After the depressing, but seemingly expected, loss to Florida last night in Nashville, Auburn returned home with hopes of a postseason hanging in question.
There are a lot of fingers pointing in different directions.
Was the loss because senior Tay Waller, arguably one of the most important players in the Tiger’s offense, was shut down by the Gator’s defense and missed all six of the shots he attempted? Or was it because senior point guard DeWayne Reed just couldn’t jump start the already spent offensive playbook, despite putting up 18 points himself and five assists?
All of those reasons could play an important role in the loss, but what most fans are saying is that it was because of a lack of good leadership at the helm of the already sinking Auburn basketball ship.
Coach Jeff Lebo’s future, in my opinion, has never been more uncertain than it is today.
Before going into last night’s game Lebo had already told the media that he was going to meet with Jay Jacobs, Auburn’s athletic director, after the season was over. That time may have come earlier than he thought.
With next season on their minds, a new arena and the hopes of attracting recruits to not only a mediocre basketball program, but an often referred to as mediocre basketball conference, outside of Kentucky and Florida, what will the Auburn administration do?
Many argue that Lebo, who has been on Auburn’s sideline for six seasons now, five of which have been losing seasons, has run his course as the coach of the Tigers.
Lebo has two years remaining on the eight year contract he was signed to. Firing him early would cost the school a $1.5 million buyout.
I think it’s important to first to take a look at Lebo’s past coaching record when it comes struggling teams.
Lebo started the first of six seasons as an assistant under coach Eddie Fogler with an SEC Championship, an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance and a 28-6 record at Vanderbilt in 1992-93.
The Commodores went 14-2 in the SEC for only their third league title in history, and their first since 1974.
Lebo then followed Fogler to South Carolina where he worked for five seasons and helped lead the Gamecocks to their only SEC Championship in 1997 and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
After turning the South Carolina program around from 9-19 and 10-17 records the first two seasons, Fogler and Lebo led the Gamecocks to an average of 22 wins over the next three years.
Lebo earned his stripes.
In the six years as a collegiate head coach, prior to Auburn, Lebo turned around two drowning programs at Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Chattanooga where he earned a 115-63 career record, an average of 19.2 wins per season.
While there he won a pair of Ohio Valley Conference Championships at Tennessee Tech and came within one game of the NIT Final Four.
When Lebo was named head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga in April 2002, he inherited a team without a returning starter and without a signee for the upcoming season. He transformed the Mocs into a Southern Conference championship contender in just one season, leading UTC to a 21-9 record in 2002-03, the school’s first 20-win season in six years.
In 2004, Lebo took command of an Auburn team that many said had hit rock bottom. Players had left. Probation was in the air. Things were bad.
His first season, after losing four starters and nine lettermen, Lebo began his remodeling efforts at Auburn by leading the down and out Tigers to an over-achieving 14-17 (4-12 SEC) record in 2004-05.
Fast forward to 2008 when Lebo and the Tigers recorded the second most wins in Auburn history by going 24-12 and tied for second overall in the SEC with a 10-6 record. The Tigers were one of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament and came within an eyelash of the NIT Final Four.
He sounds like a spot on coach with a strong record of bring teams back from the dead. However, if you look at the years I discussed at Auburn there are a lot of gaps. It’s those gaps, four other losing seasons, that are fueling the fire behind his critics eyes.
So here we sit, five losing seasons later. A program with a good list of improvements, but a lot more work to do. A roster of strong players brought in despite the promise of playing in the decrepit Beard-Eaves and playing for a program devoid of any recent NCAA stardom. The “savior”, Jeff Lebo, his future under fire, is probably more nervous than ever about whether or not a seventh season is in the works.
Like I have said before, a new arena brings new hope to a predominantly football oriented school. I say that because let’s be honest, the fan numbers for Auburn basketball are no where near what they are come football season. But the question being asked by the fans and administration, is could they be bigger? That’s what the arena is for. That’s what the new style of seating, with emphasis being placed on students and recruits, has been built to try and accomplish.
The broken and bruised Auburn basketball ship is being rebuilt. The only question is, who will its captain be?
I for one feel sorry for Lebo, but six seasons is a long time to rebuild and have nothing to show for it aside from one strong season.
Chuck Person, rumored to have expressed interest in coaching at Auburn, is who I have my money on right now. The three-time first-team All-SEC selection and All-American from 1984-86 is Auburn’s all-time scoring leader with 2,311 points. Person led Auburn to its greatest run in the NCAA Tournament by reaching the Elite Eight in 1986.
Is he the right Person? (see what I did there?)
I am beginning to think so. What do you think?