Sunday conversation: Q&A with Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 1, 2014 

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs sat down for an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black earlier this week.

TODD VAN EMST — Todd Van Emst

Editor's note: Jay Jacobs has been Auburn's athletic director since 2004. His history with the school goes back even further, though, as he played on the Tigers' offensive line in the early 1980s and served as the team's conditioning coach from 1988-91. Earlier this week, the Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black caught up with Jacobs to discuss both Auburn's athletic programs as well as hot-button issues in the NCAA.

What was your initial reaction when you heard some people view the hurry-up, no-huddle offense as a safety hazard to defensive players?

It’s ridiculous. I played in the wishbone and we’d have 12 and 15-play drives . If there’s some statistics out there about health and safety, I’d love to see them. But there are none. The thing that I see is that it is a health and safety issue — it’s not very healthy for the opposing fans because they can’t stop it and it bothers them and it’s not safe for the coaches that can’t stop it because they get fired. So that’s the only health and safety issue I know about. I think it’s ridiculous.

You know, in 1913 Notre Dame completed a forward pass against Army and I guess we should maybe rethink that as well. … Unless of course somebody comes forward with some data that shows where it’s a health and safety issue. We haven’t experienced any of that. I just think it’s a joke.

Do you believe more along the lines of Steve Spurrier? He felt that long, time-consuming drivers were much more likely to wear defenses out and cause injuries than the quick-strike possessions most no-huddle teams prefer.

That was my point about when I played here and ran the wishbone. I don’t know any statistical data about either side of that. Football is a game of contact and collision, and the offensive players are running the same number of plays as defensive players. As an old offensive lineman, it makes me think that everybody is finally acknowledging is in better shape than the defense. Now I say that kiddingly, of course, but I think it’s just ridiculous. And in a time where we’ve got shot clocks in basketball and people getting penalized for not playing fast enough in golf and now we’ve got pitch clocks at baseball and the amount of time you warm up between innings, because we’re trying to make sure that people come to our stadiums and fill our venues and keep the pace of play going because it’s entertaining and there are no health and safety issues? I think it’s a joke.

Here’s the thing about it: If you want to have fun playing football, you come to Auburn. If you want to go somewhere they run 12 and 15 plays and it’s a mundane offense, that’s where you need to go. But if you want to have fun playing the game, you come here to Auburn and play because this is a fun offense. This is what high school students and football players like to play. Our guys love it. The defense loves it. It’s fast-paced. Our students today are multitasking all the time and there are different things going on, so this is a fun place to play. So if you want to come have fun playing football, you come to Auburn. If you want to go someplace that runs a slow offense (and it’s) methodical and those kinds of things, you probably need to go to that. But this is where you have a lot of fun.

How much have you and Gus Malzahn discussed the proposed rule change which would penalize offenses five yards if they snap the ball before the 30-second mark on the play clock?

He and I have talked a lot about it, but he’s done most of the listening and talking with other coaches because his concern was — just like mine — (whether) there a health and safety issue here? And it’s obvious by all accounts there’s not. If there is, nobody knows about it. We certainly need to do some things to protect our quarterback in this business. And that’s where we need to start: What can we do to better protect our quarterback standing out there by themselves? But as far as a hurry-up offense or an offense that snaps the ball a little bit quicker than others, it’s a joke. There’s really no place for it.

Auburn lost five members of its support staff to other jobs following the BCS title game. In a way, is that the lone downside of winning — that members of a coaching staff become highly sought-after when a team finds success?

I haven’t found a downside to winning yet. Everybody that has left here has moved up. We had one guy who was an analyst here and now he’s an offensive coordinator at a BCS school. Every one of these guys that have left here have moved up into a bigger role, which is what their goals are. “If you want to be at a place that can help promote your professional expertise, than you come to Auburn, because that’s obviously what happened this past year. Certainly winning has a lot to do with it, but Gus having been a high school coach, bringing in high school coaches, he knows how to talk to and prepare them because he went along the way himself. … He’s a great teacher for those former high school coaches so it gives them a chance. … We’re just glad these guys — and women, depending on the sport — were able to come here and if they can’t reach their full potential as far as a title goes here because it’s not available, we’re just so glad they’re able to go somewhere and impact student-athlete’s lives in a positive way because of their experiences they’ve had here at Auburn.

