The Auburn baseball program has a proud history of success, and one doesn't have to reach too far back into the memory bank to find a time when the Tigers were a player on the national scene. From 1993-2005, Auburn advanced to the NCAA Tournament 11 times and booked two trips to Omaha for the College World Series. The Tigers won just one SEC Tournament title and never won the regular-season title during that stretch, but Auburn consistently finished near the top of the SEC. From 1986-2003, there wasn't a season in which Auburn missed out on the SEC tourney. Hal Baird, who led the team from 1985-2000, built Auburn baseball into a program that could compete with anyone.
Since Baird's retirement, however, there hasn't been nearly as much hardball success on the Plains. With a healthy reservoir of momentum saved up from his predecessor's time at Auburn, long-time assistant Steve Renfroe led the Tigers to three NCAA Tournament appearances in four years. But the program stalled under Renfroe, and Auburn missed out on the SEC Tournament in 2004 for the first time in 19 years. One year after winning 18 SEC games and hosting an NCAA regional, Auburn won just 12 conference games and finished with the third-worst SEC record. For boosters and fans that had become accustomed to yearly success under Baird, one bad year was enough reason to show Renfroe the door. Despite the hope that a change would bring back the glory to Auburn baseball, things only got worse.
On June 29, 2004, Florida assistant and former VMI head coach Tom Slater was tabbed with the responsibility of leading the Auburn baseball program. That's pretty much the lone highlight of Slater's time on the Plains. He lasted four years, compiling a 115-113 record overall and a miserable 43-77 record in SEC play. During that four year stretch, Auburn finished no better than second-to-last in the conference standings and finished dead last twice. The once proud program, which had produced MLB-quality players such as Frank Thomas, Mark Bellhorn, Tim Hudson and Gabe Gross, had been reduced to the laughingstock of the SEC. As if that wasn't bad enough, just about every other SEC program was getting better while the Tigers were getting worse and worse. Since Auburn's last College World Series appearance in 1997, nine other SEC teams have made the trip to Omaha. Most of the old SEC stalwarts -- LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi State -- have continued to have mostly high levels of success. And new perennial contenders -- Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt -- have emerged. After the 2008 season, in which Auburn won fewer than 12 SEC games for the third straight year, it was obviously time for another change. The Tigers had fallen behind the rest of the conference and needed someone to come in and reboot the program.
The John Pawloski Era began on June 20, 2008. Pawlowski, a former Clemson pitcher, was hired away from College of Charleston. During his nine years in the Holy City, Pawlowski improved the Cougars from a middling team to the class of the Southern Conference. From 2004 to '08, C of C finished no worse than second in the SoCon and won three regular-season championships. The Cougars advanced to three NCAA regionals and one super regional. Pawlowski was named SoCon coach of the year three times -- 2004, '05, '07 -- and under his tutelage, C of C hurlers Ryan Johnson, Brett Harker and Nich Chiggs earned SoCon pitcher of the year honors in 2004, '05 and '06. His crowning achievement with the Cougars was going to Lexington, Ky, and winning the Kentucky Regional in 2006. When Auburn needed a man to come in and return the Tigers to the glory of years gone by, Pawlowski seemed to be a solid pick.
So, how has Coach P done in his four years at Auburn? Right now, the jury is still out. The 2009 season was a wash. Auburn finished 11-19 in SEC games and missed out on a trip to Hoover for the sixth straight year. After Slater had run Auburn baseball so far into the ground, no one expected Pawlowski to turn the team around immediately. Going into 2010, Auburn was still expected to be in rebuilding mode, but most fans had realistic hopes of a return to the SEC Tournament. Out of nowhere, the Tigers had their best season in years. Auburn finished the regular season 39-17 -- 20-10 in SEC competition -- and claimed its first SEC West title since 1995. Hunter Morris was named SEC player of the year and a first-team All-American, five other Tigers were named All-SEC and Brian Fletcher was also tabbed as an All-American. As a reward for its regular-season success, Auburn was selected to host an NCAA regional, its first since 2003. The Tigers put up offensive numbers -- .348 batting average, 131 home runs, .591 slugging percentage -- that easily led the nation. In 30 SEC games, Auburn scored fewer than eight runs just 13 times. The offensive display in 2010 was unlike anything ever seen at Auburn.
