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October 4, 2010
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.
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.