CINCINNATI – On a drizzly Saturday before the start of fall practice, Tommy Tuberville was conducting his fantasy camp for about 15 older guys. It's a tradition Tuberville has carried with him from job to job, Mississippi to Auburn to Texas Tech and now here, to Cincinnati.
Guts protruded within the men's red jerseys and gray hair topped most of their heads. One man was hobbling around on crutches, courtesy of a pulled hamstring.
"I didn't even know you had one," Tuberville needled in his deep Southern drawl.
A staffer informed the coach that the man is a lawyer. Personal injury.
"Oh my God," Tuberville said, in mock horror. "He's going to sue."
Tuberville instructed the injured barrister to get on the coach's golf cart for a ride from the practice field to the Bearcats football facility. Tuberville turned on the cart's sound system and out came country music.
"At camp we can play Lil' Wayne and Merle Haggard," he said. "The players can get their music one day, next day I get mine."
The golf cart belongs to the coach, not the school. Tuberville bought it when he was the coach at Auburn, then took it with him to Lubbock and now here.
There are three layers of logos on the cart. Every time Tuberville has changed jobs, he puts another school's colors over the top of the previous stop.
This figures to be the final remodeling the golf cart will have. Cincinnati looks like the last roundup for Tommy Tuberville.
It is outside his comfort zone – an Arkansas native who had never coached north of Jonesboro, Ark., until now. (Perhaps the golf cart should be outfitted with snow tires.) He's been a college-town kind of guy, and now he's working in a big city populated with pro sports. After banging heads with powerhouse programs in the Southeastern Conference and Big 12, he's in the marginalized American Athletic Conference at a school that is expected to carry the banner in the future.
That's a lot of change for a guy who will be 59 next month. And he could scarcely be happier.
"I've enjoyed every minute of it," Tuberville said. "You hate leaving your friends, people you work with and your players. It was hard to go in there and tell those guys."
The departure from Lubbock was abrupt, to say the least. The entire process of jumping from Texas Tech to Cincinnati took about 36 hours, according to Tuberville.
He and Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock knew each other from their days working at Auburn a decade earlier, and both men said Babcock originally reached out last December to ask about other potential successors to Butch Jones. But it didn't take long before the conversation turned to Tuberville himself.
After the school had success with three straight up-and-comers – Mark Dantonio, then Brian Kelly, then Jones – Babcock liked the idea of hiring the most established football coach in school history. And Tuberville had interest, even though it seemed like a lateral move at best to many.
He liked the track record the Bearcats have had in recent years – five seasons of double-digit wins in the past six, and two BCS bowl appearances – but there was a personal draw as well. Tuberville's wife, Suzanne, is a native of southeast Indiana, about 30 miles from Cincinnati. Tuberville told Babcock he would talk it over with her.
"It took an eternity for him to get back to me," Babcock joked. "Maybe 30 minutes."
Suzanne was all-in. The Tubervilles now have a home in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and son Troy is a junior on the Lawrenceburg High School football team. (Tommy also has an apartment downtown, closer to campus, in the same building with Reds manager Dusty Baker.)
"It was an opportunity to get my wife closer to home," he said. "I've [dragged] her everywhere."
But in addition to the attraction of Cincinnati, there was some repulsion at Texas Tech. Tuberville was ready to get out of the shadow cast by his predecessor, Mike Leach. An outsider replacing a big winner who was controversially ousted made for an uncomfortable situation.
"It was good, it was just tough," Tuberville said. "It was tough taking over for a guy who changed the culture of football – not just in Lubbock, but a lot of places. Hal Mumme pretty much started it and Mike learned from him. Mike went in there and won and took the mentality of all or nothing, throwing it 80 times a game. When you create something like that, that's never been there, it's hard to replace that.
"My philosophy wasn't even close to that. We kept throwing the ball and we had good quarterbacks and receivers, but I tried to instill more defense and a little different philosophy. We had a lot of people on our side, and I'm not going to say the other ones weren't on our side. But there was still a resentment from Mike's group – not against me, but of him not being there anymore. We fought it a little bit."
Tuberville said he wondered "whether we can ever overcome this." The best way to do it, in his mind, was flight over fight. Meanwhile, Lubbock is full of enthusiasm over new coach Kliff Kingsbury, a Leach disciple and former Red Raider quarterback.
"It's probably worked out the best for both, because they brought one of their own back," Tuberville said. "Kliff's a good young guy who's going to make a good head coach. Obviously, he will be accepted a lot quicker than anybody else – not just me, but anybody else, from being part of Mike's time there. … Sometimes there's battles you can't win."
The American Athletic Conference needs Tommy Tuberville to win a lot of battles at Cincinnati in the coming years. The Bearcats should have Most Favored Program status from the league office right now.
Louisville is the kingpin on paper, but Louisville is leaving after this season for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Connecticut has regressed the past two seasons. South Florida and Central Florida have potential but haven't yet capitalized on it and remain wait-and-see powers. Houston and SMU are outmanned by the Big 12 and SEC powers within the Texas borders.
Cincinnati is the program the American can pin its hopes to right now. Tuberville inherited a good team from Jones, and could strike a blow for league pride right away: the Bearcats host Purdue in the opener and then face Illinois in week two. A 2-0 start against the Big Ten would be a nice boost to a conference everyone loves to disparage.
"We're in good position," Tuberville said. "The facilities are as good as most here, maybe better. We've just got to keep winning games and hope it works out."
If it works out, expect the old Southerner to spend the rest of his career here in the Midwest. Tommy Tuberville's well-traveled golf cart will need no more remodeling.
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