This is the Auburn AUghts, the WBE series looking back at the decade that was in Auburn Tiger football. Today: a retrospective essay on the individual most responsible for Auburn’s fortunes of those previous 10 years. Previously: the Plays, the Players, the Stories, and the Games. Enjoy.
One of my biggest pet peeves with Tommy Tuberville was his full name. Or more specifically, how it was used–in the mouth of Auburn fans, it was idol worship, an attempt to give an Arkansas-bred college football coach the legendary status of some great Victorian poet. In the mouths of Alabama fans, it was a mockery of that same idea, a satire emphasizing how small a man they believed him to be, a dig they hadn’t earned at a coach that had dominated them. I never read the name “Thomas Hawley Tuberville” and did something other than cringe.
Which is a shame, because the name Thomas Hawley Tuberville couldn’t fit him any more snugly. It’s the name of a football coach, which he was; the name of a Southern gentleman who puts on the charm in public and bites back a certain amount of bile in private, which he was; the name of a character in one of those short stories out of 19th-century American realism, by Hamlin Garland or someone like him, who doesn’t realize that a confluence of forces–some within his control, some beyond–have him on the brink of disaster. Which he was. “Thomas Hawley Tuberville” is the name of a man chopping wood outside a prairie cabin, happy with the warm burn in his shoulders, oblivious to the black clouds hung with snow in the distance. He could see them if he took the moment to look up from his work, but the sledge feels good in his hands and the maul sings in the wood and he doesn’t.
Which Tuberville was also*.
When the dust finally settled on Auburn’s coaching transition–early last summer, when all of Gene Chizik’s glittering new assistants were under contract, when the class of 2009 had somehow been salvaged in a whirlwind of late offers and big pulls, when Malzahn’s offense had proven itself something other than a disaster in the spring game–I think we all took a long-awaited breath, didn’t we? And exhaling, I found myself envying Tennessee.
Not for their choice of coach or their own supposedly invincible staff, of course. But for the timing on the Phil Fulmer decision–midseason, several games to go, plenty of time to both worry about who would become Fulmer’s replacement and pay tribute to the man who had guided their program so successfully for so long.
Auburn fans weren’t afforded that luxury. Our coaching search began the moment we learned Tubby was gone and never cut back to less than full throttle until Chizik was hired. The acrimony and shock of Tubby’s departure meant no one much felt like writing tributes. (I never did.) Vol fans were able to offer their long, impassioned good-byes over the course of weeks; Auburn fans woke up one morning and never saw Tubby again, save for his ESPNU appearances and “Auburn will beat Arkansas by three touchdown” gee-thanks-really predictions. Our good-byes never really got said, did they?
It’s a shame. He deserved them. So, more than a year after the fact, I’m considering this mine.
Strange as it sounds, if you ask me to pick the definitive game of Tubby’s Auburn tenure, I choose the 1999 edition of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Auburn 38, Georgia 21.
Because nothing defined the Tuberville era–not The Streak, not 2004, not his endless quotestream, certainly not the final wheeze at the end–like the sense that anything, anything could happen when Tubby was on Auburn’s sideline … both for better and worse. No matter how heavy an underdog, Tubby could snap his fingers and conjure the kind of win out of thin air that March Madness mid-majors would envy; no matter how heavy a favorite, Tubby could produce a team flat and lifeless enough to get run out of the stadium.
That Pandora’s box of possibilities was first opened that day in Athens. I could rehash the massive gap in record and ranking when the game kicked off, Ben Leard’s mind-boggling numbers, the blitzkrieg of big plays in the first half. But you’ve heard all that a thousand times. What’s worth rehashing is how utterly unfathomable that 38-0 scoreline early in the second half was. I remember staring at the screen and blinking: Auburn 38, Georgia 0. What? What? Tommy Tuberville had that Auburn team leading that Georgia team by 38. If ESPN had cut to a shot of Tubby taking off his headset and suddenly levitating up and into the press box to communicate with Mazzone directly, I’m not sure I’d have been any more surprised.
We didn’t yet know that we had a good coach. But that afternoon, we knew that Auburn had a coach that would give us hope. We knew that when we saw him walk out of the tunnel, arms locked and expression blank-but-somehow-confident, our football team would have an opportunity to win. That hope was a precious, precious thing, and he repaid that hope over and over and over again, right up until the very end. I thank him for it.
So this is what remains the most amazing and resonant thing about what Tubby accomplished in 2004. Not the overwhelming collection of offensive talent that makes a 13-0 SEC championship season possible; not the display of ice-blooded poise shown in the victory over LSU, one unequaled (in my opinion) in the 25-plus years I’ve spent following Auburn football; not the steady hand that joined Auburn’s current head coach in turning a collection of above-average but hardly dominant talent into the country’s best defense.
Not that, but this: for one season, Tubby eliminated the “or worse” half of the “anything is possible” equation. 13 times his team took the field, and 13 times they walked away victors. For one season, Tubby put together a team where something wasn’t possible: a loss.
How many coaches ever do that? Ever? It goes beyond the word “shame” that Tubby didn’t get to prove the “for better” half against USC. That would have been possible, too.
