Nearly midway through 2020, the confounding year where surreal events have become expected, the news of Tommy Tuberville’s rise to the cusp of a United States Senate seat registers as perfectly on brand.
Tuberville is the former head coach at Auburn, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Cincinnati and maintains what one Southern pollster calls the political equivalent of a “two-touchdown favorite” in a Republican primary runoff in Alabama on Tuesday.
Tuberville is running against Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. attorney who served 20 years as a Senator in Alabama. Tuberville’s status as favorite is directly tied to his defiant campaign strategy of attaching himself to President Donald Trump, who has been vilifying Sessions, his former Attorney General, and promoting Tuberville with equal fervor.
Tuberville’s expected victory leads to this quintessentially mind-bending scenario for 2020: Come the November election, the race Tuberville is expected to run against incumbent Democrat Doug Jones could well end up dictating whether the Republicans retain control of the United States Senate.
The coach who won an SEC game 3-2, survived an attempted coup by the Auburn administration and infamously left the Texas Tech job mid-dinner with recruits could end up swinging the legislative future of the United States.
“The battle for the Senate could come down to this seat,” said David Mowery, chairman of the Alabama-based Mowery Consulting Group. “The Republicans have to have Alabama as a takeover to keep control. There’s going to be a lot of money spent. It’ll be a death march to the bottom for Democrats.”
That means we can expect Tuberville to be the epicenter of a high-stakes game of political football in a fall where actual football projects to be scarce. Assuming the polling is correct, Tuberville will be entering the mainstream political arena in the next four months.
And it’ll mean some fascinating revisions of Tuberville’s colorful career, one that saw him playing politician as well as he coached. After going undefeated in 2004 but shut out of the Bowl Championship Series title game, Tuberville showed up in the press box at Pro Player Stadium near Miami for the title game to personally lobby journalists for first-place votes for the undefeated Tigers.
Tuberville has no political record of any significance, so scrutiny will inevitably end up on his football career. President Trump bungling the name of Alabama coach Nick Saban, mistakenly calling him Lou Saban, a middling coach from a different generation, gave a window into how the worlds of football and politics will be intertwined as Tuberville’s campaign pushes forward.
Tuberville spent 21 years as a college head coach, finishing with a 159-99 record. He worked briefly as a television commentator after his career and has no applicable political experience. He’s best known for his decade at Auburn, where he went 85-40, beat Alabama six straight times and went 13-0 in 2004. He failed to find similar acclaim in later stints at Texas Tech (2010-12) and Cincinnati (2013-16), as he finished 4-8 in his final season and the late part of his tenure was hallmarked by apathy.
Along the way, charisma, accessibility and folksiness helped him forge an aura of one of this generation’s most well-liked coaches. He was born in Arkansas, once briefly ran a catfish restaurant called Tubby’s Catfish Pond – known for its frog legs – and met his wife at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
He worked for Jimmy Johnson and R.C. Slocum, has a winning record against Urban Meyer (2-1) and was national coach of the year in 2004.
“I think he’ll be real good,” said Texas Tech chancellor emeritus Kent Hance, a former congressman who hired Tuberville at Texas Tech. “He has good people skills. He gets along with people. He’s been a head coach. He knows you’ve got to give and take.
“In coaching, everyone thinks they know more about your job than you do. It’s the same in politics. You can second-guess every decision.”
Tuberville’s campaign ethos can be summed up in 60 seconds with his first campaign commercial.
The commercial begins with seven seconds of news clips of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. That image transitions directly to an American flag, and Tuberville’s voice cuts in saying: “The way I was raised, before a football game you stood to honor America.”
The ad then transitions to a flurry of buzzwords cribbed from Trump’s playbook. “Those values are under attack. Socialism, abortion on demand, open borders, it’s got to end.” He then says “drain the swamp,” “build the wall” and “respect law enforcement.”
He ends with a familiar Trump trope of embracing outsiders: “Weak-kneed, career politicians aren’t tough enough to stand with President Trump.”
Tuberville has refused to debate Sessions, limited his media appearances and done little of defining his policy agenda. When asked about what Tuberville has said about policy, Mowery let out a belly laugh.
“I don’t think that anyone voting for Tommy Tuberville knows or cares about his positions,” Mowery said. “He’ll vote the Republican way. He doesn’t need a detailed or nuanced view on immigration, because all he needs to say is he wants to build a wall.”
Tuberville’s ties to Trump have been the perfect campaign strategy in a state where Trump won more than 62 percent of the vote in 2016. Tuberville is a defensive coach by background, and he’s polled so well against Sessions that he has treated the waning weeks of the campaign as if he’s in victory formation bleeding out the clock.
Tuberville was known as the “Riverboat Gambler” during his time at Ole Miss for his penchant for trickery. Consider the opposite strategy appropriate in this election.
“The idea here is to not make mistakes or do anything controversial,” John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster and political consultant who works primarily in the South. “Do just enough to win the runoff. Don’t allow any onside kicks or fumbles to turn into touchdowns.”
Tuberville’s career features a flurry of coaching controversies that will certainly be probed if he wins and the months go on. A recent article in The New York Times dove into Tuberville’s legal issues over his partnership in a failed hedge fund. It ended in a fraudulent mess, as his business partner was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Tuberville was sued by and eventually settled with investors.
Tuberville’s wife, Suzanne, was involved in a controversial accident that resulted in the death of an 87-year-old while Tuberville was at Texas Tech.
Tuberville’s tenures at all four of his schools didn’t end well. True to his down-home nature, Tuberville didn’t just deny he’d be leaving Ole Miss for Auburn in 1998, he infamously declared they’d need to take him from Oxford “in a pine box.” He left, although upright. Tuberville technically resigned from Auburn in 2008, but was still paid a buyout of more than $5 million.
His Texas Tech exit may be his most colorful, as he suddenly left a recruiting dinner filled with prospects and assistant coaches unannounced. The recruits thought Tuberville went to the bathroom, but he never returned and Cincinnati announced the hire the next day.
Tuberville and Hance, the former chancellor, have patched things up. Hance said he’s chatted with Tuberville frequently throughout the campaign and helped him raise money. “Tommy Tuberville is a good guy,” said Hance, who practices law with Hance Scarborough, an Austin-Washington D.C. law and lobbying firm. “Sometimes breakups don’t end very well. Looking back, I can see both sides.”
Cincinnati hired Tuberville as the school was in the throes of courting the Big 12 conference as a landing place. He went 29-22 in four seasons there and ended up fired after a 4-8 season in 2016 best remembered for Tuberville telling a fan to “go to hell.”
Four years later, Tuberville has appeared walking off Air Force One with Trump and been the subject of flowery prose from the president’s Twitter feed: “He is a winner who won’t let you down.”
That tweet is followed by Tuberville’s defining strategy, using Trump’s social media muscle to pillory Sessions, the former U.S. Attorney General who has a toxic relationship with the president. “Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down,” Trump tweeted. “We don’t want him in Washington.
Neither do the voters of Alabama, according to the polls. “I hate to say it’s not all about love for Tommy, but it’s a lot about dislike for Sessions because of the president,” Mowery said.
While it’s too early to declare Tuberville a U.S. Senator in 2020 as an inevitability, he’ll be also considered a 14-point favorite in a November election. Mowery estimates that more than 350,000 voters in Alabama who go to the polls for Trump would have to vote against Tuberville. That doesn’t seem like good math for Jones.
And while Mowery predicts that Democrats will invest heavily in the November race considering the stakes, it’s important to remember one thing about the coach who once won an SEC game 3-2.
“He knows how to slog out a win,” Mowery said.
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