When Auburn knocked off Arkansas 92-83 Saturday night, they actually had a decent crowd show up at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The attendance was listed at 8,312, a few thousand short of capacity, but still their third-best total for a home game this season.
I was pleasantly surprised because most of the time this season Auburn's arena has been near empty when the Tigers take the court. They are averaging only 5,868 spectators for their 15 home games.
Who can blame the fans? The Tigers have been mediocre at best this season. Their win against Arkansas left them with a 13-14 record overall, 4-8 in the Southeastern Conference. Besides that, they lost their first three home SEC games, even though they have rebounded to win the last three.
But a lousy team isn't the only reason fans stay away from Auburn home games in droves. Auburn simply isn't a basketball town.
In fact, ESPN.com columnist Pat Forde recently conducted a best-worst survey concerning the major conferences in men's college basketball and discovered that Auburn is the worst basketball town in the SEC.
As a former beat writer (back in the 1980s when Auburn went to the NCAA Tournament five consecutive years with the likes of Charles Barkley and Chuck Person), I can attest that the Tigers always have had difficulty generating fan interest for basketball.
Don't just take my word for it. I recently talked to former Auburn head coach Sonny Smith about Forde's column and here's what he had to say.
"I read that," said Smith, who coached Barkley and Person. "I don't buy that Auburn is the worst town, but it is under consideration. I think Starkville (Mississippi State) would have gotten the award, if they hadn't won more. Ole Miss would be up there too if it wasn't for the job (Coach) Andy Kennedy has done the last few years."
Smith, who does some color commentating on Auburn radio broadcasts and also does color on televised games in the Southeast, particularly the Atlantic Sun Conference, went on to explain why Auburn fans, especially the students, stay away.
"Way back when, Auburn had a reputation as a smaller school in a smaller town and the way the arena was set up students had to sit under the basket instead of the sidelines to watch a game, so students would go home on the weekend," Smith said. "That contributed to a lack of attendance."
That all had changed when Smith arrived in the early 1980s, but even then Auburn struggled to have much of a home-court advantage because it lacked a fan base.
"You could tell when we would have a big crowd," Smith said. "It's when we were playing Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama, and sometimes LSU. But when he played Ole Miss, we'd get about 3,000 and when we played Mississippi State we'd get about 2,000, and nobody came when we played Vanderbilt. That's when Auburn got the bad reputation as a basketball town.
"Now with the school being so big and having $300,000 condos for the students to live in, the kids are staying on campus year round, but they still don't draw. The reason they're not showing up is a reflection on the how the team is doing. Winning would change that. Bigger crowds come when you're winning than when you're losing."
Smith has a point. Auburn sold out every home game during its run to the SEC title in 1999 when it set a school record with 29 wins under Coach Cliff Ellis.
That's a distance memory now that we're 10 years into the 21st century and seemingly the only sport Auburn folks care about is football. But Smith said you can't blame football for Auburn's basketball attendance woes. Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky said as much in a column last week.
"It's true that Auburn is a football school, but it's not so much that it's a football school than it is that we're a football state," Smith said. "But if the basketball team was winning, the fans would come."
That brought me to the subject of Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo (pictured above). I asked Smith if he thought Lebo would be back for a seventh season next year, especially with the Tigers moving into a new $92 million arena.
"I think he deserves a year in the new facility," Smith said. "He's a very good on-the-floor good and he has a good recruiting class coming in. But with all his starters (except for guard Frankie Sullivan) leaving, there are some who think he should go too.
"As far as him staying, he needs to win some games down the stretch. But if the season ends on a bad note, it wouldn't be good."
My sentiments exactly.