Jay G. Tate/AuburnSports.com
AUBURN | The football team may be struggling and the softball team may be withering in the face of internal strife, but athletic director Jay Jacobs remains the hottest topic at Auburn these days.
That's a bad thing — for him and for Auburn.
See, Jacobs inherently is divisive despite his generally affable personality and inoffensive approach toward his job. He's a relic of Auburn yesteryear. He represents the final, high-profile link to Auburn's operational paradigm prior to the Southeastern Conference arms race that began in earnest during the 2000s and kicked into overdrive with the advent of the SEC Network.
Jacobs has a background in fundraising. The contemporary world of college athletics now is full of bean counters, financial analysts, marketers. It's all about making money and turning the brand into something bigger than it was yesterday.
Jacobs is not that guy. He's never been that guy. And it's becoming apparent that he's not the person Auburn supporters, specifically a growing segment of affluent and influential folks, want to have as their athletics figurehead. Does their opinion matter? Some will say the only opinion that truly matters is the one held by newly hired president Steven Leath, who has kept an exceedingly low profile when it comes to involvement with athletics. We don't know what he thinks.
He wants it that way — for now.
Some will argue, however, that the best barometer of athletic opinion comes from those tried-and-true influencers. We're talking about people with money and Auburn degrees and decades of level-headed involvement.
Jacobs' popularity among those people never has been lower than it is today. The softball situation, and Jacobs' lack of truthfulness when asked about it six months ago, bothers some. The football team's struggles bother some people. The piecemeal upgrades at Jordan-Hare Stadium, specifically Jacobs' belief that garish videoboards represent anything more than Band-Aids on a decaying stadium, bother some.
The Sonny Golloway hire and messy termination two years later bothers some. The unusually large buyouts offered (and paid) to former coaches Gene Chizik and Tony Barbee bothers some people.
Stories that ran in the Montgomery Advertiser and The Wall Street Journal back in 2015 regarding ticket distribution, specifically if Jacobs bypassed protocol to help his associates score better tickets, bother some.
Jacobs denied those suggestions and ultimately the story dissipated.
Still, the list of grievances is lengthy. His ability to appeal to Auburn's core supporters, to have those people believe in him and believe in what he wants to do with the athletics enterprise, is weakening. Any athletic director's popularity waxes and wanes through the years; that's the way things go when your job is judged on wins and losses. What's happening now, however, feels much more like a permanent, long-term shift of opinion.
A university employee mocked me Saturday upon my suggestion that Jacobs may no longer be seaworthy, so to speak, as athletic director. She laughed. I asked why.
"Who's going to fire him?"
The answer to that question must come from the president's office. And we currently have no idea what Leath thinks of Jacobs. Or of the department as a whole.
Jacobs has to feel all these judgmental eyes gazing upon him. His lack of popularity is easy to sense, to feel. Surely that stings a man who spent 15 years interfacing with high-value supporters while at Tigers Unlimited and another 13 years as athletic director. He has to know.
Jacobs loves Auburn. His loyalty never has been in doubt.
At this point, however, his popular support may have fallen below critical mass. And if that's the case, the only true solution is a new athletic director who can inspire new confidence, new energy, new ideas about how Auburn can move beyond promises of greatness and begin achieving actual greatness.
Can Jacobs be saved? Everybody likes an underdog story, but there's not much to like about Jacobs right now. Continuing to swim against a stream of negativity is intensely tiring and ultimately may result in zero forward movement.
Auburn cannot remain in neutral; the rest of the league is moving full speed ahead. Something must change — and that right soon.