley to let go of this racism notion.
Barkley says despite the fallout from the last coaching search, he and Jacobs get along fine. "Me and Jay have always been cool," he explains. "Jay knows -- I'm always going to be myself. I ain't never gonna be no kiss-ass brother. I'm my own man. I'm not one of these Alabama guys who listens to (Paul) Finebaum and (Kevin) Scarbinsky. I know how this thing works."
Before finishing up with Tate, Barkley got in one more dig. "I don't try to run the Auburn program. If I ran the program, (current Missouri coach) Mike Anderson would have been the coach last time. We need some excitement."
For many, Barkley's antics are over the top. There are a sizable number of fans who will never forgive him for calling Auburn's football coaching search racist. There were clearly better ways than the national media to voice his displeasure.
I'm perhaps in the minority on this, but I give Barkley a pass. Unquestionably, some of his comments are offensive. But I also know in his heart, he loves Auburn. He's donated literally millions of dollars to the University.
Until last year, he was perhaps the school's best and most visible ambassador. If you've followed Barkley's career, you know he takes everything to the extreme. That includes his love and at times, disgust for Auburn. For me, the good still outweighs the bad. I just wish he'd give Auburn people a little more credit when it comes to race issues.