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AUBURN, Ala. - The young, telegenic athletics director walked into the auditorium with his wife and three children, the youngest of whom was celebrating her sixth birthday by smiling and waving for a crowd that was there to see her dad. Allen Greene's parents had come, too, both of them beaming, his father having already been outfitted in an Auburn tie.
It was a portrait straight out of central casting for Greene, a 41-year-old who had suddenly traded in his relatively obscure national profile in college athletics for a job that will put him squarely in the spotlight at one of the nation's most complex programs.
Greene made a terrific impression, of course. He used all the right buzzwords, spoke elegantly and thoughtfully about becoming the third African American to head a Southeastern Conference athletics department and playfully ribbed a reporter about having an old version of the iPhone when it rang in the middle of the news conference, even dropping a reference to Auburn alum and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
But beyond all the feel-good rhetoric of his first day on the job, the reality of Greene's most difficult challenge at Auburn was literally staring him in the face Friday. Sitting toward the back of the room but squarely head-on with the podium was basketball coach Bruce Pearl, whose team is remarkably headed for the NCAA tournament this season despite being ensnared in the FBI's investigation into college basketball to such a significant degree that nobody really seems to know what will happen beyond this season.
"We're thrilled that we're winning," Auburn President Steven Leath said. "But it is an interesting dynamic."
Interesting is a mild way of saying that Greene is about to inherit the most awkward situation in all of college sports. Auburn, a basketball program that has historically enjoyed only brief glimpses of national relevance, sits 17-2 overall, has the second-best SEC record and was ranked 20th in the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll before losing Wednesday at Alabama (a new poll comes out Monday).
Barring an epic collapse, the Tigers will make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003, an accomplishment made all the more impressive considering Austin Wiley, their most talented player, was ruled ineligible for the rest of the season as a result of what Auburn discovered during its internal investigation of the issues surrounding his recruitment.
Chuck Person, the former Auburn assistant who was heavily involved in recruiting Wiley and Danjel Purifoy (also being held out), was arrested by federal authorities in September and has been charged with being part of a bribery scheme to steer Auburn players to a financial adviser.
While every other team impacted by the FBI sting played well below expectations for the first half of the season, Auburn has in fact significantly overachieved under Pearl, who, according to one person familiar with the matter, was literally within days of being fired this season over his refusal to cooperate with Auburn's investigation. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
But instead of Pearl losing his job and wasting the season, things have been in a holding pattern, stabilized -- at least from all external appearances -- by a team that just kept winning.
"Bruce and his staff are doing a great job on the court," Leath said. "Clearly Bruce knows that sooner or later he's going to have to come in and talk to me and others on campus about what's going on in the program, and we're moving toward a solution on that."
In a sense, nothing at Auburn right now matters more than how that issue ends. But it's also the most uncertain, delicate and impossible situation for either Leath or Greene to put their arms around right now.
In one breath Friday, Greene made it a point in his opening comments to say, "We're going to operate with integrity and compliance, particularly when it's most inconvenient." But in another, when asked directly about the tenuous nature of the basketball program, he looked directly a Pearl -- who was fired from Tennessee in 2011 and given a three-year show cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators -- and said, "I'm looking forward to the basketball game on Saturday."
The unspoken reality, however, is that they might never really get the chance to work together.
According to two people familiar with Auburn's hiring process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the conversations were supposed to be private, Leath was as transparent as he could be with candidates about the state of the basketball program, which is to say he acknowledged that the new athletics director might have to hire a coach this year.
"As you'd expect from an intelligent, well-informed candidate, it would be a concern of theirs where we're at in basketball and where we're going," Leath said. "He did ask about it. I shared everything I could at this point in a relatively short interview format so it was more the 30,000-foot level."
But on the ground, in the real world where fans care only about winning, firing Pearl would be a highly unpopular thing to do, particularly coming after this kind of season when he's finally paying off on the second chance former athletics director Jay Jacobs gave him.
Pearl's complicated history with the NCAA is also a significant factor, as anything less than full cooperation and transparency with the NCAA after the way he handled the Tennessee investigation would be problematic. After the season, all those issues are bound to collide.
"At some point, (the NCAA) will be here," Leath said. "Yes, they will be here."
And caught in the middle will be Greene, who isn't responsible for any part of that burden but will ultimately have a major role in one of the biggest decisions of the year in college sports. As diplomatic and optimistic as the scene was Friday, it's going to get very, very real.
"I've learned to not necessarily believe the things I read -- no offense -- but I need to sit down and get my hands dirty and understand the situation in its entirety and make decisions based on that," he said. "I don't even know where the bathroom is. There's a lot I have to get caught up on."
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