Flat Out Good Unranked in the preseason, Auburn is a stunning 25-1 thanks to a former ostrich farmer and his rare flock

March 01, 1999

Considering that Auburn hasn't so much as dipped a big toe in
NCAA tournament waters since 1988, the sign outside the 4
Seasons Cleaners at the corner of Gay Street and Thach Avenue
would seem to indicate that the proprietors have inhaled the
fumes of a few too many dry-cleaning solvents. AUBURN BASKETBALL
CAPITAL OF THE SOUTH, it reads, in a takeoff on the famous sign
at Birmingham's Legion Field proclaiming that hallowed ground as
the football capital of the South. Except for the small fact
that Duke is also located below the Mason-Dixon Line, the sign,
at least as it relates to the current state of college hoops, is
not all that ridiculous. Yes, Auburn, a team led by the only
basketball coach in the land who has raised ostriches, shared a
stage with Roy Orbison and backed Etta James on tambourine; a
team that starts an Opie Taylor look-alike at shooting guard; a
team that hadn't quickened the pulse of a hoops fan since
Charles Barkley departed for the NBA in 1984, will almost
certainly be a No. 1 seed in the coming NCAA tournament and has
a chance of winning the national title. "This is a Cinderella
story if there's ever been a Cinderella story," says the
aforementioned coach, Cliff Ellis.

The erstwhile ostrich farmer doesn't have his head in the sand
when he says that. (For the record, Ellis says that ostriches
stick their bills in the sand to rearrange their nesting eggs,
not out of fear.) Even if one considers preseason rankings to be
just so much birdcage lining, the Tigers' leapfrog from a
position somewhere out of everyone's Top 25 to No. 2 in this
week's AP poll is extraordinary. The wonderful thing about
Auburn's dominance (a 25-1 record and 23.1-point average victory
margin, second only to Duke's 25.5 at week's end) is that no one
is able to explain exactly how it is happening. The Tigers came
roaring out of the gate and simply started rolling over
everyone. A 90-62 victory over Tennessee on Jan. 2 was the first
indication that Auburn was for real. An 83-66 rout of Arkansas
four days later confirmed it. The Tigers' lone loss going into
Wednesday's game at Arkansas says as much about their season as
anything: Despite the fact that at least three players,
including floor general Doc Robinson, were weakened by the flu,
Auburn fell to Kentucky at Rupp Arena by only 72-62. The Tigers
immediately resumed their winning ways, including a 102-61
dismantling of Alabama during which they led by as many as 40
points in the first half. Ellis says he's through with raising
what he calls "the flightless bird"--he sold the last of his
eight ostriches three years ago--but he's coaching some
high-flying birds now. "It seems this team is men playing boys,"
says wide-body reserve forward Adrian Chilliest, nicknamed, as
you might expect, Big Chill.

There are several reasons Auburn slipped through the preseason
cracks. Prognosticators underestimated the impact that juco
transfer Chris Porter, who pleases crowds with rim-rattling
dunks and teases them with his coiffures--Yo, CP: Afro or braids
tonight?--would have on the Tigers' lineup. They didn't realize
that Robinson is a point guard in the Andre Miller-Jason Terry
class. Certainly they weren't wowed by Scott Pohlman, the 6'1",
155-pound sophomore shooting guard who looks as if he should be
carrying the team's projector and whom Ellis compares to the
first son of Mayberry. "Whatever it was, we're here now," says
Ellis. "You might call it luck or whatever for five or six
games. But this is 26 games!"

Generally it's a team's coach who conducts the
we-haven't-proved-anything-yet chorus. Not Ellis. After Auburn
clinched at least a share of the SEC title--its first since 1960
and only its second in 67 years--with an 81-63 win over
Vanderbilt on Feb. 17, there was Ellis, running over to salute
the rabid student section, nicknamed the Cliff Dwellers, and get
himself in the middle of a mad, net-snipping,
let's-cancel-classes-tomorrow! celebration in
Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum. Bo Jackson, who says he went to
only three basketball games in his four years at Auburn, had
flown in from Chicago for the event. Oh, yeah, the governor of
Alabama, Don Siegelman, was there too.

It's easy to get caught up in the giddiness that's sweeping
through the Loveliest Village of the Plain--a description from
an Oliver Goldsmith poem, The Deserted Village, that gave the
town of Auburn its name--even though certain aspects of Auburn's
profile suggest a team that could pull an early sayonara in the
NCAAs. The Tigers are young, with only one senior starter,
pogo-stick defensive specialist Bryant Smith. Though they showed
the moxie to roar back from a 19-point deficit with 10 minutes
left to win 73-70 at LSU on Jan. 9, they've won so many games so
easily that they might panic in a close game with some first- or
second-round nobody. While Robinson provides a steady hand, his
team likes to boogie, and many tournament games turn into minuets.

Still, Auburn has come very far very fast. Its calling cards are
defensive intensity and offensive rebounding, both fueled by
solid depth. It achieves the former with an interesting 1-3-1
zone press that features Porter at the front, waving his hands
maniacally at the inbounds passer. The Tigers try to get a trap
below the free throw line, but if they don't, rather than try to
trap again, they beat feet back and set up in a ferocious
man-to-man. "A lot of teams press just to get a steal and get
beat when they don't," says Pohlman. "Our philosophy is to wear
down the other team with pressure." The offensive rebounding is
keyed by the athleticism of Porter (3.8 offensive boards a game
through Sunday) and Smith (3.2). Smith is usually good for a
weakside putback jam per game, but Porter is already in the SEC
dunking hall of fame. During an 80-54 rout of LSU at
Beard-Eaves-Memorial on Feb. 6, Porter was trailing on a fast
break when Smith's jumper from the left baseline clanked off the
rim and bounced toward the foul line. Porter leaped, caught the
ball in his right hand, yanked it back over his right shoulder
and threw it down with colossal force. "That's what they get for
not boxing me out," he says.

