Fair Play

Fair Play

Fifty years ago, an abstract clause tucked inside new education legislation changed women’s sports forever. How Title IX transformed life at Auburn and opened doors for women beyond the playing fields and courts.

It happened almost by accident. Title IX and the growth of women’s collegiate sports. On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the Education Amendments Act. The law’s Title IX recognized gender equity as a right in education, at least in schools receiving federal financial aid. But nowhere in the 37-word clause are the words “sports” or “athletics.”

Nor were college athletics mentioned in the 1970 hearings on sex discrimination in education held by Oregon Democrat Edith Green, which many believe were the forerunner to the Education Amendments Act. But college athletic departments soon became the most visible proving ground for Title IX’s purpose, forever changing the landscape of college campuses.

In the summer that Title IX passed, women at Auburn had already been competing in athletics for 75 years. Beginning in 1897, they competed first in intramurals and then on club teams, often paying their own way on road trips. Title IX changed that as varsity programs were eventually created and supported.

Former team handball Olympian Reita Clanton, who graduated from Auburn in 1974, was a student when Title IX passed.

“I don’t know that we knew at the time the impact that it would have on athletics,” said Clanton, an Auburn standout in volleyball, basketball and softball whose athletic abilities would have been even further developed had she been afforded the opportunity to compete in high school sports. “Sports were a byproduct, because our sports are tied to our education system.”

One year before Title IX, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women was founded to govern women’s sports and administer national championships. Within ten years after Title IX, the NCAA had taken over sponsorship of women’s athletics.

“That was a huge social change and people were just trying to figure it out,” Clanton said. “Looking back, it was a pivotal point in my life to be a part of structured athletics.”

“Looking back, it was a pivotal point in my life to be a part of structured athletics.”

A 40-year Auburn University faculty member, Sandra (Newkirk) Bridges served as Auburn’s first women’s athletics director from 1974-76 after serving unofficially in that capacity from 1967-73.

“I think she was the foundation,” Clanton said of Newkirk, who also directed Auburn’s intramurals program from 1966-75. “Without Sandra, I don’t know who would have led the program forward.”

Five years before the passage of Title IX, in 1967, Newkirk took Auburn’s intramurals volleyball team to Memphis for a tournament, leading to the formation of Auburn’s volleyball program. Other schools in the state and region looked to Auburn for Title IX integration leadership.

Director of Athletics Lee Hayley worked with Newkirk to determine how Auburn would comply.

“We talked about what we wanted to do, and then we took action,” recalled Susan Nunnelly ’70, who coached Auburn’s women’s basketball team to a 43-20 record from 1973-76. “I always took pride that at Auburn, Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics worked together with everything.”

Auburn’s cooperation in sharing facilities among athletics, recreation and academics served as an example to other universities, Nunnelly explained.

“I was very proud of Auburn,” she said. “Auburn made a significant difference in other programs when they saw that we made it work. Why can’t you? One advantage we had at Auburn was that all departments worked together to make it happen.”

For their roles in advancing women’s athletics at Auburn, the Southeastern Conference honored Nunnelly and administrators Dr. Jane B. Moore and Meredith Jenkins as SEC Trailblazers during the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament in Nashville in March, part of the conference’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX. 

Sandra Newkirk Bridges and the 1971 Volleyball team.

Olympian and Auburn sports standout, Reita Clanton ‘74, coached the team, which was the first softball team in school history.

The 1975 Auburn Women’s Basketball team, coached by Susan Nunnelly (top right). Nunnelly led the team to a 43-20 record from 1973-76.


In 2002, 30 years after Title IX, swimming & diving won Auburn’s first women’s national championship, the start of a three-peat in the pool.

Women’s teams have produced 12 of Auburn’s 22 national championships: six in equestrian, five in swimming & diving, and one in track & field.

Auburn women have won Olympic medals, including double golds for swimmer Kirsty Coventry ’06 and basketball’s Ruthie Bolton ’90. Most recently, gymnast Suni Lee claimed gold in the all-around in Tokyo in 2021.

“We definitely made history here,” said Bolton, who played at Auburn from 1985-89 and returned this season to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary. “We’ve been reminiscing. I’m so happy to share this with my former teammates. We’re passing it to the next generation.”

Auburn women’s basketball reached national prominence, advancing to the NCAA Tournament championship game in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

Auburn’s 12 women’s programs have played on their sports’ biggest stages, from the Final Four to the Women’s College World Series.

