AUBURN — The debate that broke out Wednesday morning inside the TD Ameritrade Park press box in Omaha, Neb., (and simultaneously on Twitter) was about how many Division I universities had a football coach who has led a team to a national championship game, a men’s basketball coach that has led a team to the Final Four, and a baseball coach who has led a team to the College World Series.
As it turns out, there are multiple. Georgia has Kirby Smart (took the football team to the 2018 CFP National Championship game), Tom Crean (took Marquette to the 2003 Final Four) and Scott Stricklin (took Kent State to the 2012 College World Series). North Carolina is new to the ranks, with Mack Brown (took Texas to the 2005 BCS National Championship game) joining longtime men’s basketball coach Roy Williams (six times) and baseball coach Mike Fox (seven times).
But there is only one school that has a football, men’s basketball and baseball coach who have led their team to their sport’s biggest stage during their current, active tenures — Auburn. Gus Malzahn led the football program to the BCS National Championship in 2013. Bruce Pearl led the men’s basketball program to the Final Four and Butch Thompson the baseball team to the College World Series within the past three months.
The latter two accomplishments highlight what has really been a banner 2018-19 Auburn athletics season across almost all sports.
Pearl’s men’s basketball team won the SEC Tournament for the first time since 1985, made a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since 1999-2000, and reached the Final Four for the first time in program history, where it lost by just one point to eventual national champion Virginia.
On Thursday, one of the stars of that team, Chuma Okeke, became the program’s first NBA Draft pick since 2001.
“When I got to Auburn, our basketball program, our athletes may have been recognized as athletes, but they didn’t wear a lot of Auburn basketball gear because it wasn’t — we weren’t holding up our end,” Pearl said at the Final Four in Minneapolis. “And so I’m glad now that our men’s basketball players can join the other athletes like the football team, like the softball team, like the soccer team, like the baseball team, like the equestrian national championship team, the golfers and the tennis players and guys and gals in the pool, because now, like them, we are competitive. We are champions.”
Thompson’s baseball team had a similarly sterling run through the postseason, bouncing back from a 12-21 slide to end the regular season and heartbreaking exit from the SEC Tournament by sweeping a regional at Georgia Tech and winning a super regional at North Carolina to reach the College World Series for the first time since 1997 — an accomplishment not diminished by the fact that the Tigers lost their first two games to be the second team eliminated.
Football, by comparison, did not have as strong of a showing, especially considering the lofty expectations placed on the program year in and year out. Malzahn’s first season since signing a new seven-year, $49 million contract ended with a 7-5 record, double-digit losses to both Georgia and Alabama, and — already — questions about his future as head coach.
But the Tigers did go to the Music City Bowl, where they blew out Purdue by the score of 63-14. That makes Auburn one of just 10 schools to play in an FBS bowl game and make the NCAA Tournament in both men’s basketball and baseball, along with Arizona State, Baylor, Cincinnati, Duke, Florida, LSU, Michigan, Mississippi State and Ohio State.
That’s a feat that has happened only four times before in school history. And if you add making the NCAA Tournament in both women’s basketball and softball to that criteria, the above list shrinks to just four schools — Auburn, Arizona State, Michigan and Mississippi State.
That’s a feat that had never happened at Auburn before the 2018-19 season.
And those are just the major team sports. The soccer team made the NCAA Tournament. The men’s golf team came within one match of winning a second consecutive SEC Championship and made the NCAA Championship for the eighth straight year. The women’s golf team advanced through stroke play at the NCAA Championship and upset top-seed Texas to reach the national semifinals.
The gymnastics team produced an individual national champion in the vault from freshman Derrian Gobourne, and the track and field team nearly did the same when Kylee Carter finished second in the javelin. The powerhouse equestrian program capped its first-ever perfect season with a second straight national championship and fifth since 2011.
Of course, no year is perfect. Malzahn really did come under fire in December. Mickey Dean’s softball program has been hit hard by transfers after a second disappointing finish in the regional round, including by star pitcher Chardonnay Harris and shortstop Taylon Snow. The volleyball and men’s and women’s tennis teams each missed the NCAA Tournament, and the latter had to make a head coaching change after Lauren Spencer resigned after eight seasons.
But, given that Auburn won two national championships and sent the men’s basketball team to the Final Four and the baseball team to the College World Series, the positives seem to far outweigh the negatives for what fans have dubbed an “everything school.”
“I was talking to some of our donors and fans, and it’s an exciting burden to have to travel to all these different places and try to figure out how you’re going to get from one city to the other and interrupt vacations,” athletics director Allen Greene said following the baseball team’s exit from Omaha on Wednesday. “It’s been incredibly memorable, and the reason why it’s been memorable is because I’ve gotten a chance to know our student-athletes and our coaches, and when you see how much work they put in to their craft, it just fills you with joy to see them be successful.”