Tony Barbee will lead his Auburn Tigers onto the floor of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena tonight for what could be the final time. Barbee’s third AU team finished dead last in the SEC thanks to an overtime loss to Mississippi State on Saturday. The Tigers are 9-22 on the season and have dropped 15 of their last 16 games (the program’s worst stretch since the 1940s). At #253 they have the lowest RPI rank of any major-conference team.
Worse, in three seasons on the Plains, Barbee has gone 35-58 overall with a 12-38 mark in SEC play. That’s the worst three-year SEC stretch in Auburn history. And Barbee’s most recent team is his worst.
Two Tiger plays has said this week that it’s not the coach’s fault that his players haven’t bought into his plan yet.
Frankie Sullivan: “What Coach Barbee did at UTEP is the same thing he brought here, and they won at UTEP, so obviously, his methods work. You’ve just got to buy into it. (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski) doesn’t do it. He doesn’t change his approach for his kids. When he brings in kids, they come and they buy into it, you’ve got to get guys to come into your program and buy what you’re trying to sell.”
Chris Denson: “People are just not buying into what Coach Barbee is talking about. I mean, he’s a great coach and people just aren’t buying into what he’s saying. But I think that all comes with maturity. We’ve got a lot of young guys on the team, so we’re looking to build that up next year.”
Asked for a response, Barbee said he’s not seen buy-in as being a problem for his team. He’s also said he’s “not at all” worried about his job security and that AD Jay Jacobs has talked to him about games only, not the overall state of the program.
For his part, Jacobs sent out an email to Auburn boosters on February 5th asking for “patience” as Barbee tries to build his program. The very next day, the Tigers knocked off arch-rival Alabama. They’ve lost nine straight games since.
Now there once was a time when coaches didn’t start to hear wolves howling outside their office doors until after their fourth or fifth season at a school. Those days are as long gone as the Renaissance.
So Barbee’s job security is a hot topic in South Alabama today. But as we see it, the former John Calipari assistant has three things going for him:
1. His boss, Jacobs, isn’t exactly standing on terra firma at this instant, either. When Gene Chizik went down in a flaming wreck this past football season, much of Jacobs’ job security went with him. There was a cry from many an Auburn fan last November for president Jay Gogue to replace both Chizik and Jacobs, the man who hired him. Gogue decided to keep Jacobs, but it’s doubtful Jacobs could at this point go back to Gogue and say: “Hey, I botched this one, too. We’ll need to buy out another coach.”
2. Barbee’s buyout — if Gogue or Jacobs did decide to move — is a handsome one. With a deal that runs through 2017, Barbee would be owed $3 million if AU were to cut him loose. Chizik and his staff of assistants were owed more than $11 million in buyouts when they were dumped late last year, though that number will come down as some of Chizik’s aides have found work elsewhere. Still, it seems unlikely that Auburn would want to blow $10-$12 million paying men not to coach its football and basketball teams.
3. There’s a certain successful ex-SEC coach who’ll be free to take his NCAA baggage to a new destination after next season. Former Tennessee coach and current ESPN broadcaster Bruce Pearl will wrap up his three-year show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators after the 2013-14 season. Pearl is a proven commodity. Though most coaches who receive show-cause penalties never return to college sidelines or spend years elsewhere before returning, Pearl’s crime was lying about a barbecue. Lying to investigators is second only to paying players in the NCAA’s eyes, but it would still seem the road back from such a case would be far smoother than the road back from a pay-for-play scandal. Now, would Pearl want the Auburn job over another that might come available next year? Would he want to leave ESPN at all? And would AU — a school with a lengthy NCAA rap sheet as it is — want to risk bringing in someone who’s just been in the NCAA hoosegow for three years? All are legitimate questions. But someone will take a shot at Pearl. And Auburn wouldn’t have a prayer of landing a coach with a better on-court resume than the man who won at Southern Indiana, Milwaukee, and Tennessee.
Barbee could very well lead Auburn for the final time tonight. But there are three pretty good reasons to believe he’ll get a fourth year to prove himself. His AD might not have the clout to can him. Auburn might not want to fool with another buyout so soon after handing one to Chizik. The Tigers might find a more proven SEC-caliber replacement for Barbee should he flame out next season.