The last year and a half has been pretty wild for the Tigers' athletic program, with lots of peaks and valleys along the way. How did you handle it all?

In college athletics — or any athletics — there are highs and lows. Having been a football player here and having coached tight ends and been the conditioning, I’ve grown up in this business. I know the highs and lows. You know, being an athletic director in the Southeastern Conference isn’t for the faint-hearted. You’ve just got to be tough and do what’s right and work through those things, work through those highs and lows and try to maintain a sense of level. … You can’t get too high when you’re a minute and a half away from winning your second national championship in (four) years and you can’t get too low when you’re not winning enough to get to a bowl game. It’s a roller coaster for the fans, but it makes it exciting, the highs and lows do. As the CEO of this athletic department and having played here and (getting) my formal education here, you’ve got to keep all those things in perspective, because you can’t allow your staff, your coaches and your student-athletes to hit those peaks and valleys too quickly as well.

Were you worried about your own job security at any point?

All I was interested in was doing my job and making sure everybody around me was doing theirs. There was a lot of noise outside of the department impacting our players. My No. 1 concern is our student-athletes. We’re going to keep doing what’s right regardless of how good things are on the outside or how bad things are on the outside. So no, all I’m interested in is doing my job every day. Because of how long I’ve been here and because of my different experiences, I’m the best person to do it. I think I was able to lead us through those turbulent times because of my Auburn background and having been a player here.

The toughest thing I ever went through was three-a-days with Pat Dye. Since I came through three-a-days, I’ve been running downhill ever since. That teaches you some mental toughness and some physical toughness and certainly enhances you from a spiritual standpoint and I rely on all three of those. Certainly don’t want for Auburn to have to go through that again, but at the same time we went through that and then the next year we’re playing for the national championship.

So sometimes in business or in life or in college athletics, going through a tough time makes you even better.

The challenge for every program is to sustain the success that we’ve had last year. That’s the challenge. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Super Bowl winner or World (Cup) soccer winner or College World Series winner or whatever it may be, maintaining that, sustaining that culture, that atmosphere of excellence is challenging to do, but that’s what we’re going to do here. That’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to make sure every day that we put around this team and all these student-athletes — all 21 teams — put around them the opportunity to be successful, to win championships and to get a diploma in their hand.

Rumors are constantly swirling about Tony Barbee's job security. What is his future here at Auburn?

We get through the end of the season, and then, regardless of how the season has gone, I sit down with the head coach and we’ll view where we are and where we’re headed. So that’s what we’ll do at the end of this season, just like we always do.

How do you feel about the jobs baseball coach Sunny Golloway and softball coach Clint Myers have done since you hired them last year?

First of all, they’ve (bought) the respect that the student-athletes that are playing for them — I’d want my children to play for them. That’s the No. 1 thing: Would I want any of my children — my biological children and my foster children — to ever play for either one of these guys? And the answer to that is absolutely yes. I was convinced of that in the interviews and doing the research on them. From former players that have played with them to other administrators that have worked with them. Once they got here and I saw how they have mutual respect for their student-athletes and put them in the best position to be good moms and dads and community people, I’m excited about them.

The second this is the excitement they’ve brought to both of those programs. Clint has won 10 games in a row and ‘mercy ruled’ several people. Sunny is going through some tough times, but the teams that we’ve had here in the past haven’t won and Sunny is a winner. He’s going to get his program set up. And it may be a little bit of a rough time for the first year or two, but he’s a winner and he knows how to build championship programs, and that’s going to happen here. Same with softball. Clint is the same way. They know what it takes to win, and we’re certainly excited. They’re excited. The fans are excited. More importantly, the student-athletes are excited and have confidence in them and we look forward to some great years in softball and baseball moving forward.

