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Even When He Was a Coach, Tommy Tuberville Was the Worst Kind of Politician

What do Tuberville’s college football coaching career and Alabama Senate campaign have in common? 

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s irrelevant to bring up Tommy Tuberville’s wins and losses as a college football coach as he runs to represent Alabama in the Senate. Sure, his stint as Auburn’s head coach from 1999 to 2008 explains why he’s running in the state, even though he was born in Arkansas and lived in Florida after leaving his most recent coaching gig at Cincinnati. But wins and losses are not important when deciding who gets to make laws in the United States. Saying Tuberville won six straight Iron Bowls is not a valid reason why he should be a senator. Pointing out that he lost to Vanderbilt in 2008 does not make him inherently unqualified. Dissecting Tuberville’s record as a coach during his Senate campaign makes about as much sense as arguing whether I’m a successful sportswriter if I ever try to become a commercial airline pilot. What’s important is whether I can safely land a plane, not whether my takes on the Heisman Trophy race are good.

Likewise, what’s important in Tuberville’s run for office is examining his political platform, not revisiting how he is by far the worst Cincinnati coach this century. (OK, I had to get one jab in.) But it can be difficult to get a sense of what that platform consists of, outside of complete allegiance to Donald Trump. Tuberville has refused to participate in any debates, both in the primary and general election campaigns, and declined to answer written questions about his policies. His campaign website lists “changing the way we treat our veterans” as his top priority, but IRS documents show that Tuberville’s personal charity kept most of the money it raised for vets. A website that tracks politicians’ statements finds Tuberville has not said enough publicly to determine his stance on civil rights, the environment, foreign policy, jobs, welfare, and several other issues. And during those rare instances when he has expressed his political opinions, they’ve been heinous. In August, he opposed providing economic relief to those who were out of work during the pandemic; in April, he speculated that the coronavirus and its related shutdowns “might be an experiment for the Green New Deal.”

The one thing Tuberville has repeatedly made clear is his opposition to non-white immigrants. While speaking to the Tennessee Valley Republican Club in June 2019, Tuberville said that the U.S. has “more Middle Easterners coming across the border than we do Mexicans.” He continued, “Folks, they’re taking over, and if we don’t open our eyes, it is going to be over with.” At a meeting of the Mid-Alabama Republican Club this February, he said there are parts of American cities where “you can’t drive through a neighborhood” because “terrorism has taken over, Sharia law has taken over.” And during a 2019 sports talk radio interview, Tuberville said that “we got a certain religion that’s come into this country and they can pray five times a day in our schools ... without repercussions. But if we say the Lord’s Prayer you know we get suspended, our kids get sent home.”

While many politicians who oppose immigration target illegal immigration, Tuberville said in a 2019 radio appearance that “we should back off” legal immigration as well. “They’re bringing all kinds of diseases with them that we don’t understand,” he said of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. “They’re not educated.” Tuberville’s nativist rhetoric dates back to his coaching days. While he was head coach at Texas Tech in 2011, Tuberville went on Fox News to parrot conspiracy theories about whether President Obama was born in the U.S.

Before running for office, Tuberville was a football coach for 40 years, starting as a high school assistant in the 1970s and progressing up to college head coaching positions. He also worked as an ESPN analyst in 2017 and briefly co-owned a hedge fund. (The latter stint ended with Tuberville’s partner being sentenced to 10 years in prison for fraud; Tuberville avoided indictment by saying he, too, was a victim.) He considered a gubernatorial run in 2018, and now is expected to become one of the 100 people who compose the country’s highest legislative body. Tuberville coasted to a win over Jeff Sessions in July’s Republican primary—Sessions, who held the seat until 2016, fell out of favor with Trump and his supporters during his time as attorney general—and is heavily favored to unseat the incumbent, Doug Jones, who in 2017 became the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate since 1990. Of the 11 Alabama Senate post-primary polls in the FiveThirtyEight database, Tuberville is ahead by double digits in nine.

If Tuberville is elected, the question will shift from what Tuberville stands for to how he will legislate. The job of politicians is to improve the lives of those they represent, even if they often spew false promises before turning around and serving their own interests. As a former college football coach, Tuberville has billed himself as an outsider who offers voters an alternative to longtime politicians—but that’s where examining his coaching past is relevant. While Tuberville’s career reveals little about his platform, it’s filled with examples of brazen dishonesty and self-serving behavior.

His first head coaching job came at Ole Miss. In 1998, he said that he would die as the school’s head coach, famously declaring on his radio show that “they’ll have to carry me out of here in a pine box.” Two days later, Tuberville left to take the head job at Auburn. A New York Times article from 2000 detailed how he left “without saying goodbye to his football team,” and his former players at the school have reflected on how they felt wronged by the move. “He addressed the whole team, saying he wasn’t going anywhere, and that he’s going to be a part of Ole Miss for a long time,” former lineman Ben Claxton said. “The next morning my mom woke me up and told me to turn it to SportsCenter. He was getting off a plane with an Auburn hat. It felt like a slap in the face.” Fans printed shirts featuring Tuberville’s face and the words “Liar, Liar” on them.

