Excited was not a word commonly used to describe the crowd inside Auburn Arena when Tony Barbee was at the helm of Auburn’s basketball program.
Save for games featuring highly-ranked opponents, lines to enter the student section never saw the length they do now, and the parking lots surrounding the arena certainly never met capacity with two and a half hours till tipoff.
That changed when a new head coach entered.
Since coach Bruce Pearl’s arrival, excitement surrounding the basketball program has reached heights fans on the Plains haven’t seen in years.
“It’s just night and day differences,” said Clint Richardson, a member of the leadership team for the Auburn student section and junior in marketing. “People are actually excited. There’s a nice atmosphere now. There were so many people last year, and the year before that just came because they had nothing else to do on a Wednesday night.”
While the team has certainly improved in short time under Pearl, the former Tennessee coach said his squad might not be deserving of the crowd support they’ve received.
“We have to keep doing something to deserve the support we are receiving,” Pearl said. “The support we are receiving is way more than we deserve based on the outcomes.”
Richardson said it’s not the crowd that deserves a good performance from the team, but the team who deserves that performance from the crowd.
“I don’t feel like they’re performing for us,” Richardson said. “We are an asset for the players themselves. It’s our job to make the Jungle and the whole Auburn Arena that people don’t want to come to.”
While opposing teams may fear a matchup inside Auburn Arena, fans certainly don’t.
At least, not anymore.
This year, for the first time since 1999, Auburn’s allotment of season tickets sold out.
Tickets for the first game of the Pearl era, an exhibition against West Alabama, also sold out before tip. Multiple other games have sold out this season as well.
Richardson said the crowd is there to help the team to victory, and over the course of the season, senior guard KT Harrell said he has noticed the change and said that it definitely adds that much more pressure onto the opposing team.
“That’s probably the loudest it’s been since I’ve been here,” Harrell said after the team’s close home win against South Carolina. “When you have that type of atmosphere, that type of crowd, it makes you feel like you can’t lose, and it makes you play that much harder.”
However, since that win over the Gamecocks, Auburn has failed to win a home game, dropping five straight at Auburn Arena, including a 79-68 loss to Alabama.
“Alabama’s fans wanted Alabama to win this game, and they wouldn’t have been happy about it if they didn’t win this game” Pearl said after the loss to Alabama. “Our fans should have the same expectations. I feel bad for the great support we have, and I’m as disappointed as anybody.”
Most Auburn fans expect things to continuously improve over the next several years under Pearl, and Richardson said he expects the same from the student section.
For that to happen, Richardson said, he and the rest of the leadership team will have to work in the offseason.
“We’re committed to contacting other student sections around the country,” Richardson said. “Just to see how they do it. How they promote it, how they get people involved and how they get their creativity up. We’re such a young student section. There’s not enough unity in the crowd, and we just to try and make it a completely different student section come next year.”