Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.

Haunted by the Ghost of Art Briles

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With the departure of Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee for Connecticut, the tantalizing specter of Art Briles will be dangled, almost mockingly, before Auburn fans desperate for offensive success.

The words of a few anonymous sources will be verbally whooshed into a flame as quickly and as substantially as Jochen Wiest lit the Toomer’s Corner toilet paper.

Auburn fans who must endure such speculation comprise an impressive number of decent folk horrified both by what unfolded at Baylor and the ease with which the specter of Briles is summoned forth.

Perhaps that is the sentence of cheering for a struggling football program, but that makes it no less pleasant.  What could cause such anger directed by myself and others at such reports?

I can speak only for myself, but it seems that many in the audience share my feelings, and it would be wise to consider them as well.

To me, the supposed courting of Briles represents an insensitivity toward the women of Auburn, particularly our female students, and those of us who treasure them.

Cheering for an Art Briles-directed Auburn offense would be like Bob Stoops and the OU faithful cheering for Joe Mixon in the Sugar Bowl — and we know how Auburn fans felt about that.

I will cite the one case I am most aware of and wrote about in August 2015. On June 25, 2014, Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu was indicted for sexual assault for assaulting a freshman women’s soccer player. On July 3, he was arrested, and on July 9, he posted bond and was released.

From those dates, until Aug. 5, 2015, when the Waco Tribune-Herald announced his upcoming trial, almost none of Baylor’s female students knew that a young man facing trial on felony sexual assault was walking their campus and taking classes toward a degree that he completed in May 2015.

The Baylor administration did not tell them. The county district attorney and city police did not tell them.

The Waco Tribune-Herald — the most credible local news site entrusted with the mission of informing the community about more than football results — did not tell them, for whatever reason.

And Art Briles did not tell them.

It turned out that Ukwuachu was not the only one. Names like Tevin Elliot, convicted before Ukwuachu’s arrest, and Shawn Oakman, indicted after, indicated what many described as a “rape culture” on Briles’ watch.

The Pepper Hamilton report commissioned by Baylor went even further.  It accused the football coaches and staff under Briles’ leadership of “inappropriate involvement in disciplinary and criminal matters … that reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules.”

Further, the report claimed, when the football staff “conducted their own untrained internal inquiries,” they “improperly discredited complainants” (also called victim-blaming or victim-shaming) “and denied them the right to a fair, impartial and informed investigation.”

Would it be wrong for female students at institutions like Auburn to feel insulted, even tortured, when Briles’ name is breathlessly mentioned just a few months later?

The revulsion at the mention of Briles’ name and what it represents — off the field, not on the scoreboard — within almost any college community reflects that community’s hopes for what its college considers important.

Such communities are troubled when they see Briles strategically set before an ESPN College GameDay interviewer, speaking vaguely enough to protect himself but emotionally enough to advance his brand.

Certainly a few folks who value football above everything else will advocate for Briles. They will seek cover behind easily granted anonymity, inflating the perception of their influence.

Personally, I would doubt that Auburn, or any CFB program, would take it further.  Before that perception is allowed to take flame, however, I would encourage everyone involved to consider the treasure that is entrusted to the Auburn campus — the young people, particularly the daughters, who populate our campus.

They and their families deserve to know that Auburn will do everything to protect them, and that includes shunning an offensive guru who, when in a position to influence and educate, took actions that diminished the security of the women at another campus.

That is why so many of us, who also comprise the readership of reports related to Briles, feel a certain torture at reading them.