Women’s basketball has reached national prominence, advancing to the NCAA Tournament championship game in 1989 and 1990. In 2022, women’s golf and gymnastics each reached the Final Four.

Three current Auburn student-athletes have won individual NCAA championships: track & field’s Joyce Kimeli and gymnasts Derrian Gobourne and Lee.

With 250 current women student-athletes and an ever-expanding roster of alumni athletes that numbers in the thousands, Auburn Athletics has showcased and saluted its female competitors—past and present—throughout 2022 with on-campus events, in-venue recognitions and on social media.

Careers in Coaching

When Auburn soccer coach Karen Hoppa graduated from high school in 1987, 82 women’s soccer programs competed in a combination of divisions one and two. Now there are 340 in D-I alone.

“When I graduated college in 1991, coaching was not a career, especially not for a woman,” Hoppa said. “My parents didn’t want me to do it. They said, ‘That’s not really a career, that’s a hobby.’

“Now, there’s a career path and there are opportunities to be a graduate assistant, then get an assistant coaching job and work their way up.”

Bitten by the coaching bug while coaching high school soccer as a college student, Hoppa persevered in the profession, becoming in 1993 the youngest D-I coach in the country at age 23 at her alma mater, Central Florida.

“Title IX opened that door for me,” said Hoppa, whose success at UCF led her to Auburn, where she’s coached since 1999. “I got that shot and made the most of it.”

Auburn added women’s soccer in 1993 and softball in 1997, while Barbara Camp served as Auburn’s senior woman administrator.

“Those are the two big sports that benefited once Title IX was starting to be enforced in the mid- 1990s,” said Hoppa, who is embarking on her 24th season on the Plains.

Former Auburn women’s golf coach Kim Evans ’81 first recalls becoming aware of Title IX when she qualified for the Alabama girls’ state high school tournament, even though she played on the boys’ team because there was no team for girls in Decatur at the time.

“One of my teachers said, ‘Not only can you go, but this school will pay for it,’” said Evans, who recalls being reimbursed $47 for her mileage to the tournament. “That was pretty impactful for me.”

Evans competed at Auburn from 1977-81, then became the coach in 1994, leading the Tigers to eight SEC championships in 21 seasons.

“We bought our own uniforms,” Evans said, recalling her playing days. “We were happy, we competed and I had a great enough experience that I wanted to coach when I left here.

“You got your education, you played golf and you walked out debt free with memories of a lifetime and possibly a championship.”

Increased investment in women’s athletics has brought additional exposure, compensation and expectations, especially in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference, where regardless of sport or gender, coaches who don’t win don’t last.

“With Title IX creating that opportunity, it also creates more pressure,” said Evans, a five-time SEC Coach of the Year and National Golf Coaches Hall of Fame inductee.

Title IX helped helped many women compete and work at Auburn, including (l-r) former women’s golf coach Kim Evans ‘81, Olympian and former women’s basketball player Vickie Orr ‘93, track and field athlete Madi Malone, women’s soccer coach Karen Hoppa and former softball coach and Olympian Reita Clanton ‘74.

The Team Behind The Team

More women competing in athletics has created ancillary careers, including in areas like coaching, administration, media relations, training, equipment and video operations, for both women and men, says Shelly Poe, Auburn’s assistant athletic director for communications. 

“We’ve doubled the opportunities for people to be involved in athletics,” said Poe. “And that’s a good thing. If we’re able to make the setting more representative of the people who are competing, that’s a win-win.” 

Women have made a quicker entry into some positions in athletics than in other industries, Poe says, because of the competitive nature of sports. 

“People in athletics want to win,” she said, characterizing the mindset she’s observed in her 40-year career. “If you can help me win, I will find a spot for you.”

Legacy And Impact

Title IX’s impact has extended well beyond courts, pools and fields of play. A half-century ago, approximately one of every 10 law degrees, medical degrees and doctorates were earned by women. Now, women earn more than half of such degrees.

“It opened so many doors, not just in athletics,” said Clanton, still considered one of Auburn’s greatest all-time athletes more than 50 years after enrolling on the Plains.

“It opened a chance for all of the positives we gain from participating in athletics—teamwork, discipline and dedication—while allowing women to test themselves at the highest level,” said Poe, the first woman to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Football Writers Association of America. “That sets them on a different path for the rest of their lives.”

