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Longtime ‘football schools’ Auburn, Texas Tech changing perceptions

The Minneapolis skyline is reflected on the glass of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis Thursday, March 28, 2019, as people walk by a 2019 NCAA Final Four logo. (Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press)

MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s almost poetic that both Auburn and Texas Tech will put their basketball programs firmly on the map this weekend smack dab in the middle of a football stadium.

Since the beginning of time, football has reigned supreme at both schools, though a trip to the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis might be doing enough to make people reconsider.

“It’s changed a lot since I got there,” Auburn guard Bryce Brown said, adding that a football game on his official visit was one of the things that sold him on the Tigers. “You can just see it within the community with how much love the basketball program is getting.”

Need poof? Look no further than Rolling Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, Alabama.

Located on campus at the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue, students usually converge on the plaza there after big wins and, uh, decorate the trees with toilet paper. It’s long been a place to celebrate the football program.

Last week, it belonged to the basketball team when Auburn bested Kentucky in the Elite Eight to punch their ticket to the Final Four for the first time in school history.

“We definitely are starting to change perceptions,” Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore said. “This is the first time any team from Alabama has been to the Final Four. We are proving that there’s more than football down there.”

It was a similar scene, minus the toilet paper, about 1,000 miles west, in Lubbock, Texas.

“I’ve been in Lubbock my whole life, and it’s always been more of a football school and never really a basketball school,” Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver said. “Coach Beard came and kind of changed the culture. There’s so much he’s done for this program. I really feel like it’s a basketball school now. We for sure take pride in that.”

And the fan base has gravitated toward the success. According to StubHub records, Texas Tech has sold more tickets than any program playing in the Final Four.

“It’s been crazy,” Texas Tech big man Norense Odiase said. “Our fans have been great. When we came back from (the Elite Eight) at 2:30 a.m., a bunch of them were out there. When we left to come to (the Final Four) at 7:30 a.m., a bunch of them were out there. As we started to win, more and more love started to pour in. There’s nothing like it.”

As both teams prep for semifinals Saturday night, April 6, at U.S. Bank Stadium — Auburn plays Virginia at 5 p.m., Texas Tech plays Michigan State at about 7:45 p.m. — they will do so knowing they have done their part to leave a legacy for future success.

Cam Newton and Auburn won an NCAA football championship in 2010. Even if the Tigers don’t match that this weekend, coach Bruce Pearl said his players now feel like they belong.

“When I got to Auburn (five years ago), even though our athletes may have been recognized as athletes, they didn’t wear a lot of basketball gear,” Pearl said. “I’m glad our men’s basketball team can join the other athletes, like the football team, like the softball team (21 national championships). … Now, like them, we are competitive and we are (SEC) champions. I don’t look at like our guys as big men on campus. I look at it like our guys now have the right to fit in.”