Three members of the baseball team left the program earlier this week. Some people I've seen think it's strange to see players leave this early in a season, but aren't those critics making too much out of this? Roster attrition is natural when a new coach comes on board.

Well I don’t really know what people are making of it, but when they say ‘early in the season,’ they have to know that he’s been here all through fall ball and everything else. And the bottom line is what we had didn’t work. I made the decision to change baseball coaches, so we’ve done that. The baseball coach that we had and the players that we had, both are a combination of the parts that didn’t work. So it’s Sunny’s job to make it work to get us back to Omaha, to winning SEC championships and playing in regionals and super regionals. Some people just aren’t meant for a certain system. That’s just how it is. Some students come to school here and they’re here for a few weeks and realize, ‘You know what? I shouldn’t have come here. I should have stayed closer to home or done something different.’ Or some students may go somewhere else and then think, ‘You know what? I should have (gone) to Auburn,’ and then they transfer here. So I think it happens in all parts of the student life. It’s just that what we’ve been doing in baseball hasn’t worked, so I’m 100 percent supportive of whatever Sunny thinks we need to do to get this baseball team to be competitive, because that’s what we owe our student-athletes. That’s what we owe that baseball team: A chance to win championships.

We constantly hear the talk about all the "fiber" needed for the launch of the SEC Network. How is that coming along?

We’re still on schedule for August. There’s a lot of work to be done, you know, running fiber to all of our facilities. A lot of them already had it, but we’re certainly working with the university to get all of that done. By August, we’ll be up and going just like all the other SEC schools.

How often are SEC Network representatives in contact with you?

The point people at the SEC Network are constantly talking to our point people here. I got an update on it this past Thursday, so less than a week ago I was brought up to speed on where were and where everybody else in the league was.

At the Division I Governance Dialogue session in San Diego last month, the "Big Five" conferences received what amounts to voting autonomy going forward. Is it inevitable that the NCAA is about to undergo a major transformation?

That’s where I think it’s headed. That’s where it needs to go. We’re not all alike. That’s why there’s chocolate, vanilla and swirl ice creams. We’re all different. The five conferences you’re talking represents about 64 schools and we all need to be on a level playing field. We all need to be governed by the same rules, but I don’t think that’s necessarily school for some other schools that aren’t competing for BCS championships year-in and year-out, because they may not have the facilities, they may not have the support services around these student-athletes at the level we do and the meals is a great example. It makes no sense to me at all why we can’t feed our student-athletes on full scholarships three meals a day. That makes no sense. There are some schools that wouldn’t be able to afford to do that. But if our five conferences come together and vote and we say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ then we’ll all do it. Or we’ll vote and we’ll say, ‘Well, we’d rather not’ and that’s what we’ll do. But that’s inevitably going to happen there. Things continue to change, whether it’s how many games are on television or the services you provide your student-athletes, people demand excellence, and we certainly demand it here. I think it’s time to look at the overall structure and say, ‘You know what? Maybe this piece doesn’t fit under this one umbrella.’ Everybody belongs under the same NCAA tent, but maybe we should have our own area over here just like FCS has their own area.

Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby said this would widen the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in Division I. What would your rebuttal to that be?

My response to that would be that we’re in a competitive environment, so if one business is doing exceedingly well in what they do, should we subsidize the businesses that aren’t as efficient and effective as we are? Should that hold us back? That doesn’t sound like the capitalism that this country was built on. I think that he’s correct that it will widen it. But I think that also there’s a need for that to be widened. It will put people that are actually competing for the same thing in the same pool or pod together and let them make decisions based on what they can do and what they think is important. Whether it’s us or a league or division that the (Northeastern) AD is in. Give him more stability, so when he’s competing (against) schools in his league, they’re all on the same level playing field (in) recruiting, competition, support services and academically.

