Auburn needs a lot more than just a touch-up
A huge banner bearing the name of the Lake Martin Auburn Club
covered the electronic bingo board at the Elks Lodge in
Alexander City, Ala. New Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville, dressed
in a gray pinstriped suit, rose to address 130 Auburn alumni and
boosters. After the crowd welcomed him with a standing ovation,
he squinted and said, "I hope you're standing this time next
The seven months since Tuberville's predecessor, Terry Bowden,
abruptly resigned with a 1-5 record have been turbulent for
Auburn. Bowden's departure spawned allegations that university
trustee and Montgomery banker Bobby Lowder was wielding undue
influence on decisions made by the school's athletic department.
The Tigers blew a 17-0 lead in losing at archrival Alabama and
finished 3-8. Then, in February, Auburn canceled its 1999 season
opener at Florida State and took a lot of heat from the
Seminoles and the ACC for backing out of the game.
"The program is down," says Tuberville. "People are looking for
somebody to be honest [about that]." He has been honest, at
times too much so. He took away scholarships from six players
after spring practice ended, saying, "Some of these guys we
wouldn't have recruited." Only after a public uproar did the
university say it would offer the players nonathletic
Tuberville tried to infuse the Lake Martin boosters with
confidence that Auburn football can again flourish. But when he
said, "We're here to win a national championship," no one
reacted. It was as if he had walked into a soup kitchen and
promised the patrons free oil changes for their Cadillacs. Right
now, the Tigers' boosters just don't want to be embarrassed
Tuberville took responsibility for the Florida State
cancellation brouhaha. As if playing a highly ranked team
wouldn't have been tough enough for Auburn, which may not be
much better than it was a year ago, Tuberville also feared
that--with Terry's father, Bobby, on the other sideline--the
Tigers would have had to run another gantlet of questions about
Terry's quitting. Enough is enough, he decided. "If we go
through another season like we did, it will be a disaster," he
says. "It might be anyway."
That brings to mind Auburn's offense, which averaged a meager
2.6 yards per carry last season. The Tigers' signal-caller is
Gabe Gross, who as a quarterback is an outstanding leftfielder.
Gross, who's hitting .375 this spring, completed just 44.7% of
his passes as a freshman last fall. Still, he's the best
quarterback at Auburn. When baseball forced Gross to miss a
spring scrimmage against the first-team defense, the offense
allowed 12 sacks and threw eight interceptions.
Tuberville's revoking of the six scholarships after spring
practice was only one of the personnel issues in which he has
become embroiled. Earlier this year he suspended Auburn's best
returning receiver, junior Clifton Robinson, after Robinson was
accused of statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. Then there's
the case of receiver Robert Baker (1,214 all-purpose yards in
1996), who's on parole after serving 10 1/2 months for cocaine
trafficking. Baker, who has missed two seasons of football, is
trying to regain his academic eligibility and rejoin the Tigers.
When an elderly alum asked about Baker at the Elks Lodge
gathering, Tuberville said, "Whether we like it or not, Robert
Baker came to Auburn to play football. He's one of us. I don't
know if the kid will ever play here. Probably won't. I want him
to get on with his life. Make something of himself. We don't
need to shun him. We're not going to do anything stupid."
After the speech, Tuberville, assistant coach Terry Price and
four others left in Price's SUV to make the 40-minute drive
south to Auburn. Tuberville asked Price to step on it. Minutes
later a state trooper pulled them over for speeding and gave
Price an $88 ticket. Rebuilding, it seems, will not be hurried.
THE BRUINS NEED A QUARTERBACK
The search for quarterback Cade McNown's successor didn't
advance as far during the spring as UCLA coach Bob Toledo had
hoped. Come August, five players will continue to try to win the
job. The front-runners are junior Drew Bennett and redshirt
freshman Cory Paus, who has a touch of McNown's charisma.
Toledo should prepare to lose a couple of the quarterbacks who
don't win the job. Last fall Georgia coach Jim Donnan had six
players vying to be the Bulldogs' signal-caller. After the
winner, Quincy Carter, became SEC Freshman of the Year, three of
the also-rans transferred, including freshman Nate Hybl, one of
the most-sought-after quarterbacks in the nation in 1997.
Cleared for Takeoff
SOONERS READY TO AIR IT OUT
If spring practice is any indication, new Oklahoma coach Bob
Stoops may succeed in jump-starting an anemic offense that was
101st in the nation last year. Stoops has decided to open up the
passing attack and has put it in the hands of offensive
coordinator Mike Leach, who held a similar position at Kentucky
for the past two years. In three spring scrimmages Oklahoma
threw 128 times while rushing just 44 times. One of the Sooners'
top receivers figures to be junior Brandon Daniels, who started
six games at quarterback last season, while either Josh Heupel,
a transfer from Snow (Utah) Junior College, or junior Patrick
Fletcher is likely to run the offense.
Stoops, who spent the last three seasons as Florida's defensive
coordinator and has one of the best defensive minds in college
football, doesn't expect any miracles. Oklahoma hasn't had a
winning season since 1993 and is 23-33-1 over the last five
years. Only 12 starters return from last season's 5-6 team. Yet
Stoops does expect the Sooners to show immediate improvement.
"Sometimes when you lose as often as this team has lately, you
start to accept losing," he says. "I think our players realize
that this coaching staff won't accept losing, and neither will
CANCEL THOSE LAWN MOWERS
Oregon State has scrapped plans to install a grass field because
new coach Dennis Erickson says he likes artificial turf. Didn't
his Miami Hurricanes win two national titles on grass?...
Sometimes Michigan State played hard last year, and sometimes it
didn't, so the fight that ended the Green-White spring game may
be a promising sign for the Spartans. After linebacker Pierre
Wilson's game-winning interception return for a touchdown, Green
players started a scuffle, claiming the Whites had used a blitz
that had been barred from the game. It was nice to see they cared.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Gross offered the Tigers a glimmer of hope by hitting 16 of his 25 passes in the spring game.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM HAUK/ALLSPORT UCLA quarterback candidates (from left): Paus, J.P. Losman, Ryan McCann, Scott McEwan, Bennett.