After surviving coup attempt at Auburn, Tuberville has Tigers rolling
Posted: Tuesday November 2, 2004 1:06PM; Updated: Tuesday November 2, 2004 1:08PM
You see the sly grin on the mug of Tommy Tuberville and you can't help but break into a smile with him. Even if you roll with the Tide or Auburn isn't your cup of tea, you have to hand it to a football coach who not only survived a gutless coup attempt on his sideline gig, but also lived to see his contract sweetened and, if luck hangs with him, could have his Tigers positioned to play for the national championship.
"Glad to be here,'' Tuberville cracked during a recent appearance before the Atlanta Touchdown Club. "This time last year I'd already turned in my application at Wal-Mart to become a greeter. Let me say, they almost got me.''
Talk about the last man standing. A year ago, Auburn president William Walker and athletic director David Housel were hopping on a booster's plane to chat up Louisville coach Bobby Petrino about replacing Tuberville. Needless to say, Tuberville, who just months earlier had signed a new five-year deal, didn't have a clue. So when the goofy story got out, the Auburn bosses had enough egg on their faces that Walker stepped down and Housel eventually announced his retirement.
And, presumably as atonement for all the embarrassment he suffered, Auburn tacked another year onto a deal that pays Tuberville about $1.5 million a season -- not counting a $3 million buyout and a $1 million bonus if he stays through the 2008 season.
So excuse the coach if he appears to wear a silly grin 24/7. Why wouldn't he? The frontmen of the failed coup are history and no one is better paid or now enjoys greater job security in the lovely state of Alabama than Tuberville. And with third-ranked Auburn sitting a perfect 9-0, strings-pulling booster Bobby Lowder is left to play nice with his coach.
"Well, the only thing you can do is joke about what happened last year,'' said Tuberville, who is obviously comfortable doing just that. "Wasn't anything good about it.''
But there was. Tuberville emerged as a sympathetic figure, a real-life poster child for "Coaches Being Treated Badly'' -- if that's possible in light of the dollars thrown around in the profession. And a university president, of all people, and a college administration were held up to national ridicule for being "ethically challenged."
Maybe a lesson has been learned. Last week, Florida turned Ron Zook into a lame Gator, but at least officials didn't sneak behind his back in a low-life fashion. The same hopefully can be said for the way the Washington Huskies allowed Keith Gilbertson to handle his own ouster.
"I would hope that [Walker and Housel] learned from it, because that is something you don't ever want to put coaches, families and all the players through,'' Tuberville said. "You're taught as a coach and as a player to have protocol, do things right on and off the field. And all of a sudden you got somebody that goes behind your back. It doesn't set a very good precedent for young people. Obviously, it didn't work in their favor too well. They're no longer in their situations as they were. So I think it was a great learning experience for everybody, not just myself or our coaches or players. But the administrations -- they have to be accountable, too.''
In hindsight, if only Auburn had jumped off to a quick start last season, perhaps folks wouldn't have been so trigger-happy. After being hyped in preseason rankings as a national title contender, the Tigers failed to score a touchdown in their opening two games against Southern California and Georgia Tech en route to a disappointing 8-5 season. They were 6-5 when the Auburn president led the now infamous travel party to Louisville.
So what's the difference this year with the Tigers? A talented, mature senior class is a nice starting point (12 of the 18 players have already earned degrees). Another nice touch is a softer early schedule that allowed Tuberville's bunch to get into a rhythm at its own pace. Rather than opening against eventual national champ USC and at Georgia Tech, Auburn played a fluffy non-conference slate against the likes of Louisiana-Monroe, The Citadel and Louisiana Tech.
It also hasn't hurt that fifth-year senior quarterback Jason Campbell has come of age under new offensive coordinator Al Borges. Or that running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams, both potential first-round NFL Draft picks who delayed their entry into the pros.
"This is a group we been working for four to five years, and our experience shows,'' Tuberville said. "We've taken the approach of not worrying about who we're playing, but just trying to get better each week. Up to this point, it has been fun to watch them. Now we have two of our toughest games coming up.''
Up next for the Tigers is No. 9 Georgia on Nov. 13, followed by a trip to bitter rival Alabama for the Iron Bowl. As the SEC West champ, Auburn is already booked for the conference title game in a likely rematch with either Tennessee or Georgia. If the Tigers get through the title game 12-0, Tuberville will raise the Georgia Dome roof should his team not get an invite to the BCS championship game.
Already, he's pitching the idea of a quasi-four-team playoff in the future to avoid such potential controversy. And he's on record saying his Tigers, if they win the SEC title game, would be more deserving than an unbeaten Southern Cal or Utah -- neither of which would have played in a conference title game.
"I can't imagine an SEC team or a Big 12 team [potentially Oklahoma] would win all of its games and not have an opportunity to play for national championship,'' he said. "There is obviously something wrong with the system.''
Even on that, you have to smile and go along with Tuberville.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.