Also possible: a loss to Alabama. Even if Auburn had the better team. Even playing the game on the friendly soil of Jordan-Hare. Even with SEC titles on the line. We all learned that lesson in 2001.
But if a loss to Alabama was, like all things with Tubby, always possible, that lesson was applied in a way the ones from Tubby’s Arkansas encounters never were. Five times between 2003 and 2008 Auburn had a better team than Alabama. Auburn won all five of those games.
Many Alabama fans will say “So what? Auburn should have won. Auburn was better.” Auburn fans will tell you that Auburn having the better team represents an opportunity our head football coach cannot afford to miss. He missed against Georgia, missed against Arkansas, missed against LSU. But after 2001, he did not miss against Alabama.
That mattered–and matters–to us. That is what.
The hope. 2004. The streak. These are substantial, substantial gifts for a football coach to give his team’s fans, and Tubby gave us tons more beside: healing some (some) of the wounds from Jetgate; a program we could be proud of for reasons other than football, like a solid graduation rate and an absence from both the NCAA’s and local police’s rap sheets; a natural charisma and down-to-earthiness that gave Auburn people the personal connection to their football coach we’ve always craved.
This is why I wanted Tubby to return in 2009. He had given us that much. We could give him the dignity of another year.
But that doesn’t mean that after losing 36-0 to Alabama, it was the best thing for Auburn football. Because the coach we knew as Tommy Tuberville was gone. When he came out of the tunnel that day, the hope was there. When he want back in, it was gone. Tubby had gone an entire season in which we’d believed anything was still possible; what we learned in the misery of 36-0 was that some things just weren’t any more.
If we didn’t have that hope, we didn’t really have Tommy Tuberville. I still mourn the bitterness and divisiveness that marked his departure. I still celebrate his remarkable accomplishments at the Auburn helm. I still thank him for his gifts to me and everyone bleeding burnt orange and navy blue. I still wish he hadn’t become an overnight Auburn refugee, the ex you see around but never speak to.
But none of that changes the fact–the fact–that his time had passed. Auburn 38, Georgia 21 was the beginning. Alabama 36, Auburn 0 was the end.
So when you remember Tommy Tuberville, yes, remember the storm. Remember the cold, bitter winter of 2008. Remember the inevitable end.
But start elsewhere. Start with the hard work in the autumn sun, that sun glinting in his glasses, the broad smile and hands held high, the clouds still gathering far, far away. Start there.
*I realize there’s some hypocrisy in criticizing other fans for trying to position Tubby as some near-mythic heroic figure, and then turning around and portraying him as some near-mythic tragic figure. But I like the metaphor here, so, you know, whatever.
Remember also the Florida games. The ones in which the ol’ ball coach threw his visor into the grass in frustration at Jordan Hare. The ones in which the coach-bot’s emotionless gamesmanship came to naught, and his prized pupil was left on his home field looking up at the scoreboard in tears.
Remember the big away games against ranked teams. Perpetual underdogs in brilliant white with unknown players who rose to challenge the best teams in the nation and for one day, one game, play like champions in front of a hostile crowd.
Remember the defenses that crushed and sacked and frustrated the best offensive talent in the conference in game after game, year after year.
For all that and more*; thank you, coach Tuberville.
*His visits to the troops for two years straight were obviously from the heart and as such were greatly appreciated.
Losses to USF and Miss State in ’07 were back to back and I do not think the ship could be righted at that time. We loved him so much, we gave him 5 mil to walk away.
Pat Dye was twice the coach.
Bowden was 1/2 the coach.
Barefield was a coach?
Chizick can coach!!
Sully, there’s a hundred things that could have fit into the post. I tried to keep it tight. Well, tight by my standards, haha.
In any case: thank you for the additions.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
Damn fine work Jerry.
I will always remember him for exactly what you said: ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN. And that is why I never understood the unending love for him. My prime example is 2006.
That year, we beat Florida in one of the loudest games I have ever been too. However, I walked out of the stadium completely and utterly ticked off. Why? Because that same team failed to show up against an inferior Arkansas team a week earlier. (Yes, I know Arky went to Atlanta, but they were NOT better).
That year, after clawing our way back up the rankings, we only had to beat UGA at home to go to Atlanta and stay in the hunt for a NC. Final score: UGA 37 AU15.
My point is, the consistent inconsistency was what bothered me the most about Tubs. I will always respect the guy for running a clean program, for 2004, and for many other things that he did for us. However, I will NEVER forgive him for the lack of effort or discipline in the following games:
2001: Alabama 31, AU 7
2001: Arkansas 42, AU 17
2003: USC 23, AU 0
2003: Ga Tech 17, AU 7
2003: UGA 26, AU 7
2005: Ga Tech 23, AU 14
2006: Arkansas 27, AU 10
2006: UGA 37, AU 15
2008: The entire season. Even the wins felt like losses. (See: MSU, UT)
I’m right there with you Brad. Good memory and good addendum. The predictability was in the inconsistency, and it was maddening. When that inconsistency led to unexpected good times, it was great- -like the 07 win in the Swamp. There was alot of me pinching myself during that game, not believing what I was seeing. But then I think about seeing our team this year, with basically a level of scholarship athletes as if we were on probation- -when he always ran a clean program- -and the memories of the one-off good games faded, and I made peace with him moving on. It was time.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
Bottom line on Tubs moving on is that it was the right time for both parties.