Even with all of the success, the 2010 season didn't come and go without a tinge of disappointment. With a prolific offense, an SEC West title and a 12-3 record in the last 15 SEC games of the year, Auburn fans expected to leave Hoover with the team's fourth tournament title. That plan was derailed right off the bat, as the Tigers dropped their tournament-opener 7-1 to arch rival and 7-seed Alabama. Auburn stayed alive in its next game against South Carolina but was eliminated in its third game by Ole Miss, a team it had outscored 34-8 in a road sweep just one week earlier. The Tiger offense couldn't get into gear in cavernous Regions Park, and Auburn's pitching, which finished the year with a 5.04 ERA, just wasn't good enough to keep opponents at bay. In the Auburn Regional, the Tigers finished second to No. 2-seed Clemson. Creede Simpson provided one of the most dramatic moments in recent Auburn history with his two-out, two-strike, three-run homer in the ninth inning against Clemson to force a final, decisive game, but the good Tigers fell to the bad Tigers the following day. Had Auburn defeated Clemson in the regional finale, it would have hosted a hot but beatable Alabama team for the right to advance to the College World Series. The fact that Auburn had been so impressive during the regular season and missed out on so many opportunities in the postseason took quite a bit of the shine off of what was a very good year.
The two years since the 2010 turnaround have left fans to wonder if the program is headed in the right direction. Rational Auburn supporters knew that there would be a drop off in 2011. The team had lost so many key contributors to the previous season's success that it was impossible to realistically expect a repeat performance. And with new, less powerful bats being used by college players, a big decrease in offensive success -- the Tigers' biggest strength in '10 -- was guaranteed. Unfortunately, Auburn dropped off farther than most expected and missed out on an NCAA regional altogether. The offense put up middle-of-the-pack numbers, and the pitching was atrocious -- Auburn's 5.09 ERA was actually worse than the previous year's ERA, even while opposing hitters were swinging deadened bats. Fielding was a problem for the second year in a row, and inconsistent play led to a 7-7 record in midweek games against mostly inferior competition. After going 0-2 as the No. 8-seed at the SEC Tournament, Auburn was left with a 29-29 record, failing to meet the minimum one-game-over-.500 standard to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Before the 2012 season, Pawlowski's team was picked by most experts to finish fifth or sixth in the SEC West and miss out on the trip to Hoover. However, Auburn surprised many by winning its first three SEC series against quality competition. But after solid play against Ole Miss, LSU and Mississippi State, Auburn struggled. The Tigers were swept at Alabama, the SEC's worst team this season, and barely qualified as the 10-seed for the expanded SEC Tournament field. Auburn's pitching and hitting statistics improved, and the team was much better in midweek competition -- 12-2 -- but for the second straight year, the Tigers won't be playing in a regional.
So after two straight years of subpar results, the successes of 2010 are looking more like an aberration as opposed to a reviving of the program. And now many Auburn fans and boosters are declaring it time for another change at head coach. Would that be the right decision? It's a tough call. Has Auburn improved under Pawlowski? In some areas, yes. In other areas, not so much. For the purposes of this analysis, we're just going to look at the last three seasons. Pawlowski's first year was coming off one of the worst four-year stretches in Auburn history and shouldn't be considered when judging the coach's value.
Looking at the Tigers' offensive performances over the last three years, it's undeniable that Pawlowski and his staff -- notably, hitting coach Link Jarrett -- have done a good job with Auburn's hitters. Everyone knows how successful the Tiger offense was in 2010, but 2012 may be an even more impressive coaching job. In 2011, the new, weaker bats really affected Auburn. The team that used power, power and more power in '10 fell to the middle of the offensive statistical rankings. Pawlowski and Jarrett realized that the game would have to be played a different way, and they adjusted. In 2011, Auburn had 45 sacrifice bunts, fourth-fewest in the SEC. In 2012, the Tigers laid down 60 sac bunts, just two fewer than league leader Mississippi State. Pawlowski and Jarrett realized that, without the ability to easily drive the ball out of the park, the team would have to focus more on playing small ball. That adjustment paid off as the team's batting average improved from .296 in 2011 to an SEC-best .304 in 2012. The Tigers scored 351 runs this year, third-best in the league, compared to 335 runs in 2011, which ranked sixth in the SEC. At times this season, Pawlowski relied a little too much on small ball, but for the most part, the strategy helped Auburn's offense put up better numbers. Much of the praise for developing Auburn's hitters should go to Jarrett, but if Pawlowski is fired, it's likely that the rest of the staff will be axed with him. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if a change in personnel hurt Auburn's offensive production, so as the powers that be mull the decision of whether or not to send Pawlowski packing, they must keep that in mind.
Auburn pitching under Pawlowski hasn't been nearly as impressive, and that's a surprise considering his playing and coaching background. As mentioned earlier in this post, one of the things that hamstrung the potential dream season of 2010 was the Tigers' pitching. Auburn's 5.00 ERA that year ranked sixth in the SEC. And in 2011, the Tigers fell to 11th in the SEC and were the only team in the conference that saw an increase in ERA after the transition to the less powerful bats. That's a pretty disturbing trend for a team coached by a guy with a pitching background. This season, Auburn's pitching staff showed major improvement, compiling a 3.92 ERA. Still, the Tigers ranked just ninth in the SEC in pitching and had a higher number than the conference's average ERA of 3.60. Mississippi State just wrapped up an SEC Tournament title thanks to its impressive pitching staff, so it's obvious how far good pitching can take you in this conference. Auburn's offense is one of the best in the conference. If the Tigers could get improvement in the pitching department and rank in the top half of the league, this team could rank in the upper echelon of the SEC. With Pawlowski's background in pitching, that shouldn't be too much to ask.
