April 28, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN — Jay Jacobs had seen and heard enough. Somewhere along the way, he loosened the tie he wears as the man who oversees a $98 million athletic budget and remembered his football days at the school he loves.
Jay Jacobs played hardball with the people who attacked Auburn University.
"I was tired of it," said the school's athletics director. "People have continued to make claims about my institution and the Auburn family, and I was fed up. We're not going to keep taking it. When appropriate, and accurate, we're going to set the record straight. In the past, we haven't done that. But I've had enough of it."
It was April 4 when Jacobs, who acknowledges it's been a tough year for Auburn fans, went on the offensive in support of his football program against suspect national stories. And so it was the man who has overseen an upgrade of athletic facilities to the tune of $158 million; who has hired coaches, and had to fire them; who has seen five of his sports win national championships; who saw 304 of his student-athletes be recognized for having a 3.0 or higher grade point average this week, who has stressed a top-flight game day experience for fans, declared he was fed up with misinformation.
"I'm going to protect my institution," he said. "As a steward of this athletic department, with 21 sports, 500-plus student-athletes and thousands and thousands of fans and alumni, it's my responsibility to make sure things are right. When we make a mistake, we'll admit we are wrong. But when somebody makes baseless accusations about our program, we're not going to take it anymore. I'm tired of it. I'm at a place where I've said, 'enough is enough.'
"Every time we've come through these things we've been clean as a whistle. It's time for everybody to know what we represent."
Jay Jacobs is an Auburn fan. He always has been. He joined the Boy Scouts just to be able to become an usher so he could watch his Tigers play. He walked on to play football for Pat Dye in the early 1980s.
He's been associated with Auburn athletics for more than 30 years, including the last eight as athletics director.
Jacobs remembers what it was like to come to an Auburn football game as a young boy.
"We tailgated right next to the library and played tag football just in the shadow of the stadium," he says. That makes Auburn special."
And so it is Jacobs has a renewed interest in giving back to the fans with a plan for more tailgating and parking on football Saturdays.
"We're Running Back U," Jacobs said. "We also need to be Tailgating U."
Jacobs has been working closely with the university's Facilities Division to find more space for tailgating and parking, "to open things up so fans can have the same experience I had as young boy coming to this campus for the first time."
"There has to be rules and regulations and I understand that," Jacobs said. "But I think we've gone too far in the other direction. We need to be more inclusive. We want to make it more enjoyable when fans and visitors come here, whether they go to the game or not."
Jacobs remembers happy football Saturdays and the great moments, like when Auburn won the 2010 BCS national title. And there have been difficult moments, like this athletic year when the football and men's basketball teams struggled badly, especially in SEC play. Jacobs replaced a man he likes in Gene Chizik as the football coach after four years on the job. He kept a man he thinks can turn around the basketball program in Tony Barbee, who has been on board for three.
His hire of Gus Malzahn as the football coach has energized the Auburn faithful. A school-record A-Day crowd of 83,401 watched the Tigers play April 20 while saying good-bye to the beloved oaks at Toomer's Corner.
That was a good way to finish spring football, but Jacobs acknowledges it's been a difficult year — a 3-9 record in football was followed by a 9-win season in men's basketball.
"From football to basketball, it's been a tough year, but we will bounce back," Jacobs said. "We always have.
"We started with making a change in football. That was tough to do, but the right thing to do. In men's basketball, we've got to get better. We've got a tough history to overcome. Nine of our last 10 basketball coaches left here with a losing SEC record. So we have to be patient with Tony. It took Sonny Smith seven years to get to the NCAA. It took Ellis five to get to the tournament."
Jacobs is trying to balance patience with reality, stressing academics and athletics. That's why some moves are made, some aren't.
"When you look at athletics, only winning three football games is not acceptable at all," he said. "That's why I made the change. However, if you look at the overall athletics department, we've done some good things."
Auburn is fourth in SEC championships and second in national championships in the conference the last 10 years. One measure of academics — APR — promises to be the best in school history in the next reporting cycle. No SEC school has had more Rhodes Scholar finalists and more winners for the SEC's H. Boyd McWhorter Award than Auburn over the past six years.
"Academically, I'm pleased with the direction we're going," Jacobs said.
Loyalty and passion
Jacobs shakes his head at some of the media reports about his university, starting with the recruitment of Cam Newton in 2010.
"I'm certainly pleased with the way we've navigated the rough waters of the last couple of years," Jacobs said. "If you look at yourself that way, and you come out of it with no major violations, that's a credit to the coaches, the players, the administration and the fans."
Jacobs knew Auburn had to win back some fans after the 2012 football season. The Tigers are doing it. Auburn is ahead of its season ticket sales in four of five categories over the same time last year.
"That just shows the loyalty and the passion of Auburn fans. It's a great testament to Auburn people, not only supporting football but for all our athletic programs financially," he said.
Auburn athletics has operated with a profit for 22 straight years, benefiting from the loyalty of its fans and sharing the wealth of the SEC. But it doesn't give Jacobs an unlimited checkbook.
"We're going to have to tighten our belts a little bit, but it's the thing to do," he said. "When you only win three football games everybody has to tighten up."
But Auburn has already upgraded across the board, with the $84 million Auburn Arena, a $6 million soccer and track facility, a new golf facility and a tennis facility built with the City of Auburn. Auburn will also spend $800,000 to renovate the baseball locker rooms and build a facility for sports medicine and equestrian.
And then there's one of the recruiting jewels: An upscale, $51 million apartment-style student residence hall, planned and financed by the university, that will house regular Auburn students and athletes, including a majority of the football team. It will open by this fall.
"It's going to be great for camaraderie," Jacobs said.
The athletic department is also developing a Wellness Kitchen, which will be built across the street from the new residence hall.
"We all love good Southern food, but we have to be smart," Jacobs said. "The vision we have for the Wellness Kitchen is to partner with the School of Human Sciences to have students who want to be dieticians or nutritionists working with all our student-athletes. We will be able to serve regular students or student-athletes who want to lose weight or gain weight or who may have an eating disorder or special dietary needs. We just know we need to help our student-athletes fuel their bodies properly and be nutritionally sound and healthy."
To the future
Jacobs is in the forefront against stories the school believes misrepresents the university. But the university has changed its tact, as well.
"We're tired of third parties telling our stories. We want to tell our stories," Jacobs said. "That doesn't mean that our story is going to always be a good, positive story. It means that if we do something wrong we're going to admit it. But we're tired of relying on people who may not have Auburn's best interest at heart, or maybe they just don't know some of the great things our student-athletes are doing.
"People need to know who we are."
Jacobs is looking to Auburn's future, and doesn't hide from a tough year in high-profile sports.
"It's been tough, because it's not just a job to me. It's my Auburn," he said. "I probably should have learned not to take it so personal, but Auburn has been personal to me my entire life. My dad went to school here. I have two degrees from here.
"It's been tough for all of us who care about Auburn. But we'll bounce back. We always do."
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