By Jeff Shearer
Call it a Family Gathering.
Standing at a podium in front of shiny trophy cases inside the Auburn Athletic Complex on a clear and chilly night, Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs on Tuesday cast his vision for 2016.
The former Auburn football walk-on, who rose through the ranks after working in nearly every area of the department to become Athletics Director in 2005, talked about where Auburn Athletics has been. And where it's headed.
He began his remarks by reflecting on how different the campus looked on his way into work on Tuesday morning compared to a decade ago.
There was no Auburn Arena, where the roars just two days earlier were deafening as the Tigers knocked off Kentucky for the first time in nearly two decades. Even as Jacobs began his talk, the Arena was warming up with long lines of students hoping for another big win, this time over its biggest rival.
Jacobs reflected on a time when only Sewell Hall stood at the corner of Samford and Donahue. Now, a world-class student residence hall made possible by university leadership stands in its place. While reflecting on the past 11 years, Jacobs said he began to think of all the facility improvements that university leaders and donors in attendance helped make possible, from an Indoor Practice Facility and soccer and track building to new facilities for golf and tennis, among others.
The meeting took place just a short toss away from the still-new Wellness Kitchen, which has become a healthy hub of activity for Auburn athletes and students alike.
After reflecting on the past, Jacobs reminded the crowd why they were all there when he introduced several student-athletes. Then he set the tone for the year by focusing on four fundamental goals and 12 "Action Items" he pledged to complete this year.
He called it "16 for '16."
The goals outlined fell in four areas: academics, student-athlete experience, facilities and winning.
As a "16 for '16" graphic flashed across the HD screens hanging from the ceiling of the room often used for recruiting events and staff functions and as a museum of sorts for visitors, Jacobs reminded those in attendance what it's really all about: educating the student-athletes sitting on the front row and their teammates, and preparing them for successful careers and meaningful lives.
Rings and diplomas
"As Dr. Waters likes to say, 'We want our athletes to leave Auburn with a diploma in their hand and a ring on their finger...Our goal is to graduate our student-athletes and prepare them for successful lives and careers," Jacobs said.
It all starts with creating a student-athlete culture and experience that other schools can't match.
"Our goal is for Auburn to be the best university for the best athletes in the nation," he said.
While those goals don't typically gain the attention of the media or even fans, Jacobs explained how they and his third goal, building and maintaining first-class facilities, all tie to the fourth and final overall goal that Jacobs says he understands better than anyone matters a lot. Winning.
"Our goal is to build and maintain first-class facilities for our athletes and fans...and to put our student-athletes in a position to compete for championships."
He began with academics, including hiring a Senior Associate AD for Academic Services to succeed the retiring Dr. Gary Waters, enhancing academic support until all 21 of Auburn's teams achieve Academic Progress Rates of 950 or higher, and setting a goal that one-third of Auburn's teams score in the top 10 percent nationally in APR.
Jacobs then stressed the importance of the student-athlete experience, specifically sports medicine services, additional resources for female student-athletes and hiring a Chief Inclusion Officer to further foster a culture of diversity.
Facility enhancements are also at the forefront of action items for 2016.
While emphasizing that no decisions have been made, Jacobs discussed the potential renovation to the North End Zone of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"We will not move forward or seek approval from university leadership unless the project has broad support and proves to be financially feasible," he said.
A facilities feasibility study is well under way to gauge support for the project from donors and season ticket holders.
Jacobs stated several action items related to facilities and the stadium, including the completion of a detailed cost estimate for the potential stadium project by the end of March.
Other facilities upgrades include creating a permanent home for the volleyball team at Auburn Arena, and improvements for equestrian and softball facilities.
To meet the increased demand for softball seating following the program's first appearance in the Women's College World Series, Auburn is adding 835 temporary seats this season, with plans for permanent seats, spectator amenities and support facilities on the horizon.
A final action concerned the End Child Hunger in Alabama initiative, Auburn's primary community service focus. Auburn student-athletes and staff volunteers continue to support Auburn's Hunger Solutions Institute by preparing food backpacks for area students in partnership with the Jason Dufner Foundation.
Jacobs highlighted achievements from last year in compliance and stewardship. Record revenues of more than $120 million allowed the Department to set aside $5 million for deferred maintenance and still enjoy a budget surplus of almost $2 million.
He pointed to accomplishments in the classroom, including a record 345 student-athletes with a 3.0 or higher GPA. More than half of Auburn's teams achieved a perfect APR score in the NCAA's most recent release.
He also recognized student-athletes in attendance, including football players Jeremy Johnson and Jordan Diamond, basketball player Tra'Cee Tanner, soccer goalkeeper Alyse Scott and All-American swimmer Annie Lazor.
"You are the only reason we are here," Jacobs told the student-athletes.
Jacobs introduced a special guest, Andrea Black, the principal at Schmid Elementary School in Chicago. Last September, Auburn hosted 24 third-grade scholars and their parents for an enriching weekend.
"We thought we might in some small way inspire your scholars," Jacobs said. "But they inspired us."