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Work ethic, lessons from mom guided Auburn’s first Black trustee president

Quentin Riggins was named Auburn’s new board president earlier this month.

Auburn Board of Trustees President Quentin Riggins Auburn Unviersity/Flickr
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When Quentin Riggins was voted president of the Auburn Board of Trustees earlier this month, there was no grand celebration. There was no party. Riggins didn’t immediately update his social media to reflect the accomplishment – and make no mistake, becoming Auburn’s first Black trustee president is a monumental accomplishment. 

But for Riggins, it warranted just a phone call to the one person he wanted to tell the most. 

His mom. 

“I watched her when I was a kid get up for work and still find time to go to graduate school across the state,” Riggins said. “My parents both taught us a lot about hard work, but my mom … just watching her sacrifice, driving that long road to Tuscaloosa two days a week, having to stay overnight some times, be away from the family she loved – it taught me what people are capable of. It taught me that if you work hard you can accomplish things.

“That was a good phone call with her. And we’ve had a bunch since then. Every time one of her friends reads about me, she calls to tell me. She’s so proud and that means the world to me.” 

Riggins isn’t ashamed to tell you how he ended up leading the board at one of the best public colleges in America. There was no legacy pathway. No one offering handouts. No one giving out unearned breaks. 

It was hard work. It was taking the lessons learned from his parents, setting goals, working his tail off, getting it done. 

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“I’ve never been the smartest guy in the room,” Riggins said during a recent interview, chuckling. “I was lucky to get out of school, if I’m honest with you. I was never the biggest or most talented on the football field. I wasn’t built like (an All-American). I’ve always had to work harder for what I wanted, and I think just seeing that example from my mom every day – it made it where that was just a natural thing for me.”

But it’s not quite that simple, at least where Auburn is concerned in Riggins’ life. 

The Loveliest Village on the Plains has been a special place for Riggins since the day he went for his recruiting visit back in 1985. Riggins was a standout linebacker on the R.E. Lee High School team in Montgomery, but he wasn’t exactly the biggest linebacker on Auburn’s recruiting board. 

To make matters worse, on the day he went for his visit, Riggins’ dad wouldn’t let him stay for the entire football game. He had a shift at McDonald’s back in Montgomery that evening and in the Riggins House, work responsibilities came first. 

A second visit in February went equally poorly in Riggins’ mind. He had a term paper due on the following Monday, so he spent much of the visit holed up in a room working on his paper. The coaches and hosts thought he had a miserable time. 

Oddly, though, it was that work ethic that turned Riggins’ life towards Auburn. Legendary former Auburn coach Pat Dye was in the middle of his program-changing stint at the time and his hard-nosed defenses were reeling in top-tier recruits from around the South. But the one thing Dye valued above all else was hard work, and when he heard the story of this undersized kid from Montgomery leaving the visit early to go work, he was sold on Quentin Riggins. 

“To me, Pat Dye was Auburn,” Riggins said. “He took a chance on me – a big chance. And it motivated me to do everything I could to be the player he wanted me to be.” 

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Riggins did not disappoint. In four years with the Tigers, he became a team captain, was twice voted All-SEC first team, twice voted second team All-America and helped lead a defensive-minded Auburn club to three consecutive SEC titles. On numerous occasions, Dye would refer to Riggins as one of his favorite players and an example to others. 

Auburn would repay some of that effort when Riggins needed it most. 

After short stints in the Canadian Football League and the World League, Riggins took a job with the Alabama Department of Revenue in the mid-1990s. He had worked there four months when Gov. Guy Hunt was convicted of ethics violations and booted from office. Riggins, along with dozens of other state employees, lost his job during the regime change that followed. 

Out of work and with few prospects, Riggins got a phone call from Auburn University. They had a spot just for him – working in student affairs. It was an opportunity completely out of the blue … or so he thought. 

In reality, Riggins’ role model – his mom – made a call. 

“What I did not know is that after I lost my job, my mom was like, I’ve got to fix this,” Riggins said. “And so, she went to the Secretary of the Auburn Board of Trustees and told him that I was one of yours, why don’t you do something for him? So I worked for Auburn, I recruited for Auburn. I got with the admissions office. I went everywhere from Tallahassee, Nashville, Birmingham – I went all over talking to alumni clubs, but more importantly, recruiting students. And I got to know some of the best people doing that.”

Riggins was set. He had a job he loved at a place he loved. He wasn’t making much money, but he was happy, riding around the state talking to people and working with the Black Student Union at Auburn to set up Black History Month events and other programs. 

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Then he got a call he didn’t want – from the governor’s office. Former Gov. Fob James wanted Riggins to work for him as a legislative liaison. Riggins wasn’t interested. He wouldn’t even answer the calls from James’ office. His brief time working in politics, and the unsettled nature of it, had left a bad taste in his mouth. 

But Riggins’ old boss at the Revenue Department, Stan McDonald, called him. He convinced Riggins to just go for a meeting, hear them out. The next thing Riggins knew, he was moving into an office in the Capitol. And it was a move that would again change the course of his life. 

Riggins soon went to work for House Speaker Seth Hammett, working with the Rules Committee. And there, a guy who just a few years earlier admitted that he knew next to nothing about the inner workings of government, got a crash course in the intricate rules and sausage making of Alabama’s Legislature. He was hooked. 

Riggins went to work for Gov. Bob Riley, serving as legislative liaison for three sessions. Then he moved to the Business Council of Alabama, leading its governmental affairs division and managed the BCA’s political action committee. From there, Riggins started his own governmental affairs company, managing clients from the State Port Authority to Verizon to Alabama Power. 

But after a few years of running the company, Riggins decided it was just too much. An offer from one of his clients – Alabama Power – provided the perfect out. Instead of juggling numerous clients, Riggins took on just one, taking a job as the senior VP for governmental affairs for APCO. It’s the job he still has today. 

As he was climbing the corporate ladder and building a name for himself in the Statehouse halls, Riggins never stopped serving his alma mater. He served on numerous committees and helped with various activities at Auburn, and in 2017, was appointed to the Board of Trustees. 

“I’ve always been interested in helping young people achieve their goals,” Riggins said. “That was one of the most rewarding parts of the job working with student affairs. After I was appointed to the board of trustees, during one of the first graduation ceremonies I attended, there was a graduate student who got his diploma and then bear hugged me. He was so excited, so proud of himself and what he accomplished. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s everything to me.”

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That passion for the students and Riggins’ work ethic have made an impression on those around him. His fellow board members voted him president unanimously. 

“Quentin Riggins will undoubtedly be an excellent leader for our Board and for Auburn University,” previous board president Bob Dumas said. “Quentin’s integrity and work ethic, strong rapport with his fellow trustees, and extensive record of service to Auburn make him an excellent choice for this role. Quentin’s broad leadership experience on the Board, with Auburn Athletics, governmental affairs, student affairs, and in so many other areas, provides him with an immense base of knowledge. We were honored to elect Quentin, and we are especially proud that he will be the first African American to hold the position of President Pro Tem.” 

Riggins admitted that the historical significance of his election as board president hasn’t really hit him. He’s not sure if it will, because it was never something he focused on. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s important and significant, but it was never a goal of mine to be the first Black board president – or to be president at all,” Riggins said. “I’ve always just wanted to do a good job, to give back to Auburn, to serve the students. Auburn has meant a great deal to me, though, so I’m sure that at some point in the future, I’ll pause for a minute and it will hit me.” 

But really, all of that is secondary to the most important thing for Riggins. 

“My mama’s proud of me,” he said. “That means the most.”

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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