AUBURN, Ala. — It’s the subject of an inside joke between Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley. It’s also the cause of heated debate among Auburn fans. How do you rank the best to ever compete for the Tigers?
Auburn can boast multiple Hall of Famers in several sports. It claims SEC Player of the Year winners across fields, courts and, yes, swimming pools. The Tigers have multiple Heisman Trophy winners to their name along with record holders all across the world of sports.
So how should the top athletes in Auburn history be ranked? Here’s a stab at the top five of all-time, which combines their many feats as members of the Tigers with their professional success. Tell us how you would rank them in the comments below.
1. Bo Jackson
There’s no debate here. Jackson is one of the best all-around athletes of all-time — not just among ones who came from Auburn. Jackson is the only person to ever make it to both the MLB All-Star Game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl. He was a No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft, a Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time consensus first-team All-American.
On the football field, Jackson averaged more than 6.6 yards per carry and scored 45 total touchdowns in four seasons with the Tigers. That includes a 1984 junior season in which Jackson missed a substantial amount of time due to injury. He snapped a 9-game losing streak against Alabama with “Bo Over the Top” as a true freshman, and he unofficially recorded one of the fastest 40-yard dashes in NFL Combine history.
In baseball, Jackson batted .401 as a junior and had four straight MLB seasons with 20-plus home runs. He played both baseball and football professionally from 1987 to 1990, winning the MLB All-Star Game MVP in 1989 and making it to the Pro Bowl in 1990. On top of all that, he was an accomplished track and field athlete at Auburn.
Jackson did it all for Auburn, and that continued into the pros at an age when sports specialization became a bigger deal. His football career ended with a freak hip injury in 1990 — while he was still in his prime — and he retired from baseball in 1994. Jackson was the definition of the term “athlete,” and his popularity grew into a worldwide phenomenon following his time on the Plains.
2. Charles Barkley
Auburn isn’t known as a basketball power by any stretch, but it can boast one of the best basketball players of all-time as an alumnus. Barkley dominated the boards in his three seasons at Auburn — a remarkable feat for someone generously listed at 6-foot-6 — and was the 1984 SEC Player of the Year.
Barkley turned around a perennially losing basketball program on the Plains into one that made the NCAA Tournament in his final campaign. He then became the No. 5 overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft and took over the league. Barkley was a league MVP, an 11-time All-Star, and a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the “Dream Team.” He was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and it all started in the state of Alabama.
3. Frank Thomas
Before becoming one of the most dangerous power hitters in MLB history, “The Big Hurt” smashed baseballs for Auburn. He arrived at Auburn from nearby Columbus, Ga., as a football player. Instead, he became famous for his feats on the diamond. Thomas was the baseball program’s first consensus All-America selection in 1989, and he broke the school record for home runs in a career.
His career took off at the professional level. Thomas was a 5-time All-Star, a back-to-back American League MVP, and a first-ballot Baseball Hall of Famer. He finished with 521 career home runs and 1,704 RBI — and he did it with a strong .301 lifetime batting average. Thomas is the only SEC player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
4. Cam Newton
While Newton was only at Auburn for the 2010 season, it was arguably the greatest single year for a player in college football history. Newton went from JUCO transfer battling for a starting job in the preseason to the catalyst for a 14-0 national championship squad and a Heisman Trophy winner. Newton scored 50 touchdowns in 14 games while racking up more than 4,000 yards of total offense.
Newton’s otherworldly year led him to being the No. 1 overall selection by the Carolina Panthers in the 2011 NFL Draft. He won the league’s MVP award in 2015 while leading Carolina to an NFC title. Newton has smashed dozens of league records, including most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a career — and he’s only played six seasons. He has a chance to go down as the greatest dual-threat quarterback in football history.
5. Rowdy Gaines
A long list of Auburn athletes could’ve taken this final spot, but let’s head to the pool for a special No. 5. Gaines is one of the most accomplished swimmers in American history, and he got his start at Auburn. Gaines won five NCAA championships with the Tigers, won the 1981 SEC Male Athlete of the Year award and set 10 world records between the 1978 World Championships and the 1984 Summer Olympics.
Gaines won 3 golds at those Olympics — and he could’ve had more to his name if the United States hadn’t boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow. He won 5 more golds at the World Championships over his career and 7 more at the Pan American Games. Gaines is a Hall of Famer in virtually every one he would be eligible for, and he’s been known as NBC’s Olympic swimming expert for the last 20-plus years.