Late Friday night the news broke that the short and, by all indications, unhappy tenure of Steven Leath as President of Auburn University had come to an abrupt end. While the Board of Trustees tried to make nice with its statement announcing Leath’s departure, it seems clear he was shown the door. And, if a sampling of the comments on social media is any barometer, the predominant reaction among Auburn people was akin to that of the Munchkins when Dorothy’s house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East.
Apparently a combination of circumstances - some of them athletics-related - led us to this point. Certainly the Gus Malzahn contract extension/buyout, which was widely viewed as among the worst deals ever made by a university athletics administration, didn’t help Leath’s cause any. But instead of spending time on a pointless autopsy of the Leath era (if two years can be called an era), let’s consider the lessons it presents for where we go from here.
The most prevalent comment I’ve read over the last 24 hours is some variation of "Leath was a bad fit for Auburn." Assuming that was the case - and the brevity of Leath’s presidency is powerful evidence that it was - then what type of person would constitute a "good fit" in our school’s leadership role? Some preexisting understanding of Auburn’s unique culture would seem to be particularly important. Our school appears to have more than its share of alumni, friends, and supporters, some of them with power, influence, and money, who want a seat at the table when it comes to charting the university’s course, especially when it comes to athletics, and even more especially when it comes to the football program. Navigating through those egos and personalities, and trying to unite them on a common path, will be a formidable task. Add to that the fact that the football program in particular is operating in the most challenging competitive environment it has ever faced. Suffice to say that whoever gets the job will have his or her work cut out for them because, like it or not, and fair or not, the reality at Auburn is that a president’s tenure is often colored by the success or failure of the football team.
With that thought in mind, consider this summary of the some of the greatest seasons in Auburn football:
1957. Record: 10-0. National champions. Auburn president: Ralph Draughon. His alma mater: Auburn.
1983. Record: 11-1. Screwed out of the national championship. Auburn president: Wilford Bailey. His alma mater: Auburn.
1986-89. Four wins in a row over Alabama. Won or shared three consecutive SEC titles from 1987-89. Auburn president: James Martin. His alma mater: Auburn.
2004 - 2006. Records: 13-0, 9-3, 11-2, respectively. Auburn president: Ed Richardson. His alma mater: Auburn.
2010 and 2013. Undefeated national champions in 2010. Thirteen seconds short of another natty in 2013. Auburn president: Jay Gogue. His alma mater: Auburn.
Notice a common thread here? Now, to be fair, Auburn grads who have occupied the corner office in Samford Hall have been there for plenty of lousy football seasons, too. One of them, William Walker, was on the plane for the infamous Jetgate trip to Louisville. And certainly, correlation does not necessarily equal causation when it comes to the school president’s pedigree relative to the football team’s won-loss record. But the obvious point is that a preexisting familiarity with Auburn, its people, and its traditions and culture will give anyone a major leg up on somebody who will have to learn those things on the job. That type of Auburn orientation will, in turn, help foster a good working environment for the school as a whole, including the athletic department, which can only help us succeed on the playing field.
I’m reminded of something Shug Jordan said a long time ago. Believe it or not, he was actually turned down for the Auburn job a couple of years before he finally got it, when the school decided to hire some guy who went to Notre Dame. At that time Shug told a friend that if Auburn didn’t believe in Auburn people, then they ought to close the place down. We might do well to at least keep that sentiment in mind moving forward.
War Eagle, always.