Auburn’s Barbee trying to reignite spark in hoops program

By John Zenor, AP
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

AU’s Barbee trying to stoke fans’ flames

AUBURN, Ala. — Tony Barbee’s office has just the basics: A tidy desk, a station for his laptop and a TV.

No pictures or plaques hang from the wall, because these are only temporary digs for Auburn’s new basketball coach. The basketball offices will move across the street to the new Auburn Arena sometime this summer, and Barbee hopes someday in the near future the mostly nondescript program will be similarly upwardly mobile.

The Tigers coach has spent the two months since Auburn hired him away from UTEP speaking and recruiting around the state, trying to ignite a spark for a program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2003.

“That’s going to be my job, to bring that passion back and reconnect what I call that love affair that’s still there,” Barbee told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday morning. “We’ve gotta stoke those flames to bring it back out.

“Football’s huge in this state. Football’s huge for Auburn. That’s a great thing for me. I look forward to working with a great football program. But at the same time, people come up to me and (say), ‘Don’t let them fool you, coach. We love basketball around here too. We just need something to get us excited about it.’”

Barbee has met with a group of campus leaders about ways to connect with students, from showing up at the student union to hitting the cafeteria to shake hands and chat. Then there’s the golfing events like the pro-am at the recent Champions Tour event in suburban Birmingham.

“It seems like I’m on the PGA Tour right now, all the golf tournaments I’ve had to play in,” Barbee said.

His wife, Holly, will join him in Auburn after their two kids finish the school year on Friday. Wednesday, the only personal touches in his office were the UMass alumni magazine still unopened on his desk and a large iced coffee from McDonald’s that is a staple since Auburn doesn’t have a branch of his favorite doughnut shop.

More importantly, he has added three signees to a recruiting class started by former coach Jeff Lebo. All could get a chance to make an immediate impact for a team that returns only two upperclassmen — Frankie Sullivan and Kenny Gabriel — expected to log quality minutes.

Sullivan is the only returning player who averaged more than three points last season.

Forwards Josh Langford and Luke Cothron both played high school ball in Huntsville. Keeping top prospects inside state lines is one priority after many have left in recent years, including DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe to Kentucky last year.

He said both players bring “a different level of talent, of athleticism, of versatility.”

But, he added, the latest signee, point guard Chris Denson, might have been the most important. The only other true point guard on the roster is walk-on Josh Wallace.

“Chris was a huge get,” Barbee said. “I think he’s going to be a terrific player here and he’s going to be tested early. He’s going to be put to the fire right away.”

The youth movement has forced the John Calipari protege to preach both optimism and patience to fans.

“Obviously anytime you take over a job, you’d rather it be one that won 35 games and everybody’s returning,” Barbee said. “But that’s not the case here. We’re going to be young, which means there’s going to be a lot of growth. When you’re doing it with young kids, there’s going to be some growing pains. But the payoff down the line is usually pretty good.”

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