Decades later, the pine box comment still gets brought up routinely. When asked about it on a radio show in 2019, Tuberville said that Ole Miss was not willing to commit to him and his staff financially. Yet this explanation doesn’t align with his previous response to a similar question. When asked about the comment during a 2013 deposition over the hedge fund fraud, Tuberville said, “I can’t remember that.”

Tuberville left Auburn in 2008. This time, his resignation was to the point. “After long consideration, I have decided to resign,” Tuberville wrote in a two-paragraph letter to the school. “I understand that, notwithstanding my resignation, the University will make a total payment of $5,083,334 as outlined in Section 21 of my contract.” Such a demand was unheard of then, and would be unheard of now. Coaching buyouts are reserved for those who get fired, yet Tuberville somehow finagled it so that he quit and got Auburn to pay him millions. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said that Tuberville’s departure was “completely his decision” and that he and the school president asked Tuberville to reconsider three times. Yet they ultimately paid Tuberville his buyout because, according to Jacobs, it was “the right thing to do.”

Tuberville abandoned his team and was paid $5 million to do it, which seems more than a little hypocritical given that Tuberville now criticizes those “leaning on this country for a handout.” In September, Tuberville told attendees at a St. Clair County Republican Party meeting in Pell City that “too many people think they can get a sociology degree and then a job that pays a million dollars a year without working. It doesn’t work like that.” It doesn’t work like that, apparently, except when it comes to Tuberville himself.

Tuberville left Texas Tech in 2012. He famously sneaked out of a dinner with recruits so that he could accept a job at Cincinnati. “The waitress brought our food out, and we thought he went to the bathroom,” said Devonte Danzey, who was considering Tech but later committed to Auburn. “The next day, [Tuberville] announced he was going to Cincinnati.” The coach’s abrupt exit shocked Texas Tech players. “Never felt more anger in my life,” tweeted tight end Jace Amaro. “Can’t believe what just happened,” wrote safety Cody Davis. As at previous stops, Tuberville’s athletic director was stunned by the news. “As recently as yesterday [Tuberville] looked me in the eye and gave me his commitment and dedication to Texas Tech football,” Kirby Hocutt told reporters in 2012.

Tuberville left Cincinnati in 2016. He resigned shortly after telling heckling fans to “go to hell” and “get a job.” Cincinnati players noted that Tuberville acted as if everything was normal at a season-ending banquet in 2016, and left the team to find out about his departure via subsequent text messages.

On the campaign trail, Tuberville has tried to spin his constant coaching movement as a positive. Earlier this year, he took credit for leaving Texas Tech with star quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, when in reality both were recruited by Tuberville’s successor. (It’d be equally false for Tuberville to say that he recruited Cam Newton to Auburn, but everyone in Alabama would instantly recognize this as a lie.) Jones has turned the deceptive manner in which Tuberville has left programs into a campaign issue, airing an ad calling the coach a quitter during SEC games.

To many Americans who feel abandoned by the U.S. political process, the notion of an outsider running for office can be appealing. But one former Ole Miss player told Mississippi Today’s Rick Cleveland earlier this year that “Tubs was always a politician.” Beyond that, Tuberville has long identified as a “salesman”: The Washington Post quoted him saying so in 2005; he said it again the day before his introductory Texas Tech press conference in 2009; and he told a Republican club in Huntsville the same thing in June.

But this salesman doesn’t always believe the things he’s selling. In that same 2009 interview before his Texas Tech presser, Tuberville said it would be easy to attract recruits to the school because it’s a “great place.” Later, however, he said otherwise. In a 2017 sports radio interview, Tuberville said, “You run me off at Auburn and you ship me to Lubbock, Texas. I’ll tell you what, that’s like going to Siberia. Somebody asked me, ‘What’s Lubbock like?’ It looked like Iraq.” At Ole Miss in 1997, Tuberville called for fans to stop waving the Confederate flag at football games; now, he’s linking himself to Trump, who has called the Confederate flag a proud symbol of the American South. It seems that Tuberville’s stance had less to do with opposing a symbol of generational racism than with his desire to recruit Black players who could help him win games. “In the state of Mississippi, the best players are Black,” Tuberville reportedly told public relations pioneer Harold Burson in 1997. “With the flags on campus, we’re not getting our share of Black players that are going to other schools.”

Tuberville’s former players are quick to point out these discrepancies. When asked about Tuberville’s messaging on the campaign trail, former Auburn receiver Devin Aromashodu said, “That doesn’t reflect the person I knew. It sounds like two different people.” Slate interviewed four former Auburn players about Tuberville; when asked about his support of Trump, all four brought up the disingenuousness of their coach winning over the trust of young Black men and then supporting a president who has refused to condemn white supremacists. “What does that say about somebody who has always thought this way to make millions of dollars off the same people the president is intending to overlook or mistreat?” former Auburn defensive tackle Tommy Jackson said. “It’s shameful. It’s downright shameful.”

Tuberville’s win-loss record means nothing for his future as a senator, but his history of acting out of naked opportunism at every turn does. He has an extensive record of talking himself into positions of power and bailing at the first sign of something better. There’s no reason to believe that he’ll do what’s best for his constituents any more than he did for his players.