Hey, Auburn fans! Now you’ve really got something to cheer about.

Not Cheez-It, at least not yet. Nothing to do with football. And definitely not men’s basketball.

But women’s basketball — yes, I said women’s basketball — is suddenly the darling of Auburn Nation.

And believe it or not, the nation is noticing. On Sunday, more than 12,000 fans packed out Beard-Eaves Coliseum, the largest crowd since the arena was monkeyed around with in the mid 1990s, to see the undefeated and sixth-ranked Tigers whip No. 10 Tennessee, traditionally the gold standard of the sport with eight NCAA championships to its name.

Who woulda thunk it?

Not too many people. Especially not too many over in the football complex. I wonder if War Eagle grand poobah Bobby Lowder even knows who coach Nell Fortner is. Here’s a hint, Bobby: She coached the 2000 United States Olympic team to a gold medal, and had a coaching stint with the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.

(Don’t feel bad, Bobby. I had to look it up, too.)

But suddenly, the Tigers are atop the SEC, arguably the toughest conference in the sport. With the play of Fairfield native DeWanna Bronner and 6-foot-7 center KeKe “Aircraft” Carrier, Auburn has sprinted to a 20-0 record, and a legitimate contender for the national championship.

So should it be any surprise that sports fans in a football-crazed state like Alabama can fill an arena for women’s basketball, especially when their men’s counterparts couldn’t outdraw Gardendale High unless they were playing Kentucky?

Well, let’s look at the team the Tigers beat on Sunday.

Tennessee is arguably as nuts about football as our state, perhaps even more so now with the success of the NFL’s Titans. But Pat Summitt has started from virtually the ground up, led them to a slew of trophies, and become the winningest coach in the history of college basketball of either sex — more than John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski. She needs just two more wins to become the first college coach to reach 1,000 games won.

Thompson-Boling Arena, the mammoth home to Vols basketball, likely owes its existence more to Summitt’s success than anyone else. It’s no wonder the court is named “The Summitt,” a name sometimes unofficially applied to the arena as a whole. But her teams have done more to fill the hall than any other sports team, at least until Bruce Pearl came along to spark the men’s program.

So if Rocky Top can do it, why not War Eagle?

One season does not a dynasty make, and equating the current Tigers with the long history of the Vols is stretching credulity. But it can be done, and it has. And it can co-exist peacefully with the denizens of Jordan-Hare, at least as long as Lowder keeps his meddling hands off.

Want another example? Same sex, different sport. Look at gymnastics at Alabama. Coach Sarah Patterson has been in charge of four NCAA champion teams, and regularly fills Coleman Coliseum with fans. The school doesn’t publish average attendance figures that I can find, but I’m guessing that gymnastics meets currently draw at least as many fans as men’s hoops. Patterson even does commercial endorsements. Gymnastics as a revenue sport — my goodness.

And there’s Patterson’s longtime rival, Suzanne Yoculan at Georgia. Nine NCAA titles to her name, beating Summitt by one. Big crowds for meets at Athens, too.

So it can be done, and this Auburn team may well be the first step on a long path. Fortner has showed she can coach on the big stage, and can recruit with the best of them.

Now let’s see whether success really can breed success.



Robert Carter is the sports editor of The North Jefferson News.

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