Porter and Robinson, both juniors, have been so good that they
each deserve consideration for SEC player of the year honors.
Robinson's father, Randolph, was a standout shooting guard for
Selma (Ala.) High. When his son was born a few months after
Selma won the state championship in 1977, Randolph named him
Julius for you-know- who; as soon as the son started playing
basketball, he picked up the nickname Doc, and no one calls him
anything else. The 6'2" Robinson is the perfect point guard for
these Tigers. He's content to run the break and calm the offense
until he sees that Auburn needs a spark. Then he might grab a
defensive rebound, dribble suddenly into a higher gear and throw
down a one-handed slam, as he did in the first half against
Vanderbilt last week.

If Robinson is the glue, Porter--CP to the Cliff Dwellers, who
love him--is the glitz. One play from that game with Vandy
illustrates what he can do. Running into the paint on a fast
break, Porter reached for a pass from Robinson, ill-advised in
that it was made into heavy traffic. Porter caught it, took one
power dribble, exploded to the basket with two Commodores
hanging on his arm, banked in a layup and drew a foul that he
turned into a three-point play. Now, the average player probably
never would have caught the pass, would have been called for
traveling if he had or been stripped of the ball if he avoided
walking. He wouldn't have had the strength to get off an
accurate shot in any case.

Porter was born and raised in Abbeville, Ala., a small town
about 100 miles south of Auburn. He was such a Barkley fan that
he committed early to the Tigers, but he fell one point short of
a qualifying ACT score. "I'm man enough to admit that I cried
when I saw that score," says Porter. And man enough to take his
medicine and attend Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla.,
where he averaged 24.4 points and 11.8 rebounds last season.
Despite entreaties from such schools as Arizona and Indiana,
Porter stayed loyal to Auburn after finishing junior college,
and now Ellis hopes he will hang around for his senior season.
Porter insists he will resist the call of the NBA, and he seems
to be a young man who knows his mind. After a couple of mediocre
games in braids, he made a key decision: "I'm going to stay with
the 'fro." Good choice, CP.

Pohlman, for his part, will stay with the mop top that has made
him a hero to a student section at the Coliseum that specializes
in Polhmania. The students in this section hold up cardboard
cutouts of Pohlman's farm-boy visage, plaster their bodies with
his jersey number (10) and hold up a pole with a sign that says
SCOTTY'S CORNER. "I can't help myself," says Pohlman, who is
from Roswell, Ga. "Sometimes I find myself looking up there."
Pohlman thinks that too much is made of his size and
grade-school looks, but in truth, few 19-year-olds at any
college look less like a player, let alone a starter at a
powerhouse.

The rock-and-roller who put this all together wasn't Auburn's
first choice as the replacement for Tommy Joe Eagles, who
resigned in 1994 after his third losing season in four years.
The Tigers wanted a young man with enthusiasm and courted
35-year-old Duke assistant Mike Brey. When that didn't work out,
Auburn went after a not-so-young man with enthusiasm, the then
48-year-old Ellis, who had built a successful program out of
almost nothing at South Alabama and, more impressively, had won
the 1990 ACC regular season championship at Clemson. Ellis sold
Auburn basketball not only to blue-chip recruits like Robinson
but also to the students, by working the crowd in the quad,
lobbying the sororities and fraternities to change their meeting
nights so as not to conflict with games, getting baseline
seating for the students to energize the crowd, encouraging the
formation of the student cheering section. "You've got to shake
every hand, hug every baby, work the ladies and children," says
Ellis. "I guess the good Lord gave me some instincts for
building things."

Ellis built a music career during his college years at Florida
State out of a good voice and a lot of salesmanship. From 1964
to '68 he was the lead singer for a five-man doo-wop group known
as the Villagers. The group recorded four singles and played a
lot of gigs, and along the way Ellis got to meet performers like
Orbison, Delbert McClinton, Charlie Rich and James, who gave him
a bit percussion part on her legendary hit Tell Mama. Ellis gave
up music for a number of years until an old fan of the Villagers
encouraged him to go back into the studio while he was at
Clemson. He subsequently released two CDs, one of which included
a version of Amazing Grace dedicated to former N.C. State coach
Jim Valvano, a close friend of Ellis's.

Ellis whiles away most postgame nights pushing the buttons on a
classic jukebox that occupies an honored spot in his rec room,
near an end table made from part of the floor at Clemson's
Littlejohn Coliseum. But he says his voice is rusty from lack of
practice. In fact, the best crooner on the Auburn team is Abe
Smith, a freshman forward, who performed the national anthem
before the Vanderbilt game in a rich baritone and who sings each
Sunday in church. Should the Tigers make it to the Final Four,
we smell a duet coming on.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO CHARGE! Porter has carried Auburn to a No. 2 ranking by scoring, rebounding and keying a harassing defense. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO OPIE AND DOC The guard play is in good hands with Pohlman, who has an eye for the basket and his own cheering section, and Robinson, who operates with flair.

"This is a Cinderella story if there's ever been a Cinderella
story," says Tigers coach Ellis.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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