Auburn seems to have a bit of an image problem on its hands. And it could begin to affect recruiting.
Recently, Kevin Scarbinsky of the Birmingham News took a hard look at the Auburn program. He found that within the last two years, Auburn players (and former Auburn players still very much around the program by virtue of receiving medical disqualification scholarships) have been involved in multiple violent incidents including an armed robbery (a four-man job resulting in a recent offseason arrests record) and an altercation that led to lives lost (the shooter was not an Auburn player, it should be noted).
Earlier, the Tigers dismissed superstar running back Michael Dyer and parted ways with troubled freshman QB Zeke Pike, who subsequently transferred to Louisville. Freshman running back Jovon Robinson had to be let go after it was revealed that his transcripts were forged, though Auburn has not been officially connected to the altered transcripts.
Perhaps more than any other school, Auburn pitches safety and family. The Tigers sit in living rooms in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Atlanta and throughout the South and tell the mothers of recruits that their sons will be safe in "The Loveliest Village On The Plains." Auburn is pitched as a place where a player with a rough upbringing can get a fresh start and get away from all the trouble. And it works very well.
But how long can Auburn sell that image when it has had more public violent incidents than any team in the SEC since winning the national title in January 2011? Is Auburn in danger of losing one of its most effective recruiting pitches?
Despite statements from coaches to the contrary, negative recruiting goes on. And it's probably worse in the SEC, where the stakes are higher, than in any other conference.
Scarbinsky asks if Auburn is having to take too many chances on recruits of questionable character in order to secure athletic talent and compete with Alabama, whom it is implied does not have to take as many recruits of questionable character thanks to program prestige.
In addition to having considerably more tradition and being more popular than the Tigers, Alabama is 36-4 under Saban during Auburn's 30-10 Chizik era. Both are very good records, but even during one of the best periods in Auburn's history, Alabama's is better.
The image problem doesn't seem to be hurting Auburn much on the trail just yet, as the Tigers currently have a consensus top-10 class. But two of the best recruits in the class are young men who have made as much news off the field for behavioral issues as they have on the field.
In July, defensive end Carl Lawson was booted from Nike's 'The Opening' camp for multiple violations of camp rules and displaying a terrible attitude.
While Lawson's actions weren't criminal, Dee Liner's likely were, as Scarbinsky notes:
Auburn five-star defensive line commitment Dee Liner gets arrested twice in 10 days in July, once for an altercation with a police officer that had pulled over his mother and the second time for criminal trespassing for jumping a fence at a public pool. In August, Liner is suspended indefinitely by his Muscle Shoals High School team after walking out of practice.
Is Liner guaranteed to cause trouble at Auburn? Certainly not. His actions are not those of a hardened criminal, though the attitude problems displayed by Lawson and him are troubling.
Even former Auburn coach and athletic director Pat Dye acknowledged Monday that the Tigers may be recruiting questionable characters.
Dye on AU suspensions,'We've had our share of problems, for whatever reason -- has to do with us recruiting questionable persons.'— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) August 27, 2012
Auburn definitely needs to distance itself from this image problem. And to do that, it will first need its players to stop getting into situations that end in gunplay and testifying as a witness in court.
After that, it can stress to recruits and their families that the perpetrator of the worst recent incident was not connected to Auburn in any way, and that all schools sometimes have trouble with violence. The Tigers could also encourage parents and recruits to look at a larger period of time in which Auburn has been a much safer place than it has over the last two years.
If it doesn't get out in front of the image problem, other schools throughout the Southeast will exploit it to chip away at the nice recruiting class the Tigers have built. That'll be especially true if the Tigers lose five or more games for the third time in four seasons, as they are currently projected to do by the boys out in Vegas.
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