“It opened a chance for all of the positives we gain from participating in athletics—teamwork, discipline and dedication—while allowing women to test themselves at the highest level.”

“I love watching them come in as teenagers and leave as young adults,” said Hoppa, a first-generation college graduate. “Those first-gen kids who wouldn’t have an opportunity to attend Auburn had it not been for a soccer scholarship are really special. It’s neat that women’s soccer can give them that opportunity. The quality of an Auburn degree is elite.

“If it weren’t for soccer and Title IX, I wouldn’t have gotten the same degree I got and certainly not the opportunities to have this profession.”

“We are adding not only numbers but opportunity for our young women to thrive,” said Evans, the hall of fame coach. “To excel, to be Olympians, to be national champions. We all have to start from somewhere, and at least we did, and at least we grew.”

“Auburn’s women’s athletics now has its own culture, history and heroes, of which we are very proud,” said Clanton, summarizing the fairness intrinsic in Title IX’s purpose. “People should have the opportunity to pursue excellence in things for which they have gifts and talents.”

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The Everything Player

The Everything Player

Read more stories on

Jabari Smith is the everything player at the everything school.
Jabari Smith

With the height of a center and the skills of a guard, Jabari Smith considered multiple pathways to professional basketball.

He chose Auburn.

“I wanted to experience the college life,” said Smith, a 6-10 freshman power forward on Auburn’s Men’s Basketball Team who picked the Tigers over other colleges and the NBA’s official minor league organization. “You don’t really get that college life going to the G League and different routes.”

The opportunity to attend SEC football games, interact with fellow students and begin his college education appealed to Smith. A recruiting pitch from Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, who showed Jabari how other Atlanta metro players—such as Chuma Okeke and Isaac Okoro—thrived at his position in Auburn’s system before getting picked in the first round of the NBA Draft, sealed the deal.

“The words he said really stood out,” Smith said. “Watching their role, how much the ball is in their hands and how much freedom he lets his fours play with. It came down to the family atmosphere, the coaching staff, how much they invest in their players. That played a big part in me choosing Auburn.”

Smith wasted no time adjusting to college basketball, giving fans “a taste of everything”—as Pearl put it—in his debut: points, rebounds, steals, assists, blocked shots.

“Play the game the right way and it’ll give back to you.”

In his second game, the freshman phenom impressed again, recording his first double-double: 23 points and 10 rebounds.

“Jabari has a very advanced skillset,” said Pearl. “He’s a great jump shooter.”

A founding member of what teammates call “The Breakfast Club,” Smith arrived at Auburn Arena at 6:30 a.m. each day before the season to perfect his craft.

“We feel like going early makes you get up and push through,” Smith said. “It shows that you really want it.”

For every shot Smith shoots in a game, he’s made thousands from the same spot during practice.

“I put that confidence in me,” he said. “I’ve put in the work over the years with my teammates, my trainers and my dad.” At Sandy Creek High School in Fayetteville, Ga., Smith developed into a top-five national player in his class, becoming the highest-rated signee in Auburn history.

“My junior year was my first year of being the best player on my team. Having to lead a team. I feel like I’ve come a long way at being a leader. Being more aggressive and trying to give your team a spark.”

After graduating from high school, Smith moved to Auburn and added 20 pounds of muscle over the summer thanks to what could be called “fueling and grueling”: nutritious meals at Auburn’s Wellness Kitchen and intense workouts with Strength and Conditioning Coach Damon Davis.

“It’s making a great difference, taking bumps, being able to play with the physicality of the SEC,” said Smith, who’s listed at 220 pounds. “Feeling stronger on your shot, extending your range and how you look. It makes you feel a little better about yourself, too.”

He may be months away from becoming an NBA first-round pick, but for one season, Jabari Smith is enjoying college life and a chance to be part of a team before basketball becomes his profession.

“We love to see each other succeed,” he said. “Play the game the right way and it’ll give back to you. I’m trying to prove to everybody that I am what they think I am.”



Fayetteville, GA

















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Auburn Fast

Auburn Fast

Senior Bret Holmes races toward a degree and car racing glory

GROWING UP 10 MINUTES FROM TALLADEGA SUPERSPEEDWAY, Auburn senior Bret Holmes figures he was born to race.

“You’d hear the cars from the back porch,” said Holmes, who began racing Go Karts as a 6-year-old. “I got my start at Talladega Short Track.”