“Stale” is the best word I can come up with.
His “awe shucks” Jimmy Johnson style of recruiting was stale and had its door blown off by Saban, Meyer, and Miles and their respective armies of road warrior assistants.
His staff was stale – as well as fat and happy with his unwillingness to fire any of the BBQ Crew at the expense of one (maybe two) well proven offensive coordinators.
The inconsistency had become stale as well. I thought 2004 had us past that, but apparently not. I could forgive Cox’s-INT fest to open 2005 for his inexperience as a starter and even Vaughn’s no show against LSU that year because the rest of the team did so well in that game.
But by the 2006 season we all knew (but most didn’t admit it; at least I didn’t) something was badly wrong. Even a 10-2 record didn’t feel good with all the hold-on-for-dear-life squeakers.
Missing Atlanta by one game had grown RIDICULOUSLY STALE.
By the time 2007 rolled around, the national media had all but left us out of any serious title discussions. We were no longer making big moves on the recruiting trail.
Tuberville’s momentum was gone. 2008 was a train wreck and here we are. Right or wrong from a moral standpoint, it would have been foolish to delay the inevitable another year — for AU as well as Tubs.
He should be better off at TTech considering the year off has forced a separation from his yes-men cronies.
And obviously Auburn is headed in a better direction. Tuberville’s goofiness was one aspect the bammers used to take those unearned digs.
Chizik has no goofiness for them to latch on to. His Iowa State record was their punching back for a while, but that has a finite shelf life. He either continues the current trajectory and becomes one of the most respected coaches in the country, or he loses ground and becomes another ex-head coach. Either way, the bammers won’t have him to kick around much longer.
Auburn Elvis says
I remember thinking when he got hired that he’d turn us into another Ole Miss… and at the end, we kinda were. But he also proved me wrong and took us to heights the Rebels could never dream of. If he’d only held his own in the recruiting wars, he could have single-handedly reversed the Iron Bowl imbalance the Bear created.
Xavier Garanzuay says
Coach TT, Thank you for all of the glorious highs. They are what I will remember.
Now it is time to move on.
Wow, Jerry, I just teared up a little.
I’ll admit, looking back, I have mixed feelings about his tenure…especially while looking at the roster that he left us. But while he was here, I loved him dearly. There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, where we will finally win a national championship, and take a moment to reflect on the history of our great program. When that happens, Coach Tuberville will be revered as one of the men who laid the foundation for greatness. He will be right there alongside Coach Jordan and Coach Dye.
Very good article! Sometimes it is actually better to let some time pass before writing an article like this one. I have fond memories of Tuberville’s time at Auburn, but personally, I think he got a bit spoiled by the ease of competing with Alabama under Shula, and was not prepared for the challenge, and speed of changes under Saban. As others have said, it was probably a time for a change, but we should try to remember the good games, and let the things that bothered us fade away, he is gone after all!
I had almost forgotten about that first year Georgia game (which I actually attended). When, after his first year, did we ever again dismantle a superior team? If we had more games like GA 1999 or LSU 1999 then I think I would remember his legacy more fondly. But his utter contempt for interesting offense made watching his teams painful, even in victory. He should have held on to that attitude of playing with house money he had his first year.
I’d say that he beat superior teams regularly.
Well, “beat” rather than “dismantle” after 2005.
Thanks for all the great comments, guys. Tubby’s tenure is the kind that you kind of get to view the way you want–do you remember the big W’s first and see the glass as half full, or the big losses and terrible end first and see the glass as half empty? You know which way I stand from the post, but even I wouldn’t call either way “wrong.” It’s one thing that continues to make Tubby such a fascinating figure in the history of our program.
That was an amazing article…. loved it. I hope Tubbs reads it, as well he should. It really doesn’t matter what people remember the most, what matters is that he “will” be remembered….and mostly for the good stuff he gave Auburn and it’s fans. He won;t be Doug Barfield, and he wont be some obscure name that people forget listed somewhere in a program as the coach of Auburn from 99-08…. I agree that once we win that NC, he will be utterly remembered for laying a foundation because as of the end of the last decade, no matter what people say, Auburn is always in the talk… even if its to say “I’m not sure Auburn has a lot a chance at a NC this year”… but we all know…. thanks to Tubbs… that with Auburn…. it;s always POSSIBLE!
SEC football is a constantly evolving deal. )The 2000 Ole Miss game was this past year and it looked like I was watching an old Super Bowl narrated by Steve Sabel.)
I loved Tommy for all the reasons you stated. But the game has, and will always, continue to change.
Like you said…..it’s like bumping in to an ex girlfriend that you always liked, you just didn’t like enough….and now you’re married. You have fond memories, but you married the right girl…..