- Mike Fish
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Bobby Lowder hunkers low in his black leather chair, looking seemingly detached as a recent board of trustees meeting drags into a second hour. One by one, swimmers and golfers parade before the board to be recognized for bringing homage to Auburn University.
Keeping with the jock theme, a tired looking Pat Dye, the successful former coach whose program also copped a lengthy NCAA rap sheet of ethical shortcomings, shuffles forward as a resolution is heard to name Auburn's football field after him. Before the unanimous voice vote can be called, trustee/megabooster Jimmy Rane adoringly pipes up: "Point of order, Mr. Chairman. Like to know how many times I can vote?"
Lowder breaks into a grin and joins in the belly laughter. But that's it. No ranting, no raving. Other than recommending approval of the 2006 budget, the longtime trustee and finance chairman barely utters a peep.
And this gaunt character clad in blue blazer and orange print tie is the MPB -- the Most Powerful Booster -- of college sports? Damn straight, folks.
Other big-time college boosters might give even larger sums to buy influence within their schools' athletic department. They get their names plastered on stadiums and weight rooms. They watch games from luxury suites. But no fat cat alive plays the political game to influence a campus quite like the 63-year-old Lowder (Auburn, Class of '64).
Few sit on their university's board of trustees and, if so, not as long as Lowder, who was first appointed by Gov. George Wallace in 1983. Nor has anyone filibustered, doled out campaign contributions or fought as tenaciously to hold his post.
After his first 12-year term ended in 1995, Lowder spent four years resisting efforts by former Alabama Gov. Fob James, a GOP firebrand, to move him off the state university's powerful board, even filing suit against the governor. In 1999, former Gov. Don Siegelman appointed the bank tycoon to another 12-year gig through 2011. State election records indicate Lowder personally gave at least $25,000 to Siegelman's 1998 campaign.
This past summer, when interim Auburn president Ed Richardson asked Alabama Attorney General Troy King for an advisory opinion on whether the influential booster's term expires in 2007 or 2011, King first returned a $10,000 check that Lowder had recently made to King's campaign fund before he weighed in on the matter. King subsequently determined that Lowder is entitled to serve as a trustee through 2011.
It's a love-hate relationship that binds a college and its boosters. They are often the first ones pointed to when recruiting violations surface. And the first ones called upon when facilities need an upgrade. With their money comes their two cents. Some call it influence. Others say it's meddling. ESPN.com examines the role of the college booster:
• Just do it! It's not just a Nike catch phrase, it's heady advice in dealing with billionaire philanthropist Phil Knight, who lords over his alma mater.
• Money talks: Giving $100 million to his alma mater does more than get Boone Pickens' name on OSU's football stadium, it buys him decision-making influence.
• Corporate $upport: Joe Malugen didn't graduate from Troy University, but he saw the giant-killing football team as a marketing vehicle for his company.
• Wave of support: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, Tulane's athletes have served as roving ambassadors for the storm-ravaged university.
• The high price of supply and demand: The face value of a seat at a college football game is but a fraction of its real cost, thanks to mandatory donations tied to season-ticket sales.
• A Tiger of a trustee: He might be slight of frame, but none throws his weight around like the Most Powerful Booster in college sports.
• Power Brokers: The power to pull strings isn't always decided by those with the fattest wallets in ESPN.com's top-10 list of college boosters.
• Boosters Gone Wild: Deep pockets, dirty deals and death threats make for college football's "most unhealthy rivalry."
As CEO of Colonial BancGroup, a bank holding company with $21 billion in total assets, Lowder is arguably the most powerful person in the state of Alabama, let alone on the Auburn campus. According to published reports, Lowder is paid $1.8 million in salary and, as of Oct. 31, held more than 6 million shares of CNB stock, worth approximately $145 million. Rane, another Auburn trustee, has more than $2.4 million worth of the company's stock.
Lowder's fingerprints have lingered for three decades in the hiring and firing of coaches and athletic directors alike -- even university presidents. Thus, his brash micromanagement of his alma mater is as renowned as it is reviled.
When Tommy Tuberville was lured away from Mississippi before the 1999 season, Auburn was still paying off four ex-football coaches -- head coaches Pat Dye and Terry Bowden, along with defensive coordinators Wayne Hall and "Brother" Bill Oliver. The price tag approached $2.5 million.
Oliver reached a $210,000 settlement after filing suit accusing Lowder and then-athletic director David Housel of reneging on a promise to name Oliver as Bowden's replacement. Oliver said Lowder first broached the prospect two seasons before Bowden was forced out, adding, "I felt like an old whore."
Kenneth Ingram, who represented Oliver, called Lowder a man "who has anointed himself a monarch over this, what he considers to be his kingdom." The attorney attended Auburn and held tickets to a football skybox.
Bowden, now ABC's college football studio analyst, credits Lowder for his hiring and eventual firing, as well as alleging that Lowder was involved in a deep rooted, pay-for-play scheme in place when Bowden was hired almost a decade ago. (ABC and ESPN are part of The Walt Disney Co.)
Wanting to have a public record in case anything happened to him, Bowden agreed to a lengthy tape-recorded interview with Paul Davis of the Opelika-Auburn News in 2001. In transcripts reviewed by ESPN.com, Bowden said he was so stressed about Lowder during his last year at Auburn that he told Davis, "I'm having my house checked for bugs."
Bowden also said it was Lowder who convinced Dye to resign at the end of the 1992 season, fearing ex-player Eric Ramsey's allegations of pay-for-play at Auburn might expose the larger scheme and result in stricter NCAA sanctions. As his Auburn tenure drew to a close, Bowden said Housel acknowledged that Lowder was the source of a newspaper story indicating the trustees had lost confidence in him.