From dirt late model racing to asphalt racing, Holmes steadily progressed. He’s currently racing professionally on the ARCA Menards Series, the premier division of the Automobile Racing Club of America, while studying in Auburn’s McWhorter School of Building Science in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction.

“I’ve always been an Auburn fan. I’ve always been at home here even when I was a kid. It just felt right.”

Holmes’ family owns Holmes Excavating, a construction company in Munford, Ala. specializing in dirt grading and utility line  installation. “That’s something I want to fall back on if racing doesn’t work out. It’s been a family company for a long time.”

Holmes’ building science cohort members became a fan club of sorts, eager to engage with racing rivals who knock their friend and fellow student into the wall.

“My pride is seeing our team grow from where it started when we were fighting for top tens. Now we’re fighting for wins.”

“They all watch me race, and they dog the other drivers that beat me or run into me. They cheer like crazy when we do well.”

Holmes’ buddies had plenty to cheer about in July when Holmes took his first checkered flag in the ARCA Series at Kansas Speedway.

“It was really big for us. It’s taken a few years to get where we are right now, competing in the top three, top five, every week. We’re facing 20 to 40 other drivers. My pride is seeing our team grow from where it started when we were fighting for top tens. Now we’re fighting for wins.”

Holmes won the 2020 ARCA Menards Series championship at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 17, winning one race and finishing in the top five an incredible 14 times. Not bad for a guy whose car is sponsored by his family’s business.

“Racing is very expensive. I’m trying to prove to companies that this is a good investment. That’s what I’m working toward. My team that we created a few years ago is competing with the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing, teams that are affiliated with NASCAR teams and that get manufacturing support. “It’s really cool to see my team competing with teams that have who knows how much resources compared to us.”

For several years, Holmes raced in a helmet with an Auburn logo, delighting race fans who pull for the Tigers.

While chasing a championship, Holmes continues to work on his thesis project. He plans to graduate in December, earning his degree in five and a half years while racing from coast to coast. “It’s been tough and challenging but I really enjoy construction management. Auburn is my second home. It’s a place I can come to and come down from all of that pressure and stress from
the weekend.”

After claiming the ARCA Series championship, Holmes hopes to advance to the NASCAR truck series, then XFinity, on his way to the ultimate destination. “That’s always been my dream, to make it into one of the top three series of NASCAR. It’s a tough sport to make it in. There are only 40 drivers who get to go to the top level.”

With only a few coveted NASCAR Cup Series spots opening up each season, Holmes knows the challenge ahead. But one look in the rearview mirror reveals how far he’s already come—on the track and in the lab at Gorrie Center. “Auburn provided people who are behind me and in my corner. It’s been a home for a lot of friendships that will last for a long time. It’s been amazing.”

By Jeff Shearer, senior writer at Auburntigers.com @jeff_shearer

An Experiment That Had to Work

An Experiment That Had to Work

2019 marks the 50-year anniversary of the integration of Auburn University athletics. History-makers, then and now, tell their stories of leveling the playing field on the Plains.
Always On A Stage

When Henry Harris debuted for Auburn’s varsity men’s basketball team on Dec. 1, 1969, more than 22 years had passed since Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.

Harris (above) enrolled at Auburn a year earlier, playing for the freshman team in 1968-69, when the NCAA prevented freshmen from playing varsity basketball and football, a rule that changed in 1972.

James Owens (below, No. 43) arrived in 1969, Auburn’s first black scholarship football player, and the first at a major state school in Alabama, Mississippi or South Carolina. Like Harris a year earlier, Owens played for the freshman team before making his varsity premiere in 1970.

Two months before he passed away in 2016, Owens recalled his history-making debut. At the time, the southwest corner of Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the press box and locker room are now located, contained wooden bleachers where African-American university employees and fans sat, a vestige of the segregation that was still a way of life in many parts of the South.

“Those black people cheered and hollered,” Owens said. “I was their hero, and they were my heroes. I realized I was there for more than James Owens. I was there for a nation and people were depending on me to succeed.”

Growing up in Birmingham, Ala. in the 1960s, Owens remembered the struggle for civil rights. The marches, the dogs, the firehoses. One year before Owens enrolled at Auburn, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

“With what Martin Luther King sacrificed, he helped many people stand and be courageous,” Owens said. “If he gave his all, why couldn’t we?”

So James Owens endured the challenges that came with being a pioneer.

“When my parents dropped me off at Auburn, I realized I was here all by myself” he said. “When my teammates left the field, they were going home. I was never home. I was always on a stage.”

