AUBURN, Ala. — It’s rare that a team goes from worst-to-first in the span of a year.
Of course, that’s what Auburn’s football team was able to do last fall, as it came within 13 seconds of capturing the BCS championship. Just one year earlier, the Tigers were in the cellar, going 0-8 in SEC play and notching only three wins overall.
Through it all, Jay Jacobs did his best to maintain an even keel.
“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,” Auburn’s athletic director said in a sitdown interview with the Ledger-Enquirer on Wednesday. “It’s a roller coaster for the fans, but it makes it exciting.”
Not that he could afford to show it last season. The same goes for the disastrous 2012-13 school year for the Tigers’ three premier sports; along with the football team’s abysmal campaign, both the baseball team (last in SEC West) and the men’s basketball team (worst record in the league) had years people would rather forget.
Add on top of that allegations leveled against the football team last spring — one by ESPN regarding synthetic marijuana use, the other from Auburn grad Selena Roberts claiming the Tigers changed grades and paid players during their 2010 BCS title run — and it was a hectic year for Jacobs.
But he didn’t wilt in the face of the adversity, forcefully refuting every accusation made by both Roberts and ESPN, as well as remaining in charge of the athletic program while some called for his ouster.
Downplaying his resolve, Jacobs said he was simply “doing my job” and making sure those around him did the same.
“There was a lot of noise outside of the department impacting our players. My No. 1 concern is our student-athletes,” he said. “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. 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 in his estimation, the athletic department is as strong as it’s been since he first arrived in Auburn as a student in the early 1980s. He proudly cited the hiring of chief operating officer David Benedict and chief marketing officer Ward Swift as well as the number of athletes sporting grade point averages above 3.0.
Then, of course, there are the athletic programs themselves.
“I’m really excited about the quality of our head coaches and our staffs that we have,” he said. “Auburn football is fun again, and we’re excited about those other sports, too. Auburn is a special place.”
Besides, Jacobs said, as tough as things got in the last year and a half, he’s been through worse. Try making it through arduous three-a-days with legendary Auburn coach 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,” he said. “Certainly (I) don’t want for Auburn to have to go through (a 3-9 season) again, but at the same time we went through that and then the next year we’re playing for the national championship.”
Now it’s on to the next one. As good as the Tigers were last season, it means nothing heading into the fall. Auburn is back near the pinnacle of college football.
The challenge is staying there.
“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 (and) that atmosphere of excellence is challenging to do, but that’s what we’re going to do here,” Jacobs said. “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 — the opportunity to be successful, to win championships and to get a diploma in their hand.”