AUBURN, Ala.— Auburn’s Tony Barbee doesn’t hesitate when asked about the significance of becoming the school’s first Black head basketball coach.
After all, it’s not his first time breaking the color barrier.
“Absolutely there is. Very similar to the significance of me being the first African-American coach at UTEP, with the Glory Road tradition and the background,” Barbee said, referring to the Texas Western (now UTEP) team that broke a color barrier by winning a national title in 1966 with five Black starters.
“And it’s very similar here. And I’m very honored and privileged and humbled to be the first African-American coach here at Auburn. And I know what it means to this community, but at the end of the day, this is about the success we’re going to have in this community on the court and in the classroom.”
Athletic director Jay Jacobs said after Barbee was introduced Thursday evening that race had nothing to do with the hire.
“My objective was to hire the best coach for Auburn,” Jacobs said.
But he and Auburn drew ire from some – including famous hoops alum Charles Barkley – 15 months ago after hiring Gene Chizik, a White man, over Turner Gill, who is Black.
Shortly after that, Alabama made Anthony Grant the school’s first Black head men’s basketball coach. The Crimson Tide had also taken heat a few years earlier for hiring Mike Shula, who is White, over the similarly credentialed Sylvester Croom, who is Black.
While Jacobs said race wasn’t a factor in the hiring of either Barbee or Chizik, what Barbee’s hiring represents isn’t lost on Jacobs.
“I don’t see color,” Jacobs said. “I look at it as if I was the dad – who I would want leading my three girls. It’s significant that Auburn University does have an African-American head coach. As far as anything else I think it’s significant and great for this state and this institution, but I was out to pick the right guy.
“That’s what we did.”
Barbee has impressive credentials as a Memphis assistant and a four-year head coach at UTEP, where he led the Miners to the Conference USA regular-season title and NCAA tournament appearance this past season.
Grant had a similarly strong resume after working under Florida’s Billy Donovan and taking VCU to the tournament twice in three seasons.
At Auburn, Barkley said after Chizik was hired that he believed race was a factor in the choice. He also told The Associated Press at the time that he was kicked off Auburn’s search committee five years earlier after publicly questioning Auburn’s willingness to hire a Black coach.
He pitched Black candidates Mike Davis, Mike Anderson and Jeff Capel. The university hired Jeff Lebo, who is White.
Barkley, who declined comment Friday, had a consulting role in this search.
“I talked to Charles a few times,” Jacobs said. “I talked to him before the process, actually as soon as we made the change here. I talked to him during the process and talked to him (Wednesday) night. Charles knows a lot of basketball people and he was most helpful in finding out things about people he may not know and giving us an honest assessment of the people he did know. He was most helpful.”