- Tom Luginbill, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- New Auburn coach Gene Chizik knows what he's up against. He knows that the SEC is arguably the toughest conference in college football. He knows that as tough as it is on the field, that it isn't any easier on the recruiting trail going against Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama and the rest of the conference.
"Those guys aren't going away, so we better find a way to compete," Chizik said.
Auburn won 85 games over the last 10 years, but just five last season. The only constant in the coaching profession is change and when the Tigers stumbled last year, it led to Chizik being brought in to replace Tommy Tuberville. He put together a staff that has brought a new energy to The Plains and has not been afraid to get creative, innovative and edgy to set itself apart from the pack and make an impression on recruits.
That's important because in the SEC, everyone plays on national television regularly. And everyone has the big practice facilities, the players' lounges, the academics and every other resource to offer. Recruiting tools that 15 years ago were exclusive to a few are now part of the mainstream college football landscape. So you have to find a way to make your program stand out.
This is clearly something Chizik is not afraid to do. He hired a staff of proven, successful recruiters who have been asked to think outside of the box and come up with ways to make a splash. Guys like Curtis Luper and Trooper Taylor seem to be leading the charge on the staff. They invented the Tiger Prowl -- a recruiting caravan of limousines covered with the Tigers' logo and filled with coaches scouring the state of Alabama to make a statement during the spring evaluation period. It was a calculated, bold move aimed to not only get the attention of prospective recruits within the state, but to get fans, media, prospects and, most importantly, rival coaches talking. It worked.
Chizik and Auburn followed that up with last weekend's Big Cat unofficial visitors weekend, which from a pure numbers standpoint was a success. This was the first of what Auburn hopes to develop into a spring tradition under Chizik. Top prospects like RBs Lache Seastrunk and Marcus Lattimore, LBs Khairi Fortt and Ladarious Owens and WR Trovon Reed and CB Ryan Ayers, among many others, is an indication that not only are the Tigers on the right track in terms of personnel, but their recruiting tactics seem to be resonating among prospective student athletes. If a prospect makes his way from Texas or Connecticut for an unofficial visit to Auburn or any other program on his own dime, that is obviously a positive for a program trying to reinvent itself.
The question is will it pay off? Time will tell. This is why recruiting is a marathon and not a sprint. A positive impression seems to have been made, but can it stand the test of time? Most, if not all of these players will take other unofficial and official visits to programs throughout the summer and fall. While they would come make another visit to Auburn down the road, they will hear overtures from other top programs.
From the timing of the Big Cat weekend, it is clear that the intent was to educate those in attendance about more than just X's and O's. This was about Auburn's philosophy, it's new mission and designed to accentuate the strengths and traits unique to this program. This weekend was held at a time when there was no spring practice to attend on campus, no football camps taking place and the emphasis could be on Auburn traditions, academics and building relationships with players, parents and coaches. This is clearly the foundation of this new regime's blueprint.
Creating an environment of family, trust and competition was a big point of emphasis. The prospects were placed into groups throughout their stay, paired with others they likely did not know beforehand. They battled against each other throughout the day in an attempt to develop a competitive atmosphere and make a lasting impression.
It is clear that this is a new Auburn recruiting philosophy not only in terms of what type of player the Tigers pursue and how they recruit him. In the past, one thing Auburn always did a fine job of was recruiting and developing prospects who did not receive a ton of attention coming out, but were good players who developed into great players at times due to coaching and teaching. Tuberville and his staff deserve a lot of credit for that. However, it also appeared at times that maybe Auburn undervalued its ability to go out and compete with anyone in the conference for the top players who could come in and make an impact early for the program.
At least in the early going, Chizik's new approach seems to be on the opposite end of that spectrum. Regardless of location or skill level, if any one of his assistants can convince him that the Tigers have a shot at a player outside of their immediate recruiting pool, then they are going to take a shot at him. Chizik feels Auburn can compete for premier players and seem to be in on many of them already. Again, time will tell if Auburn can close the deal, but it is not going to back down from anybody.
It's seems simplistic to say that the key for Auburn to have success once again on the field starts by getting better players, but it is that simple. The tough part is recruiting them to come to Auburn. For Chizik and his staff, unorthodox methods and creative thinking are a step in the right direction with the Tiger Prowl and Big Cat Weekend. These events and the exposure are making an impression on the recruiting trail.
Right now for Auburn, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by attempting new strategies. There is no magic wand to wave and no quick fixes. A fresh start and an innovative plan have started things off on the right foot, but what happens the first Wednesday each February every year on national signing day will ultimately determine how high and how quickly this program can elevate. The competition is fierce and the team that matters most located due northwest in Tuscaloosa currently has the upper hand. But Chizik and Auburn have proven they are ready for the fight.
So keep an eye out for the next splash this program makes in the coming months. When, where and how is anybody's guess, but one thing is for sure -- Chizik and his staff are charging full speed ahead.
Tom Luginbill is the National Recruiting Director for ESPN's Scouts Inc.