Thom Gossom walked on at Auburn in 1971, earning a football scholarship and joining Harris and Owens, whom teammates called “Big O.”

In 1975, Gossom became Auburn’s first black student-athlete to graduate. His 2008 memoir, “Walk-On: My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University,” chronicles Gossom’s pioneering role.

As a teenager in Birmingham, watching Coach Shug Jordan recap each game on the “Auburn Football Review,” Gossom told his father he intended to make history.

“I said ‘I’m going to be the first,’” Gossom recalled. “I said, ‘Somebody’s got to do it, so I’ll do it.’”

Like Owens, Gossom realized his contribution to Auburn University would be measured by more than his career statistics of 36 receptions and seven touchdowns.

“We were so isolated,” he said. “It was so lonely. You knew that this was not just for you. This was for other people. This was for Bo [Jackson] and Charles [Barkley], and the guys out there now, so that we could open those doors for them. It was an experiment that had to work.”

An actor and writer, Gossom chaired the Auburn University Foundation Board’s “Because This is Auburn” campaign, helping raise more than a billion dollars for his alma mater. In March 2019, Gossom received Auburn Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

History On The Sidelines

At the same time Owens and Gossom were making history on the field, Linwood Moore was making history on the sideline.

Drawing on his experience as a high school senior in 1970-71, during the integration of Central High in Phenix City, Ala., Moore embraced new opportunities at Auburn, becoming Auburn’s first African-American cheerleader. Moore tried out three times before making the squad in 1974-75.

“Throughout the South, not just in Alabama, massive desegregation was happening everywhere,” said Moore, who served as vice president of his high school senior class.

In desegregated Central High School, all students were involved in all campus activities, Moore said. But for African- Americans, Auburn was not a place to come for social interaction. Only education.

“I thought it was something I could do,” Moore said. “And since my history in high school had been about reconciliation and integration, I thought I might have an opportunity to break a barrier here as well.”

White and African-American athletes successfully competing together did more than break the color barrier in sports — it was enlightening for the fans who had fought against it, too, said Auburn Professor of Journalism John Carvalho ’78.

“The courage of these athletes to step on the athletic field can’t be minimized,” said Carvalho. “It’s hard to believe that just a few years before, high school and college athletics in the South were segregated, sometimes by law.”

Attending Auburn on an Army ROTC scholarship, Moore graduated from pharmacy school in 1977, enjoying a decorated military career before serving as acting chief of pharmacy for the Department of Veterans Affairs. A resident of the Washington, D.C. metro area, Moore still cheers for Auburn, sometimes from a distance, but often in person.

“I come here all the time, whenever I’m home visiting family,” Moore said. “I’m pleased at the number of African-American students on campus now. It’s really grown tremendously, and the level of involvement has increased. Auburn set me on my path, in terms of career. I have no bitter memories or experiences; I just love Auburn.”

Harvey Glance ’91 wrote his name in Auburn’s record books, winning national championships in track and field and an Olympic gold medal in 1976. At the same time, Wendell Merritt ’82 became Auburn’s first African-American women’s student-athlete when she played basketball for the Tigers from 1977-80. In 1992, Glance made history again, becoming Auburn’s first African-American head coach.

Twenty years later, in 2012, Terri Williams-Flournoy became the first African-American woman to be a head coach at Auburn, just as she had done eight years earlier at Georgetown University.

“When you are first doing it, you don’t think about it,” said Williams-Flournoy. “You just see it as your first head coaching job. After a while you realize, ‘Oh, wow, there is no one who looks like me who has ever coached here before.’ Then you just feel good about yourself, because you’re now a role model for every black female that wants to be a head coach at an institution, or university that has never had one before. It’s possible and it can happen.”

Williams-Flournoy believes that she has an obligation to not only teach her players basketball, but to coach the next generation through life.

“Why not teach them something great along the way?” said Williams-Flournoy. “Here at Auburn, we started teaching on how to be an excellent person. Do something for someone else. It’s not about you. Someone did the exact same thing for me, so I have to do it.”

Current Auburn football defensive lineman Derrick Brown says these racial pioneers helped everyone who came to campus after them.

“It’s such a tremendous thing,” said Brown, who is also the president of Auburn’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “They led the way. Without the barriers they broke through, we’d never be able to have the opportunity that we have here at Auburn.”