Of course, the biggest on-field problem and the one for which there is no excuse is fielding. That's the department that could really change the fortunes of the Tigers if it improved. Auburn's play in the field has been the most consistent aspect of the Pawlowski Era. Unfortunately, it's been consistently bad. Over the last three seasons, Auburn has turned in fielding percentages of .962, .968 and .964. Those numbers ranked 10th, 10th and 12th in the SEC. That's simply unacceptable. One of Pawlowski's strengths is his ability to recruit talented players, so there's no reason those players should finish near the bottom of the league every year in a category that, for the most part, comes down to fundamentals. Auburn practices those fundamentals as much as any other team, but that just isn't enough. If he's going to be the head coach of an SEC program, Pawlowski must find a way to get his players to make plays in the field when they have the opportunities. Giving opponents extra outs leads to extra runs, and those extra runs have cost Auburn a number of ball games in 2011 and 2012. In fact, the Tigers would probably be preparing for their third consecutive regional appearance if they had been able to cut down on the errors.
While there are problems on the field that need addressing, the biggest concern regarding Pawlowski is his control of the team and the locker room atmosphere. Left fielder Cullen Wacker, one of Auburn's best players at the plate and in the field, was suspended earlier this season for an "undisclosed violation of team rules." If you followed Wacker on Twitter at the time, it was no secret what that violation was. Wacker had posted multiple tweets taking not-so-subtle shots at Pawlowski, seemingly questioning the head coach's leadership. It doesn't seem likely that Wacker is alone in his feelings. Auburn's hitters, who were impressive this year, have been frustrated by so much small ball. When a player is hitting over .300, as a few Tigers did this year, constantly being asked to lay down bunts and take defensive swings in hit-and-run situations must get old. And constantly being frustrated with a coach's decisions leads to a questioning of his leadership. It appears that more than a few players feel that they have to take it upon themselves to lead the team. Whether it's the inability to motivate his players or employing strategy that leaves them frustrated, Pawlowski doesn't seem to have the respect of his team. Who knows if it's because of their integrity, love for the school or other reasons, but that lack of respect has not yet led to those players quitting on their coach. Anyone that watched Auburn this year could tell that the Tigers gave 100 percent from the first pitch to the final out all season long. So while Pawlowski may not be leading the team, he hasn't exactly lost it yet. Nevertheless, as long as the players view themselves as the team leaders and remain frustrated with Pawlowski's decisions, they will simply view him as a road block holding them back. It's tough enough for a major league team to win in spite of its manager. It's almost impossible for a college team to do that.
The problem with firing a coach is that if the right replacement isn't hired, a middling program can turn into a dumpster fire very quickly. Remember the Tom Slater story? That God awful stretch could repeat itself if Pawlowski is fired and the Tigers settle on a new coach that isn't good enough. Most fans forget about that fact when they're calling for a coach's head. Who might Jay Jacobs hire if he does fire Pawlowski? Is there a coach out there that Auburn realistically has a shot at and would be better than Pawlowski? That's anyone's guess, but these names should definitely come to Jacobs' mind:
Casey Dunn, Samford head coach -- Dunn is the man that most Auburn fans looking for Pawlowski's firing would like to see hired. He would be viewed by almost everyone as a home run hire. Dunn is an Auburn legend, having played catcher for the Tigers during one of the most successful four-year stretches in school history. Dunn was on the Plains from 1996 to '99 and helped lead the Tigers to two regional titles, one SEC Tournament title -- their last, by the way -- and one trip to the College World Series. As a senior in '99, Dunn hit .379 with 86 RBIs and was tabbed as an All-American. Dunn's father is a coaching legend, and many believe he will be, too. Right now, it looks like he's on his way toward a long, successful coaching career. Dunn has been in charge at Samford since July of 2004 and has done a nice job building up the Bulldogs. That building reached a new level this season as Dunn's Bulldogs won the Southern Conference Tournament, clinching their first berth to the NCAA Tournament.
It's obvious that Dunn knows how to coach and can turn a team around. If hired at Auburn, he would be immediately popular with players and fans and bring some buzz to the team that it has been missing lately. If successful, there's a good chance Dunn would remain at Auburn for a long time and cement himself as the next Tigers' coaching legend. That's a big "if." We know Dunn can recruit and coach in the SoCon. We don't know if he can do it in the SEC. If Dunn is hired, he could take Auburn to the next level. It's also quite possible that he could flop and send the program into a nosedive. Dunn would be a big risk, but he could provide a big reward.
