BY NOAH GRIFFITH
FOR THE OBSERVER
The year 2022 was a thrilling year for Auburn University sports.
Auburn climbed to the top of the men’s basketball rankings for the first time in program history, gymnastics reached the National Championships under the leadership of Olympic Gold Medalist Suni Lee, baseball made a College World Series run and softball broke into the NCAA Tournament behind an electric freshman class.
But the experience was filled with more excitement for all these teams when compared to past years, thanks to the AU Jungle. It’s not a special occasion — it’s an ongoing celebration.
“If you want to be an ‘everything school,’ you need to back that up with students that serve as a student section for an everything school,” said AU Jungle Vice President Michael Floyd. “The Jungle believes in Auburn and loves it.”
To go along with the historic athletic year for the Tigers, their ferocious student section, known far and wide as one of the loudest in the nation, became an official student organization last spring. According to Floyd and Jungle President Jenny McBride — both juniors at Auburn University — this simply solidified what had already been brewing.
When the Bruce Pearl era began on The Plains in 2014, one of his priorities was reviving student involvement in basketball. All it took was a few students buying in, headed up mainly by Clint Richardson and Jacob Varner, and it took off.
The movement kept building, and when Floyd brought his “iconic, tattered and torn” straw hat from the bookstore into Auburn Arena his freshman year, and McBride brought her spirit and energy to the arena at the “crack of dawn” each weekend, The Jungle chose them as leaders.
When former President Jacob Hillman and others requested them as Jungle leaders, he found two of the peppiest personalities to get the crowd raging in today’s Neville Arena.
But it goes beyond the arena. The group of now 13 leaders — which more than doubled in size from last year’s six — takes to social media, creates flyers, inspires student section themes (white out, jersey night, jungle theme, etc.) and provides shakers to match the game’s theme. Oh, yeah, and they do that one thing.
“I don’t know what it’s called — you know, that one thing that gets people there? Yeah, giveaways,” McBride said with a smile.
Simply put, they spread the word. Because it’s not just Saturdays in the fall when there’s a party on The Plains. Auburn roars on throughout the week for men’s and women’s basketball, gymnastics, baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer and, from time to time, tennis.
Lesser-attended sports’ growth is a mission of The Jungle because, at one time, basketball was a lesser-attended sport. Look at it now.
“(Over the years,) I definitely think that the lines have gotten a lot longer, and we’ve gotten a lot more support from all the coaches and from the community,” McBride said. “There’s been more awareness across a bigger variety of sports, for sure.”
Basketball, however, was the beginning of the movement. Things began to escalate quickly when the 2018-19 team made a legendary Final Four run. And then, in 2022, they peaked.
The football edition the previous semester had an ugly ending for the Tigers for a second straight season in 2021 with a four-overtime loss after Auburn led Alabama 10-0 after three quarters. But, according to Floyd and McBride, basketball was Auburn’s chance for redemption, and The Jungle made sure it happened.
It ended with Pearl in “the crane,” following the moves of The Jungle, to celebrate a 100-81 win to give them a season sweep of a ranked Tide team. Both Jungle presidents named that game last Feb. 1 as the most memorable in their years at Auburn.
“If you would’ve lit a single match, the whole place would’ve exploded,” Floyd said, wide-eyed. “It was a white out and, man, it was crowded. That was a great atmosphere.”
That energy carried over from the game versus Kentucky, where students camped out overnight in anticipation of the game and in hopes of stealing front-and-center seats in the student section.
The basketball team notices the support, too, and shows love to its most enthusiastic fans. Pearl has made several appearances before the student doors open an hour and a half before games to deliver food and supplies to the students. In fact, the circle of the Village where students stand in line has become known as “Pearl-Ville.”
This unrelenting support of Auburn basketball is one that didn’t happen overnight, even though many students might tell you it did. Basketball is now a huge hit at Auburn, but it hasn’t always been that way.
“Going back to the ‘80s and the ‘70s, before — and really roughly after the (Charles) Barkley days here — if you would’ve told them Auburn basketball was going to be a legit scene in the year 2023, they would’ve thought you were crazy,” Floyd said. “That speaks to The Jungle, that speaks to coach Pearl and what has happened here, and the investment in basketball from the university and the Athletic Department.”
Auburn lost its nation-longest home winning streak of 28 games at the end of January to Texas A&M just after it became the longest when Gonzaga lost, but The Jungle lives on regardless. According to Floyd, that’s the way it’ll always be in Auburn from now on.
“If you love Auburn, Auburn will most definitely love you back,” Floyd said. “[Being a Jungle leader is] something that has taught me to work well with others. Tempers flare, but you learn to adapt and keep rolling. … Auburn will always be home. Auburn will always be special. Even after Jenny and I leave this place, The Jungle will remain strong in the hearts and minds of its students and fans.”