On bobbylowder.com Monday morning, the headline said it all: 1 year, 10 months and 20 days. Thats the current countdown until Bobby Lowder's term expires as a member of the Auburn Board of Trustees.
However, many believe his reign of terror, as some critics have described his 26-year tenure as an Auburn trustee, is essentially over.
Once considered the most powerful college football booster in America, Lowder may not even be the most influential trustee on the Auburn board anymore.
Much of this has do with the controversy that has followed him for years as well as his disengagement last fall to devote his entire energy trying to save Colonial Bank, which has seen its stock price crater from a high of nearly $27 two years ago to a low of 29 cents in March. Lowder owns approximately 8 million public shares. At the stocks nadir, Lowder's personal worth in the bank stock was less than what Auburn paid Tommy Tuberville to go away last December.
The stock has since rebounded slightly (at the close of the market Monday it was valued at $1.22 per share) in the wake of news that an investment group had stepped in with enough equity to allow Colonial to meet a deadline to qualify for a federal bailout. And last Thursday, Lowder, 67, announced he was stepping down as chairman and CEO of the bank he founded and built into a very respected regional powerhouse.
Regardless of whether Lowder is done as an Auburn trustee, his gargantuan footprint on the school's football program over the last quarter of a century has been remarkable. While many have blamed him for practically everything that has gone wrong, a closer and objective view would likely reveal that Lowder has been right far more times than not.
Lowder gave Pat Dye the latitude to lead Auburn out of the depths of despair and the support needed, which Dye turned into four SEC titles and four straight wins over Alabama. Lowder also made the decision to replace Dye and was the one to personally deliver the news late one night, in his Montgomery bank office.
Lowder hired Terry Bowden, someone he had gotten to know when his daughter worked for him at Samford. In spite of torrents of negativity, Lowder realized early in Bowden's tenure despite 20 straight wins that the young coach was not mature enough for the job, evidenced by the precipitous collapse in 1998.
By the time of Bowden's ugly departure, Lowder already had his man picked out Tommy Tuberville. The two had met secretly a year earlier at Lowder's house for breakfast.
A familiar pattern developed a few years into Tubervilles tenure. Tuberville had remained loyal to his original coordinators and Lowder wanted a change following the disappointing 2001 season. Ironically, the two men brought in were Bob Petrino to run the offense and Gene Chizik to run the defense. Petrino left after a year to become the head coach at Louisville but Lowder was smitten by him.
In 2003, when Auburn, the preseason No. 1 in some magazines, stumbled out of the gate with an 0-2 record and was only 6-5 heading into the Iron Bowl, Lowder and the school president had seen enough. Following a 31-7 loss at LSU and a 26-7 beating at Georgia, the decision was made. Tuberville would be fired and Petrino hired.
Then, the Jetgate controversy erupted and Lowder was blamed, in part, because the Colonial Bank corporate plane was used for the Petrino interview.
Auburn went 13-0 the following season and one could sense Lowder's power ebbing and Tuberville's on the rise.
Ed Richardson, the new Auburn president, without Lowder's consultation, rewarded Tuberville a new contract, which included a two-way buyout. Thus, when Tuberville finally was let go, he walked away with more than $5 million.
There is little doubt Lowder had almost absolute power at his peak, in part due to stacking the Board of Trustees with cronies and friends. Still, Lowder always loved the university and wanted what was best. He backed this up with his philanthropy. The Lowder family recently donated $4.2 million for an academic center. Over the years, it is estimated Lowder has donated close to $25 million to the school.
Still, with Lowder, it always comes back to Jetgate. Sadly, that's how he will likely be remembered by many in the Auburn family.
It's worth pondering this as Lowder inches closer to his final curtain call as a trustee: What if Jetgate had been successful? What if Petrino had taken over in 2004? It is easy to say Petrino might have bolted for the Atlanta Falcons. However, its also possible he might still be on the Plains, flying as high as the Auburn eagle.
My sense having watched Lowder over these many years is that he helped Auburn immeasurably. Did he get too powerful? Perhaps. However, during the lean years at Alabama, I heard several prominent Alabama boosters say, I wish we had a Bobby Lowder running our program.
College athletics is much like Wall Street. It is results oriented. I would say Auburn's success ratio since Lowder went on the board speaks for itself. I will also dare say when he does officially exit the Auburn scene; his presence will be sorely missed.
(Contact Paul Finebaum at [email protected] His column appears Tuesdays in the Press-Register.)