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The Best Years in Auburn Athletics - #5 1988

With a plethora of great Auburn coaches, the late 1980’s were a great time for Auburn athletics. 1988 was a prime example

If you’re interested in how I determined the point system and top teams, be sure to read the intro article discussing the methodology.

Let’s play a game. Pick one of each:

Bruce Pearl or Sonny Smith?

Butch Thompson or Hal Baird?

Gus Malzahn or Pat Dye?

The above questions might be the hardest three questions you could ever ask an Auburn fan. They represent a sort of divide between the first golden age of Auburn athletics, and the modern golden age that we appear to be stepping in to now. Because Auburn teams are known to be wildly inconsistent from season to season, it’s been rare for us to field top level teams with top level coaches across the entire program at the same time. However, this is exactly what happened from 1985-1989. With Smith, Baird, and Dye leading the big three sports, all of these years were big successes for Auburn fans. Despite a down year on the court in Sonny Smith’s last season on the Plains, 1988-89 proved to be the last hurrah of these glory days.

1988-89 16 points

Basketball 0 pts

Unlike baseball and football, which had had some previous success before the 1980’s, Auburn basketball was not a thing until around 35 years ago. There was a spurt of success in the late 50’s where the team finished ranked a few times and even won the SEC in 1959-60, but the team was essentially an afterthought. In the summer of 1978, Auburn had just hired Paul Lambert out of Southern Illinois to be the new head basketball coach. Unfortunately, Lambert never even coached a practice at Auburn, as he died in a hotel fire in Columbus, GA before practices even started.

Auburn would go on to hire Sonny Smith shortly thereafter, a hire that would change the course of the Auburn basketball program. By the 1983-84 campaign, along with Charles Barkley, Smith led Auburn to its first ever NCAA tournament appearance. From there, the team would make five straight NCAA tournaments, with three different first round draft picks in that span. The program was at new heights, and would surely never fall back to the old days, right?

Auburn University

Wrong. After losing Chris Morris in the first round and Jeff Moore and Mike Jones in the third round of the 1988 NBA Draft, the 1988-89 season was a disaster. Though the team would start 7-2 including a 1-point loss to Villanova, the team tanked come conference play. From January 4th on, the team went 2-16 to close out the year 9-18, and got bounced from the SEC Tournament by Ole Miss in the first round. Suffice to say, the good days were gone in Joel H. Eaves Memorial Coliseum. After this year, Smith would leave Auburn for VCU, which would usher in the Tommy Joe Eagles era in Auburn.

As whole, Auburn basketball recorded a 0 point season. So how was this the #5 year in Auburn history?

Baseball 4 points

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. After head coach Paul Nix retired after his 22nd season on the Plains in 1984, Auburn brought in Hal Baird to lead the baseball program. Despite a rough patch from the late 1970’s through the early 80’s, the team saw immediate improvement in the following years. By 1987, Auburn had made their first regional in 10 years, and in the 1989 season, the team put up a then-program-record 44 wins and their highest winning percentage in 13 years. Coach Baird’s squad also would go on to win the SEC Tournament that season, but would ultimately lose games to – you guessed it – Florida State and Clemson in the Tallahassee Regional.

The other big bonus of the 1989 Auburn baseball season was the senior season the greatest hitter in Auburn – and SEC – history. Frank Thomas, the only MLB Hall of Famer in SEC baseball history, would win SEC Player of the Year honors in 1989, and was a consensus All-American. The Big Hurt would go on to be drafted 7th overall by the Chicago White Sox.

Auburn Athletics

All in all, while this wasn’t the absolute greatest year for Auburn baseball, it was a precursor to what Baird would do with the program in 90’s. Plus, there was the benefit of seeing a great talent in Frank Thomas terrorize SEC pitchers.

Football 7 points

When we talk about some of the great seasons in Auburn football, 1988 doesn’t come up all that often. This was one of those near-miss seasons where Auburn really could have won a national championship. Pat Dye had already turned Auburn into a football powerhouse by this time in the 80’s, and despite missing some the star power at running back, he had a defense that was as good or better than any in Auburn history.

The Tigers started off the season highly ranked, generally considered a top 10 team nationally. After four straight wins by a combined score of 161-35, the Auburn Tigers walked into Death Valley the number four team in the country. As things are wont to do at LSU, though, the game got a little… crazy. The Auburn offense, which had been putting up 40 ppg so far, fell apart and could only muster 6 points. This looked like it might be enough, as Auburn led 6-0 with less than two minutes to go. However, LSU was able to put together just one good drive when it counted, and the game ended with an 11 yard touchdown pass from Tommy Hodson to Eddie Fuller on 4th down. As it came to be known later, this was the Earthquake Game.

After dropping to 4-1, a fire was lit under this Auburn team. Wayne Hall’s defense, led by All-American Tracey Rocker up front, would put up three consecutive shutouts against Akron, Mississippi State, and Florida. Southern Miss gave the Tigers no trouble in a 36-8 beatdown, even with Brett Favre having his best college season in his sophomore year. Auburn would also go on to beat #17 UGA 20-10 and #17 Alabama 15-10 in a pair of defensive slugfests, meaning that this Auburn team was literally one play away from playing for a chance at a national championship in 1988.

Instead, #7 Auburn would play #4 Florida State in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, a game which the Tigers would lose 13-7. Auburn would fall to 10-2 on the season, despite giving up a total of 20 points in their two losses.

All in all, it really was a good season for Auburn football. The team claimed an SEC Championship, went to a Sugar Bowl, beat UGA and Alabama, and finished #8 in the country. However, I can’t shake the feeling that the season still felt like a bit of a disappointment after how close they were to greatness.

Women’s Basketball 4 points

I’ll be honest, I did not know a ton about Auburn women’s basketball before doing my research for this series. So you can imagine my surprise when I got to the 80’s, when Head Coach Joe Ciampi was leading the team to tournament after tournament, and from the ’88-’90 tournaments, to championship game after championship game. Unfortunately, the ladies weren’t able to bring home any rings, but a stretch of three straight championship games is nothing to scoff at. In 1988-89, the team went 32-2, won the SEC regular season crown, and went to the championship against the legendary Pat Summit and her Lady Vols. The team was led by Auburn basketball great Vickie Orr, who is also known for being the mother of a current Auburn star.

Auburn Plainsman

Olympic Sports 1 point

In the Olympic/minor sports, Auburn women’s golf was able to snag an SEC Championship in the spring of 1989. Funnily enough, this point was the difference in between the ’88 season and ’87 season in earning 5th place on the list of best Auburn seasons.

So there you have it. Despite an era ending on the hardwood for the men, Auburn athletics showed out in the 1988-89 school year. Football was just points away from a championship, baseball had a nice year led by an all-time great in Frank Thomas, and the women hoopers were the closest of anyone to a championship. What year was able to top this one? Here’s a hint for next week… Despite trotting out a freshman quarterback, Auburn football was the best of the big 3 sports that year.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Be sure to share your memories from 1988!