The reminders are everywhere.
Charles Barkley and his hilarious Auburn booth. Sonny Smith providing radio color commentary. The location of the Final Four — Minneapolis.
Herbert Greene has been gone for nearly four years now. Hard to believe and even harder to accept, still. But if he weren’t actually in the real heaven, this would serve as the closest Earthly substitute.
Greene loved college basketball, loved the Final Four and loved Auburn. Even though he found a home at Columbus State, where his tenure as men’s basketball coach and/or athletics director spanned 25 years, Auburn never left his heart.
“He was always so excited about going to the Final Four,” his widow Jan said. “It was one of the highlights of his year. Another highlight was October 15.”
Midnight Madness. Traditionally, the first day college basketball teams could practice. Greene’s passion for basketball served him well, from his days as a star at Eufaula High and then a more modest but still meaningful career at Auburn. And to his time under Smith as an assistant, when he convinced his friend and boss that the round kid out of Leeds, Ala., would change Auburn basketball. And finally to his stepping-stone-turned-destination job at CSU.
March Madness offered Greene a chance to decompress after the daily stress of a season. His teams were always done playing by the time the Final Four rolled around. He attended every one for the 25 years he was at CSU. Never did he seriously think that the Tigers would one day make it.
They began to run together over the years, but some carried special memories.
“I remember the first time he went,” said Scott Miller, CSU’s radio broadcaster and Greene’s roommate on the road. “He called me to tell me where his seats were. He said, ‘I’m in the building. But I’m so high up I have to lean over to make sure I don’t get sunburned from the lights in the ceiling.”
Greene took his new bride Jan with him to Denver. Then they had a daughter Olivia, who made the trip to Minneapolis. Which is funny because Olivia blazed her own path and went to Georgia.
“Olivia is just as excited,” Jan said. “And that’s because of their daddy.”
Their younger daughter Maria made the Final Four trip to New Orleans. It never mattered which teams were played. He just loved to see college basketball on its biggest stage.
“He loved everything about it,” Jan said. “That atmosphere. That environment. He was in his element. The coaches. The conventions. He loved going to the coaching sessions. He wanted other people to experience that.”
Even Bruce Pearl, the coach who resuscitated Auburn basketball, has a connection to Greene. They coached against each other in the Disney Tip-Off Classic in 1997-98 when Pearl was at Southern Indiana. They battled down to the wire before Pearl’s team prevailed in the closing seconds.
It has not gone unnoticed that these Tigers are so similar to Greene’s Cougar teams. The green light to fire up threes begins flashing as the ball crosses half court. Miller was in his hotel room on a baseball road trip when Auburn was playing in the Sweet 16. Robert Moore, CSU’s head coach, texted him.
“This is Coach Greene’s right here, isn’t it?”
Indeed it is.
Greene would be proud of Auburn, and he would be tickled with Barkley. They maintained a tight bond as it was Greene who first believed in The Round Mound. Jan’s Facebook profile picture is of Greene and Barkley, maybe their last time together.
“Just watching Barkley, you know Hebert would be doing something similar,” Jan said. “It’s been very special, and I hope he can see it all.”
Maybe he can. If so, he’s probably calling plays before they are run, and throwing in some one-liners.