AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn athletics is at a crossroads when it comes to the task of replacing longtime athletic director Jay Jacobs.
The university can do what it usually does in this situation, or it could start a new era like so many other schools around them have done.
Jacobs’ decision to step down — whenever Auburn finds his replacement, that is — comes at a time when the department could use a culture change.
Scandals and ongoing investigations rocked multiple sports under Jacobs’ watch over the last few months. Several of them, such as the men’s basketball one involving the now-indicted Chuck Person, involve wrongdoing by “Auburn people.”
Yet there will be a vocal push by members of the Auburn fan base, and perhaps people who will actually have decision-making power in this process, to hire a former player, coach or staffer to the position.
It’s what Auburn has always done. Jacobs was a former walk-on football player who spent almost his entire professional career working for the Tigers. Jacobs’ predecessor was David Housel, an alumnus and a longtime sports information director. Housel’s predecessor was Pat Dye, who served as Auburn’s AD and head football coach at the same time.
For what it’s worth, Housel retired shortly after the “Jetgate” firestorm. Dye resigned first as an athletic director, then later as a coach, in the midst of looming NCAA trouble.
Times have changed in college athletics. More and more schools are going with athletic directors with strong business acumen, because major college sports is just that — a business.
Gone are the days of making a former player or coach the go-to hire. Alabama, for example, replaced Bill Battle — who succeeded another former Bear Bryant player in Mal Moore — with former Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne.
The current Alabama AD was born in Idaho and graduated from Arizona State. But Alabama got Byrne because he was regarded as one of the best athletic directors in America.
Auburn could easily make a similar move in replacing Jacobs, especially with a still-new president in Steven Leath and the need for reform among a department that hasn’t lacked for issues recently.
A hire like that doesn’t need to be completely unattached to Auburn, either.
Former Auburn chief operating officer David Benedict, who is now the athletic director at UConn, checks all the boxes as a front-runner for the job. Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, regarded as one of the country’s best, previously worked in administration at Auburn.
But after several high-profile instances of “Auburn people” either actively participating in wrongdoing or having it happen under their watch, it’s easy to see why the school would benefit from going in a completely different direction.
There’s no denying Auburn loves its own. But Auburn is now in a position as an athletic department where it doesn’t need to promote from within or hire a famous former coach or player for name value. There’s an opportunity for Auburn to start fresh and move forward with a new vision.
Times have changed. Situations have definitely changed. Let’s see if Auburn changes with them.