Remember when the Big Three sports at Auburn looked like the SEC’s version of the Three Stooges? Remember when football, men’s basketball and baseball veered between struggling, sputtering and completely striking out?
You don’t need a photographic memory and total recall to flash back to those dark days because the struggle was real and recent.
The pigskin, roundball and hardball Tigers haven’t reached the end of the road back to respectability and beyond, but look at them now.
The men’s basketball team still hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2003, the SEC’s longest walk in the wilderness, but Bruce Pearl and company are coming off the program’s first winning season since 2009. With plenty of talent coming back and coming in, there’s a very real expectation they’ll go dancing next year.
The baseball team still hasn’t been to the College World Series since 1997, but something exciting is happening in Butch Thompson’s second season. The Tigers are tied for first place in the SEC West and in the SEC overall after splitting the first two games of this weekend’s series at Texas A&M.
A year ago, Auburn went 23-33 overall. The Tigers are now 24-9.
A year ago, Auburn went 8-22 in the conference. The Tigers are now 8-3.
It’s still a long way to the SEC Tournament, where Auburn hasn’t won more than one game since 2003, but so far, the leap forward in Thompson’s second year has begun to rival the bounce from Gene Chizik’s last season to Gus Malzahn’s first.
So men’s basketball and baseball appear to have found the right head coaches, and those coaches clearly have moved those programs forward. That leaves one major sport, THE major sport, and one question as Auburn basks in the glow of A-Day.
What about football?
Auburn fans appreciate success in other sports, but they demand it in football, and with good reason given the support that sport enjoys. Look at the money the school is going to pour into upgrades at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
You don’t spend tens of millions of dollars with the expectation of losing five games a year. Nothing improves the game-day experience like winning, especially in November.
Malzahn has had the Tigers in championship contention at the beginning of November three times in his four seasons as head coach, but only once has he finished the deal by winning the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry and the Iron Bowl.
Last year’s encouraging mid-season climb was muted by what happened in Athens and Tuscaloosa. At some point, with 2013 fading farther into the rearview mirror, those dual three-game losing streaks have to end.
There’s some genuine optimism that this can be the year, that Jarrett Stidham can be the man at quarterback and Chip Lindsey and Kevin Steele can put together a quality offense and a quality defense, that there are plenty of players on both sides of the ball to make plays well beyond the spring game.
Spring is supposed to be a time of hope, and that’s the case on the Plains, especially after Stidham wowed everyone Saturday.
Improvement is the story of the moment for Auburn’s Big Three sports. There’s still plenty of room to grow, but men’s basketball and baseball are starting to get it done. Now it’s up to football to step up, too.