Yet another big story breaks over the Loveliest Village of the Plains, and this one has the feel of a new dawn rising. The toxic Bobby Lowder has decided not to seek another term on Auburn’s board of trustees. The first two words of an editorial in the Opelika-Auburn News were these:
It was hard to know exactly how much power Lowder wielded over Auburn athletics because his modus operandi was to be seen but never heard. I once asked another SEC athletic director if some booster could be classified as his school’s Bobby Lowder, and the AD thought for several moments. Then he said: “I’m not sure anyone else has a Bobby Lowder.”
Conventional wisdom holds that Lowder, an Auburn grad who came to power as head of the Montgomery-based Colonial BancGroup (seized by the Feds in 2009), essentially fired Terry Bowden as football coach in the middle of the 1998 season and almost fired Tommy Tuberville five years later. It was a plane owned by Lowder’s bank that made the infamous flight to Sellersburg, Ind., carrying Auburn officials to interview then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino — for a job that was technically not open.
Auburn president William Walker and athletic director David Housel, both of whom were aboard the plane, wound up resigning. Lowder, however, was immovable. He’d become a trustee in 1983, but his influence was mighty long before that. He was considered Auburn’s biggest donor and its de facto CEO. (Here’s an ESPN story on Lowder from 2006, written by esteemed former colleague Mike Fish.)
In January the New York Times quoted former AD Mike Lude on Lowder thusly: “I would describe him as a person who is very quiet, very much behind the scenes, yet very much involved. My wife one time said, ‘You know, Mike, Bobby Lowder really acts like the Auburn Tigers are his professional football franchise.’ ”
Lowder wouldn’t talk to the Times for that story. Lowder never talked to anybody. When the Auburn Plainsman, the student newspaper, was critical of Lowder, it wound up being subjected to what Jennifer Foster of the Opelika-Auburn News calls a “retaliatory restructure.” In 2004, Auburn nearly lost its accreditation as a university — this time its probation was levied not by the NCAA but by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — due to meddling by its trustees.
Even the most rabid Auburn fans could never endorse Lowder. Why would one man want so much power? Why were so many afraid of him? Indeed, Lowder’s latest appointment to the board of trustees prompted a lawsuit and led Foster to wonder in print if Gov. Robert Bentley’s decision to reappoint Lowder had anything to do with a campaign contribution of $25,000 made by Lowder’s wife.
But now the man behind the curtain is gone, or at least going. (Lowder’s term expires next year.) He’ll leave having finally seen his Tigers win a national championship, but it was a championship accompanied by more skepticism than any in history. Much of that had to do with Cam Newton’s father, yes, but much could be traced to the knowledge that Auburn was, and had long been, Bobby Lowder’s team.
By Mark Bradley