Facing ‘unequal playing field’ a big challenge for Auburn’s athletics


Editor’s Note: This is the final article in a three-part series featuring Ralph Spry, who is the longest-serving intercollegiate head coach in NCAA competition currently working at Auburn University. and the second UA coach to lead a team to an NCAA championship. Spry announced his retirement after the current season, which ends in June at the national meet in Oregon.

AUBURN, Alabama–Dealing with an issue that has been familiar to baseball and swim coaches at Auburn over the years, UA men’s track and field teams must work around not having as many options for boarding athletes that many of their SEC rivals benefit from.

Other teams have been able to attract prospects through lottery-based scholarships and other academic scholarships to compete on their teams, an option the Tigers do not have. This means the men’s team has a total of just 12.6 field team scholarships for the cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field seasons. The Tigers are currently preparing for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships where there are 21 events for men and 21 for women.

The scholarship situation is better for Spry and her coaching staff for the women’s roster with 18 scholarships allowed.

One year, the Georgia baseball team actually had more pitchers on its roster than Auburn had players due to the possibility of offering college scholarships beyond the baseball cap of 11.7. . With the SEC limiting the size of active rosters for league games, it took away some of the advantage in baseball, but there is no such restriction for SEC track teams.

When asked if track and field teams still struggle with the scholarship issue like AU baseball does, Spry said, “Absolutely, and it’s something I’ve been talking about for years and it’s almost like I whine when I talk about it now, but it’s really a fact. The track is not an even playing field. The thing we can’t control is the lottery with the list limits we have.

During his 25 years as head coach of both the men’s and women’s teams at Auburn, those teams had more success in national meets than in conference championships. It is by design. Spry explains why.

“With 12.6 purses for 21 events, you can’t necessarily cover all the events, but if you do, you might have the quantity, but not the quality, so you kind of have to pick your poison to decide where you go put your energy in,” he said of forming a men’s team. “Some teams will go after the runners or the pitchers. Most SEC members go after sprinters.

“Georgia has Hope Scholarships, Florida has Bright Futures, Louisiana has Legacy Scholarships, and other states have scholarship programs as well,” he pointed out. “Alabama has nothing like it.

“If there’s a top athlete in Georgia with a 3.0 GPA, you get tuition, fees, and books (at UGA). Georgia can offer these athletes a full scholarship while they already receive tuition, fees, and books if they stay in the state. Georgia can keep that 60-70% lottery-paid tuition grant and they can use that money to pick up another child.

“You can create depth by doing that,” Spry noted. “If the same athlete is in the state of Alabama, that kid is going to cost us a full scholarship to get him to Auburn and we’re done with that money.

“It makes it more difficult because you can’t get the depth you need and because there are no limits on the size of the lists. That’s why we’re always a better national team because at SEC you have to have quality and quantity, but at the national level it’s really about quality, the top eight scorers in each event.

With a focus on quality over quantity, Auburn teams under Spry have consistently finished in the Top 25 in outdoor national meets, something both women’s and men’s teams try to do in the meet. of this year which is scheduled for June 8-11 in Eugene, Oregon. . More than 250 universities field Division I athletic teams.

Auburn’s women have won a national championship under Spry as their coach, and the best men’s finish is second, which the Tigers have done twice under his guidance. A total of 27 track and field athletes from Auburn have competed one or more times in the Olympics on Spry teams.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey (left) talks to Spry during the 2022 League Championship game at Ole Miss.

“We’ve had good SEC teams in the past, but if I was looking for an SEC-only team, we could be strong but would still be challenged to win the conference due to the challenges of not having a level playing field,” Spry said. “If you do that, you run the risk of not being talented enough to compete at the national level.”

Spry said what he and his coaches have emphasized over the years is the overall college experience available on the Plains. “I say to rookies and our athletes, if you come to Auburn and run fast and graduate, I think you’ve really missed it because a lot of the experience is about the people you meet. and the relationships you build during a four-year or five-year window as college students.

“We expect them to perform well because of the resources you have as an SEC athlete and we expect them to graduate as well, for the same reasons, but it’s about the people you encounter,” Spry added. “During that window of four or five years, there will be people who will be in your life for the rest of your life, so it’s about building relationships that will be forever.

“It really warms my heart to see our athletes come back to see us with their families, including the children, and their smiling faces. It’s one of the most special parts of the relationship here, and not just with the athletes. It’s the coaches, the staff, the janitors, everyone you meet collectively makes it special throughout your time here.

Auburn has not announced who will be in charge of the athletics program for the 2022-23 season. Spry noted that he hopes the university gives the new head coach and staff all the tools to succeed.

“It’s an arms race in this league with budgets and facilities,” he stressed. Most of Auburn’s SEC rivals have bigger budgets and better facilities.

Having very good facilities helps in recruitment. “To succeed in the SEC, it’s about recruiting,” Spry said. “No matter what we do or where we go, it comes down to getting the best student-athletes. When the new coach comes in, they’ll have to give him a little more support to get to where he needs to be in this league, because Auburn is a great place and an easy sell in terms of recruiting. It’s a great environment. »

As Spry wraps up his quarter-century of coaching Auburn athletes, he said it’s important to thank the retired athletic director who made the decision to give the former Florida assistant coach and South Carolina a chance to run its own program in the league it knows well. . A graduate of Ole Miss, Spry was a two-time All-American and NCAA champion in the long jump, much of his life centered around SEC athletics.

“I am forever indebted to David Housel for taking a chance and hiring me in 1997,” Spry said. “It was special. He was my first boss and I still see him as a boss. When we won the national championship, I was happy for Auburn, the community and all that, but inside, I was really, really happy for David Housel because it was important for me to show that he had hired the right person. I love him to death and his Susan, his wife. He is very special to me.

Spry added that it’s also important to let people know how he feels about the university he’s been at for so long.

“I love Auburn and Auburn has made me a better person and a better man, and I realize that,” he said. “No person or coach can do more for Auburn than Auburn does for them because I know for a fact that is an impossible task because Auburn is bigger than any person or coach. . It’s the Auburn family, the Auburn spirit. That’s why I want to retire here.

“You asked me why 25, why now for retirement. It’s hard to let go of something you love, really love. In life, you tend to want to hold on to the things you really love. It’s not a natural thing to drop something you love I also know that when the smoke clears and I get out of this office and move on I’ll still be Coach Spry and I’ll be always an Auburn Tiger, and that to me is special. My heart is going to be here and I will be Auburn’s biggest fan.

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