• The Star Staff

Tuberville advances: Will Alabama send an Auburn coach to the Senate?

By Gillian R. Brassil

Tommy Tuberville, who made his name as one of the most successful football coaches at Auburn, won in overtime and now faces an intrastate rival in Alabama.

This time, instead of recruiting players to defeat Alabama on the field, he is attempting to persuade voters to select him for the U.S. Senate over an incumbent, Doug Jones, who is considered to be in the weakest position of any Senate Democrat in this year’s election.

Jones narrowly won a special election in 2017 to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat after President Donald Trump appointed Sessions the U.S. attorney general.

Sessions, who fought for his political life after Trump threw his full support behind Tuberville in the Republican primary, was crushed in the runoff election Tuesday night, sending Tuberville’s name to the November ballot.

“There’s no way he could run for Senate in Alabama and not align himself with Trump,” said the Rev. Wayne Dickens, a defensive tackle for Auburn from 2001 to 2005 who is now on the coaching staff at Western Kentucky. “My disappointment would be his actions falling in line with Trumpism,” though he said he would vote for “Coach Tub” if he were registered to vote in Alabama.

Tuberville’s football past has been present on the campaign trail, and Alabama Democrats have used his losses, abrupt job changes and team decisions to call into question his integrity and ability to win on Election Day. At times in recent days, the party’s official Twitter account has read more like a trash-talking college football message board, speaking a language familiar to many Alabama voters.

“Tuberville couldn’t score a TD for 2 weeks with 4 first rounders on his offense,” read one message posted hours after Tuberville’s victory over Sessions. “He also lost to Vanderbilt.”

‘Probably the Best Year He Ever Had’ Tuberville coached the Tigers from 1999-2008, and posted an 85-40 record and the university’s longest winning streak against the Crimson Tide, six straight, in the rivalry.

But it wasn’t a smooth ride. In 2003, William F. Walker, the president of Auburn, and David Housel, the athletic director, flew to chat with Bobby Petrino, then Louisville’s coach, about replacing Tuberville after he lost three Southeastern Conference games in which the Tigers should have had the upper hand. That was the same week as the highly anticipated Iron Bowl, which Auburn won, 28-23. Fans found out after the coveted victory, spurring severe backlash against university officials.

Tuberville held on to his job. The incident is remembered as JetGate. And the next season, Tuberville led Auburn to a 13-0 season, earning him Coach of the Year Awards from the SEC, his second, and The Associated Press.

“I still think about 2004,” Dickens said. “For me, being an ordained minister and understanding the impact faith has on a person, the willingness that Coach Tub had to share his faith in Jesus Christ when his team was on a national stage, he let people see who he genuinely was. 2004 was probably the best year he ever had.”

As a coach, Tuberville was more like a chief executive, Dickens said — excellent at hiring assistant coaches who supported his team and mission.

But some of the coach’s losses at Auburn are being used to taunt him, including the Iron Bowl wipeout that sealed his resignation from Auburn in 2008. Even Nick Saban, Alabama’s national title-winning coach, has been invoked.

Football in His Blood, Politics on His Brain Tuberville had always been athletic, according to his sister, Vicki Tuberville Fewell. Born and raised in small-town Camden, Ark., about 100 miles south of Little Rock, he became Harmony Grove High School’s first quarterback; his father was a referee.

“He and Tommy were very close,” Fewell said. “He and Dad would work together because of their love of sports.”

Charles Tuberville, a World War II veteran with five Bronze Stars, died at a training camp as a member of the National Guard when Tommy was coaching at Hermitage High School in Arkansas. It was a hard loss for the tight-knit family — Tommy, Vicki, Charles III and their mother, Olive. He was an inspiration to his son’s football and political careers.

The children considered themselves “Army brats,” and supporting veterans has become central to Tuberville’s campaign, along with strong Christian values, instilled from the days his family attended Maul Road Church of Christ.

Tuberville played safety at Southern Arkansas University, then started his coaching career — after graduation in 1976, he coached at nearby Hermitage High for four years, then Arkansas State University for five. From 1986-1993, he coached at the University of Miami, contributing to three championships as a graduate assistant and later as the defensive coordinator. For the 1994 season, he served as defensive coordinator for Texas A&M, which finished with a 10-0-1 record.

That propelled him into his first head coaching job at the University of Mississippi for the 1995 season, where he bolstered a movement to bar the Confederate battle flag from home games. He focused on attracting Black recruits and making them feel more welcome.

“The flag is killing us,” he told Robert Khayat, a former university chancellor, in a brief visit. And it worked, to an extent. Flags were waved at the 1997 homecoming game, but Tuberville’s statements helped eventually ban the flag from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

The former coach has not shared his thoughts on the removal of Confederate symbols across the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

His campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Although he made his stance clear on kneeling during the national anthem in a recent campaign ad: Don’t.

Despite his dedication to Mississippi recruiting, Tuberville left for Auburn before the 1999 season (after saying they’d have to take him out “in a pine box” just two days before).

His departure from Auburn was much more quiet: After a disappointing 2008 season, he resigned, taking a year off from coaching as an analyst for ESPN before assuming the head coach role at Texas Tech.

“He’s unquestionably one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Dickens said. “He should be up there with Pat Dye and other well-known coaches in Auburn history.”

But keeping with the flair of his exit from Mississippi, after Tuberville had spent three years coaching Texas Tech, he silently withdrew from a recruitment dinner to accept the head coaching job at Cincinnati in December 2012. Recruits at the time claimed he took the call midmeal and bailed, but Tuberville said that simply wasn’t the case.

“I actually paid the bill,” he told Al.com in 2019. Ending with a bang in four seasons at Cincinnati, he won a share of the American Athletic Conference championship once before retiring from football in 2016.

In another instance of college football coming up on the campaign trail, Tuberville’s thoughts on the coming season aligned with those of Trump about getting back to school. When asked about starting the season on time by WNSP-FM Sports Radio in June, he said, “You betcha.”