"Housel said, 'Lowder wanted you to know he doesn't care if you win five of your next six [games], you're out,' " Bowden told Davis. "David said the only way I would keep my job was if Fob James wins [the governor's race against Siegelman]."
Bowden refused to be interviewed for this story, citing a confidentiality agreement he signed as part of a contract settlement that forbids him from making "negative or derogatory" comments "toward Auburn, the Auburn athletic department or its employees, or the Auburn Board of Trustees, or each other." By keeping quiet, Bowden protected a $620,000 payment, as well as an $825,000 lakeside home and two cars.
"Do you know of any other coaches in America who had to sign a contract saying you couldn't say what happened when you were there?" asked Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, a former Auburn assistant under his brother and also Dye.
Just two years ago, Lowder's prints were on the infamous tarmac caper that nearly saw Tuberville canned in favor of Bobby Petrino. Then-president William Walker, Housel and two trustees -- Byron Franklin, a former Tiger receiver, and Earlon McWhorter -- flew on Lowder's corporate jet to secretly meet with the Louisville coach.
Not long after the failed coup, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the regional accrediting agency, placed the university on probation. The agency cited the micromanagement by Lowder and the board of trustees, saying Auburn failed to prove that the university president has "ultimate control over the athletics program" as well as failing to prove that the board isn't controlled by "a minority of board members."
SACS advised Auburn just last month that it is now in full compliance, which came after Gov. Bob Riley appointed several new trustees. Even so, it was a huge embarrassment in the academic world for the university to have had its accreditation challenged.
Auburn's administration, backed by its trustees, initially acted as though there was something to hide as it filed a federal suit to block the accreditation body's fact finders from venturing on campus. An agreement was ultimately reached to send in an independent investigator, and his findings supported the concerns about Lowder's influence over board members.
"It was fairly obvious that there were a number of people on the board [of trustees] who have direct connections with Mr. Lowder," explained James Rogers, who retired last July as SACS executive director. "I mean like having borrowed money from his banks, being on one of his bank boards, being his personal attorney, or other examples that I think represented to us some direct conflict of interest in terms of their independence on voting issues."
Lowder declined comment for this story, saying only, "I won't speak to the media about anything."
Those sympathetic to Lowder say he's a misunderstood do-gooder, even among Auburn people. That he's not a Mafia-like, manipulative figure. And that his support of all things Auburn is unparalleled.
In the wake of the bungled coaching change, Lowder donated $4.2 million, the largest single gift made to Auburn athletics, to finance a student-athlete tutorial center. Ed Richardson, the university's interim president, says Lowder has given at least $20 million over the years. Lowder contributed an unspecified amount toward the construction of the business school that bears the name of his parents, though Richardson said Auburn requires a minimum of $10 million for naming rights.
According to the 2004 federal tax documents filed by the Robert and Charlotte Lowder Foundation, a grant of $600,000 -- more than a third of all moneys issued during the year -- went to Tigers Unlimited, the fund-raising arm of Auburn's athletic department. A $30,000 grant was written to Chette Williams Ministries Inc., a nonprofit charity operated by the Tigers' team chaplain.
Jay Jacobs, the new AD who previously headed Tigers Unlimited, said of his dealings with Lowder: "I don't have any whatsoever."
Asked how much influence Lowder enjoys over the athletic department, Richardson said: "None to speak of."
Others who've worked with Lowder paint a different picture. His obsessive meddling is legendary around the administrative and athletic department corridors. But even in the past, his modus operandi has been to operate behind closed doors, often working through other board members or intermediaries.
"I got word indirectly from people about what Bobby Lowder expected or what Bobby Lowder wanted," a former Auburn athletic official told ESPN.com. "I never talked to him. I don't think he gets his hands dirty."
William Muse, who resigned the Auburn presidency in 2001, recalls sitting through board meetings in which Lowder hardly said a word. He, too, said Lowder is rarely the front person. Typically, his influence was exerted before meetings in individual discussions with board members, who would later present motions or make recommendations. He not only impacted personnel moves, but day-to-day decisions like ticket pricing and scheduling.
Muse, who frequently butted heads with Lowder, said Lowder rarely contacted him about matters he wanted to influence. Rather, Lowder would go directly to the athletic director, then Auburn lifer Housel, or deputize another board member to seek out the AD.
"Well, Mr. Lowder obviously is extremely influential in anything that happens in athletics at Auburn," said Muse, who retired to Ohio after a stint as chancellor of East Carolina University. "He would be different from the typical booster, in that he is a trustee of the institution and therefore in a position to have considerable influence over and above any financial contributions he might make. I don't recall any case of a booster having influence in the decision-making process at Auburn, but obviously the trustees could because the ultimate decision that the president and athletic director made had to be approved by the full board.
"That is the thing that differentiates him from any other booster at Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, wherever it might be, is the fact that he is a member of the governing board of the institution. He is one of only 12 people to eventually vote to approve or disapprove decisions that are made. The difficulty arises when one particular trustee's influence extends to represent and control of a majority of the board because of relationships they have or whatever reason. In that case, the control is almost unlimited."
See, being the most influential booster isn't just about forking over big bucks, which Lowder has graciously done. Lots of rich guys pay to have the family name grace a stadium or arena. Some others also have a say in the hiring and firing of coaches. A few sit on boards of trustees. And, in rare cases, a booster or two has been known to run amock of NCAA rules.
But having a role in the school's probation with its academic accreditation group, risking its academic credibility? Now that's a feat hard to top. And further proof that the manipulative Auburn Tiger is the most hands-on alumnus in college sports.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bobby Lowder might be slight of frame, but no booster throws his weight around college sports quite like the Auburn ubertrustee.