How did you feel when you heard the news of Michael Sam publicly announcing he was gay earlier this month?

Great for him. That’s what we’re all about. The one thing that sometimes we lose sight of — and I don’t lose sight of it, because I get to be around these student-athletes all the time — is that they’re the brightest and the best. They have big minds and big visions and big goals. They have a lot of confidence. I just applaud him for having that confidence, and I hope more will follow. We’re all individuals and we’re all here to do as well as we possibly can, and having the courage to make that statement and talk about himself personally took a lot of courage. I just hope that’s where we’re all headed — that it doesn’t take a lot of courage to do those things, to come out and say this about me, whatever it may be. I hope that we can get to the point — and with him making that statement, I think it tore down a lot of walls for people that may have had some up — that it doesn’t take courage to make a statement like that. I think it’s great. I think it’s great, specifically for collegiate athletics; I think it’s great for the institutions and I think it’s great for young people today. What a great example of leadership he’s provided for young people today, and probably some older people, too.

How much of an advance did Kansas State give you that this fall's game would be on a Thursday?

They informed us ahead of time and I went and visited with Gus. Gus really likes it from a competitive standpoint because it gives us a bigger gap between games. It gives you those two off Saturdays on either side, so it gives you a little more time to prepare after your game before that and after the Kansas State game you get nine days instead of seven.

But what about the fans? Making it to Manhattan for a Saturday game is a lot easier than traveling there on a Thursday.

That will be more difficult to do. It’s Kansas State’s home game and we agreed to play them. But just like us, television and other things determine when we play teams and we dictate a lot of that through our ESPN and CBS contracts. When Kansas State saw that we had an open week, it was natural for them to pursue a Thursday night game. …. It’s really their call, but we’re looking forward to playing them.

You've discussed the possibility of Auburn going back and claiming more national championships in football. Is a decision coming soon?

We have a recognition committee and they’re looking at all that. … I don’t have any idea when (we’d make a decision). There are all kinds of sides to that. My thought was that, if other schools are claiming the same championships, why shouldn’t we for those players on those teams? Why shouldn’t give them the same accolades other schools are giving their players? With our awards committee, they’ll vet it and talk to a lot of people and come out with a recommendation.

With so many other teams experimenting with alternate uniforms, is that something that has been discussed here? Not that it would be an overhaul; more specifically, would the team consider using a "throwback" for one regular season game? Or possibly break out something different for the A-Day game?

No, we don’t talk about that. There are people that are trying to make their mark — and have done a good job — by making their uniforms different. We think we make our mark by our traditional home uniforms of blue jersey and white pants and on the road, white jersey and white pants. We love the Auburn helmet and it’s a great brand. Having played in the national championship two of the last four years, it’s given Auburn University great marketing and branding that you couldn’t afford any other time. The student-athletes love it. They love our gear and we don’t have any intentions at this time of making any changes to our uniform.

Does Under Armour ever even bother to bring it up anymore?

Early on when we were talking to them they asked about it and we said we weren’t interested. If we were to go back to them I’m sure they would say, ‘We’ll accommodate you.’ But we’re not interested in that. We believe the Auburn brand is strong. We believe we’ve got one of the best-looking uniforms in college athletics in football. It’s a great brand for us. We’ve got a lot of tradition there and we don’t have any intentions any time in the near future of changing it.

Any final thoughts you'd like to share?

I feel like what I’ve been able to accomplish with the hiring of the COO and the chief marketing officer and the changes we’ve made in the department, I believe we’re in as strong a position as we’ve been in since I was a player here. I feel really good about our program and the number of our student-athletes with a 3.0 or better. We’ve got more Rhodes Scholar finalists than any other school in the SEC in the last five years. I’m really excited about the quality of our head coaches and our staffs that we have. Auburn football is fun again, and we’re excited about those other sports, too. Auburn is a special place. It has a special culture — it’s a family culture — and if you like to have fun and be a part of a family, it’s the place you ought to go to school.

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