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October 4, 2010

Barbee building Auburn from the ground up

AUBURN, Ala. - If you're taking over a major-conference program that has earned just three NCAA tournament bids in the past 22 seasons, you'd better have plenty of confidence.

Auburn coach Tony Barbee has that quality in abundance.

Since Auburn hired Barbee away from UTEP, he has endured about as tough an offseason as any coach in the country. His two top recruits (Luke Cothron and Shawn Kemp Jr.) failed to qualify. His lone returning starter (Frankie Sullivan) and top returning inside player (Ty Armstrong) tore their anterior cruciate ligaments.

Barbee, 39, has responded to all that adversity with the same optimism that made him proclaim, "We're going right after Kentucky" at his introductory news conference.

"I'm not saying we lost two recruits and two of our better players to injury so we're just going to take our beating and go home," Barbee said. "That's not happening. We're going into every game scratching and clawing and doing whatever we can to figure out a way to win."

Barbee's too busy to brood.

All summer, he has traveled to booster clubs across the state trying to get Auburn's alumni and fans interested in Tigers basketball again. He hosted 800 students at the inaugural "Barbee-Q," which featured live music, food and a pep talk from the new coach.

Barbee already had a reputation as a great recruiter. He has spent the past few months redefining the term. Not only is he trying to recruit the nation's top players, Barbee also is trying to win back a fan base that had grown apathetic toward basketball. Auburn's old Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum had a capacity of 10,500, but the Tigers haven't averaged as much as 7,000 fans in any of the past seven seasons.

Part of the reason for the lack of interest is that Auburn hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 2003. Jeff Lebo, now at East Carolina, was fired after posting a 96-93 record, with one NIT berth, in six seasons.

"There's been a disconnect between the fan base, the former players, this community with this basketball program," Barbee said. "Winning is always the easy answer, but for me, it's more than that. It's reaching out. I've always said you can't do this job behind a desk. You can't. If you're behind a desk all day, that's not what this job is about."

Barbee has at least one shiny new toy that should catch the attention of students, alumni and recruits. Auburn is leaving the Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum behind for the new $86 million Auburn Arena.

The new arena has a smaller capacity (9,600), but it should create much more of a home-court advantage. Auburn is making tickets free to all students this season; in the past, only the first 500 students were admitted free. Students also will have better seats, along with their own entrance and concession stand.

Improvement needed, on the floor ...
Auburn coach Tony Barbee takes over a program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 2003. Here's a look at how the Tigers have fared since.
2008-0924-1210-6NIT quarterfinals
... and in the stands
Auburn is counting on its move to the new 9,600-seat Auburn Arena to help increase interest in the basketball program. Here's a look at Auburn's average home attendance the past seven seasons at the Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, which had a capacity of 10,500.
"It's their team," Barbee said. "They're just as important to me as my leading scorer and leading rebounder. I wanted them to know it. ... I'm not charging my leading scorer to come to the game. Why are we charging the students if they're going to be as important as I'm telling them?"

His enthusiasm is reminiscent of his mentor.

Barbee knew from an early age that he wanted to coach. As a child, he was the type of player who would hang around his coach's office to absorb as much as possible. When he was invited to a basketball camp after his freshman year of high school, Barbee got the lesson of a lifetime. His coach at the camp was John Calipari, who was then working as an assistant at Pittsburgh.

Their paths would cross many more times.

Barbee played for Calipari at Massachusetts from 1989-93. After beginning his coaching career as an assistant at UMass before moving on to Wyoming, Barbee joined Calipari's staff at Memphis in 2000. They spent six seasons together at Memphis before Barbee began his own head-coaching career, at UTEP in 2006.

"Outside of my dad, he's probably had the biggest impact on me personally and professionally," Barbee said.

What's the biggest thing he learned from Calipari?

"Create a bond through teaching and loving -- and then you can demand," Barbee said. "You can't demand if there's no caring and loving atmosphere. You're demanding because you want to win, but if [players] don't understand you're there for them outside of it, it doesn't work."

Barbee has wasted no time building that atmosphere at Auburn.

"We're all a family," sophomore guard Earnest Ross said. "The way he did things, he said we're going to do it family oriented, on the court and off the court. He wanted to develop a personal relationship with us."

That approach worked for Barbee at his last stop. Barbee was 82-52 in four seasons at UTEP and won at least 19 games in each of his last three seasons.

Last season's UTEP team went 26-7 to win the Conference USA regular-season title. UTEP drew Butler in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament and led the eventual NCAA runners-up at halftime before Shelvin Mack's hot shooting helped the Bulldogs pull away for a 77-59 victory.

"Coach Barbee has a vision of competing for championships at Auburn and the passion to get us there," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said when announcing the hiring. "He is a phenomenal coach, an outstanding recruiter and a fierce competitor. ... The bottom line is Tony Barbee is a winner."

But he's unlikely to win immediately at Auburn. Assuming Sullivan doesn't play as he recovers from his torn ACL, Auburn won't have any players who averaged more than 2.8 points per game for a team that went 15-17 last season. The Tigers don't have a senior on their roster, and if Armstrong misses the season, Auburn also won't have a single player taller than 6 feet 8.

The Tigers will have a difficult time replacing Sullivan, a 6-1 guard who averaged 12.7 points and ranked second in the SEC in steals (1.9 per game) last season. Auburn also badly needed the talent infusion that Cothron (the No. 45 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class) and Kemp (No. 105) could have provided.

"Things happen for a reason," Barbee said. "We knew it was going to be a challenge with the two student-athletes who didn't qualify. They tried their hardest to get here. Both of them barely missed qualifying. I feel bad for them. They would have gone a long way to help the organization for the future.

"You never plan for injuries. You can never plan for that. It's just a part of sports, a part of athletics. What that presents, though, is an opportunity. It's an opportunity for other guys on the team."

Barbee's upbeat nature amid all this uncertainty has helped his players remain positive.

Winning background
Barbee arrives at Auburn after a successful stint at UTEP. Here's a look at his year-by-year record at UTEP.
2007-0819-148-8CBI first round
2008-0923-1410-6CBI runner-up
2009-1026-715-1NCAA first round
Totals82-5239-251 NCAA, 2 CBIs
"With him being optimistic like that, it brings our confidence higher than it was," Ross said. "Every time we go on the court, we make sure we go full speed and hard. It's not only increasing our confidence level, but our skill level."

Barbee shows that same optimism when he's talking to recruits. Auburn doesn't have a particularly rich basketball history, but Barbee can point to the new arena as evidence that the Tigers could be on the verge of winning consistently.

"We have everything everybody else has," Barbee said. "We can have that same success here, but it takes special young men who want to be trailblazers, so to speak, and not just go follow in the path of an already-built program. They want to come here and blaze their own trail and put their own stamp on a program."

Barbee already has blazed a trail across the state while preaching that message like a candidate making a stump speech. He knows Auburn currently is well behind its SEC competition.

But Barbee is selling that it's only a matter of time before the Tigers catch up.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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