Leadership at the top

Fifty years after Henry Harris scored six points against South Carolina in his first varsity game, African-Americans serve in positions of leadership throughout Auburn’s Athletics Department, including at the top.

Allen Greene, Auburn’s first African-American director of athletics — the third in Southeastern Conference history — shares a similar passion to invest in others who want to emulate his career path.

“I’m very, very fortunate to be at Auburn University,” Greene said. “This is a very high-profile job at a very high-level institution in the highest-profile conference.”

After working at Notre Dame, his alma mater, in compliance and development, Greene headed south to the University of Mississippi as a development officer. Some of the donors on whom Greene called had attended Ole Miss a half-century earlier, when segregation was the status quo in the South.

“It didn’t dawn on me that I was developing relationships and friendships with some people who were supportive of segregation in the ’50s and ’60s,” he said.

Watching ESPN’s documentary, “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” about the university’s integration in 1962 against the backdrop of an undefeated football season, Greene noted how his new friends’ viewpoints on race had changed.

“I started thinking, ‘That’s really interesting.’ At 18, 19, 20, 21 years old, they did not agree with going to school with people of color,” he said. “Fast forward 50 years — many of their mindsets have evolved to, ‘Why were we thinking that? Regardless of skin color, we’re brothers.’ That has sat with me for the past eight years.”

Greene still maintains friendships with those Ole Miss graduates from the 1960s and takes comfort knowing that people can change. For that reason, he insists on not abandoning people, but looking for ways to build on shared connections.

After interviewing with former Auburn University President Steven Leath and the search committee, Greene accepted the Auburn AD job early in 2018, before his first campus visit.

“The discussion was more about trying to figure out if I will be accepted because my profile is so nontraditional for Auburn. I’m black. I’m from the North and I didn’t go to Auburn,” he said. “Will
people accept me for that?

But Greene says that all Auburn people are united by their common beliefs, regardless of your background or skin color.

“I’m not referring to political or religious beliefs, but human value beliefs. We can have our differences on a lot of those surface things, but at the core of who we are as people, I felt at home with members of the Auburn Family before I even got to Auburn,” said Greene. “I knew if even half of the people were like the folks I visited with during the interview process, it would be
a life-changing experience for the positive.”

Greene’s first year on the Plains, which ended Feb. 2019, validated that confidence.

When Greene has time to return frequent phone calls from aspiring administrators, one piece of advice he gives stems from his personal journey: don’t let demographic differences or perceived cultural differences prevent you from pursuing opportunities, even in regions with a history of oppression toward people of color.

“I want people to know that Auburn is inclusive,” he said. “For those who haven’t been to Auburn, I encourage them to experience The Loveliest Village on the Plains for themselves.”

Living The Legacy

Fifty years after he arrived at Auburn, even after his death, James Owens continues to inspire.

In 2012, Auburn presented the first James Owens Courage Award to its namesake, an honor bestowed to an Auburn football player who has displayed courage in the face of adversity. Last fall, Rev. Chette Williams ’86, Auburn football’s chaplain for the past 20 years, received the award.

“It’s quite an honor for me because I knew James a long time,” Williams said. “When I played football at Auburn, James was a graduate assistant for a couple years.”

When Williams entered the ministry, Owens, a pastor himself, mentored him.

“I’m so appreciative of the Owens family for considering me as a recipient of this award,” Williams said. “James Owens modeled for all of us courage and faith in the face of life’s challenges.”

As his health declined, Owens appreciated the outpouring of support he received from Auburn people.

“The prayers, the letters, to know people care,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest feelings to know you are loved by your family.”

In the 50 years since Henry Harris and James Owens integrated Auburn’s men’s basketball and football teams, their quiet courage opened doors for thousands of African-American student-athletes who have followed.

Auburn senior Kam Martin (above, No. 9) plays the same position, running back, as James Owens.

“When Coach Malzahn addresses the team, we talk about ‘riding for the brand,’” Martin said. “We do it for everyone who played before us. We do it for Auburn. We do it for people like Mr. Owens, who opened the doors for everyone.”

“I’m very proud that they were able to pave the way for athletes like us who have come behind them,” said Anfernee McLemore, who helped lead Auburn’s men’s basketball team to its first Final Four last season. “They set the foundation. By how they carried themselves, they set the stage for how we’re perceived on campus and I’m grateful.

“We’re holding that same standard. We want to carry ourselves in a way that provides respect for the next generation of Auburn student-athletes.”