Terry Rooney, Central Florida head coach -- Rooney has been the head coach in Orlando for four years and is leading the Knights to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. UCF has shown improvement each season under Rooney and won 43 games this season. The Knights' 16-8 record in Conference USA was one game behind national power Rice for the league's regular-season championship. In addition to having SEC ties as an LSU assistant coach from 2007 to '08, Rooney is young, energetic, a great recruiter and a great coach. If Jacobs fires Pawlowski, Rooney should probably be the first person he calls. He would almost certainly bring success to Auburn.
Scott Berry, Southern Miss head coach -- Berry has been the head man at Southern Miss since 2010, after serving as an assistant with the Golden Eagles for nine seasons. During his time as a USM assistant, Berry spent time as a hitting coach and pitching coach. Southern Miss players, both hitters and pitchers, showed improvement under Berry's tutelage. Since he joined USM in 2001, the Golden Eagles reached the NCAA Tournament every season until this one, and they advanced to their first College World Series in 2009. While Berry's postseason experience is impressive, it's where he did it that might matter most. As a coach at a school in Mississippi, Berry knows what it is like to work without the benefit of an education lottery fund. That's exactly what he would have to do at Auburn. It's tough to compete against a bunch of other SEC schools that have the lottery fund advantage, but it's possible to be successful -- just look at Mississippi State. Berry would know how to help the Tigers overcome their disadvantage.
Gabe Gross, Auburn undergraduate assistant -- Gross is a very unlikely candidate for Auburn's head coaching position right now, but he should at least draw an interview should the job be vacated. Gross had a very successful baseball career at Auburn -- unlike his football career -- and was eventually a first-round pick in the MLB draft. Gross wasn't a superstar in the majors, but he did have some moderate success over his seven-year career. He returned to the Plains last August to finish his degree and work as an undergraduate assistant. In his brief time with the team, he has proven to be very popular with current players. Gross isn't ready to be a head coach yet, but he might be an intriguing option in a few years.
Link Jarrett, Auburn director of player development -- If Auburn were to hire from within, Jarrett is probably the man for the job. Jarrett has been the Tigers' primary hitting coach since July, 2009, and has worked wonders. The Auburn offense was the nation's best in 2010. This season, eight Auburn players had batting averages above .280, including six -- Ryan Tella, Cullen Wacker, Garrett Cooper, Dan Glevenyak, Creed Simpson, Jay Gonzalez -- with averages over .300. Pawlowski doesn't do much work with the Auburn hitters, so most of their success can be attributed to Jarrett. He knows how to recruit and how to coach, and thanks to his time as a player at Florida State, he knows how to win. Jarrett is another guy that is popular with the players, so he would immediately grab their respect.
Should the John Pawlowski Era come to an end? That's the question we're trying to answer. And even after 3,500 words worth of analysis, we're not sure we know that answer, but we'll take a guess anyway.
Yes, it's time to move on and find a new leader for Auburn.
Now, that answer comes with a couple of qualifiers. If Jacobs is going to fire Pawlowski, he must be certain that Pawlowski doesn't have the ability to lead this team. And more importantly, he must be certain that he can make a hire that will move Auburn forward and not sink the Tigers into the SEC's cellar. If Pawlowski is given another year or two years or five years, he probably won't wreck Auburn. Most years will probably be similar to the last two: moderate success and sweating out the end of the season on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Some years, Auburn might be a little better, and some years, Auburn might be a little worse. But we pretty much know what we'll get with Pawlowski. That's the reason it's time to make a change.
The SEC has become the nation's premier baseball conference, and if Auburn wants to keep up, it needs a better coach. As long as his players view Pawlowski as someone who holds them back, he'll never be able to make the Tigers elite. The fact that a number of players would like to see Pawlowski gone speaks for itself. Auburn needs to find a head coach that garners his players' respect and has the ability to recruit and coach talent. The Tigers have a solid group of players returning next season, and if the MLB draft doesn't decimate it, a recruiting class coming in that is currently ranked No. 11 by Perfect Game. There are plans in place to renovate locker room and practice facilities at Plainsman Park, which will only add to the advantage the ballpark gives the Tigers. Auburn has a solid foundation; it just needs someone who can build on that foundation.
Those looking to show Pawlowski the door should get their wish. But they should be warned that there are no guarantees of success if a new coach is hired. If Jacobs hires a new head coach that turns out to be the next Tom Slater, it won't be too long before Auburn fans are pining for the type of play seen during the Pawlowski Era.
Auburn Undercover's Philip Marshall is reporting that Pawlowski will be given another year. Whether it's now or a year from now, these arguments about the head coach ring true. It's time to move on and take a step forward for Auburn baseball.
Kevin Ives of Plainsman Parking Lot contributed to this post.