Coach almost replaced wins top honor
NEW YORK -- Tommy Tuberville followed the most difficult season of his coaching career with the best.
A year after he was nearly replaced by Auburn, Tuberville is The Associated Press coach of the year.
"I learned a lot last year from what we went through at the end of the season," he said. "I've been more relaxed this season."
In his sixth season at Auburn, Tuberville has led the third-ranked Tigers to a 12-0 regular season and its first Southeastern Conference championship in 15 years.
"It's probably been my easiest season as a head coach because of the great senior leadership this team has," Tuberville said. "Coaches tend to think the world is on their shoulders. I've delegated more authority this season than before. Because of that I think it's been an easier year."
But not quite perfect, despite the perfect record.
The Tigers failed to reach the Orange Bowl to play for the Bowl Championship Series national title. Auburn never could get past Oklahoma and Southern California in the BCS standings and will play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3.
Tuberville did far better in the coach of the year voting than his team did in the polls. He was a runaway winner, getting 35 of the 63 votes from the panel of media members.
Utah coach Urban Meyer was second with 14 votes. Meyer led the Utes to an unbeaten season and a berth in the BCS before taking the Florida job.
USC's Pete Carroll and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz received four votes, California's Jeff Tedford got three votes and Texas-El Paso's Mike Price got two. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Louisville's Bobby Petrino each received one vote.
Tuberville is the second straight SEC coach to win the AP award. LSU's Nick Saban was last year's winner.
As disappointing as being left out of the title game has been for Tuberville and his undefeated Tigers, this season has been far more enjoyable than last.
The Tigers began the 2003 campaign ranked in the top 10 and favored to win the SEC. But they lost their first two games of the season and stumbled to a disappointing 8-5 finish. There was speculation late in the season Tuberville might be on the way out.
It almost happened. It became public that Auburn officials, including the university president, had covertly courted Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to replace Tuberville.
"A little bizarre is an understatement," Tuberville said.
The failed coup was an embarrassment for the Auburn hierarchy and helped rally support for Tuberville from Tigers fans who felt he was treated unfairly.
Tuberville never griped about the administration's sneaky move and decided to stay with Auburn.
"I came back for two reasons," he said. "The players stayed behind us 100 percent and 99 percent of the people in the Auburn family stayed behind us.
"I told my staff 'We're not going to dwell on it. We're not going to hold grudges."'
Tuberville's actions strengthened his relationship with the players.
"I always respected him. I respect him even more now for staying with us, even though they plotted to get him out of here," receiver Courtney Taylor said. "It takes a bigger man to stay here and face everything that went on down here during that time. I love the man."
But even Tuberville admits he wasn't completely off the hot seat. So he made some changes to his staff, most notably hiring offensive coordinator Al Borges.
Auburn entered this season with modest expectations and a No. 17 national ranking. The Tigers cleared an early hurdle by beating defending co-national champ LSU 10-9 at home.
"I thought that showed a lot of character. We grew up a lot then," Tuberville said.
Auburn got into the national title race two weeks later with a 34-10 victory at Tennessee.
"We knew then we had something special," Tuberville said.
Tuberville's specialty is defense and the Tigers have excelled this season with a rebuilt front seven, having lost several players to the NFL. Auburn is allowing 11.2 point per game, best in the nation, with a slightly undersized but blazing fast defense, led by cornerback Carlos Rogers and safety Junior Rosegreen.
On the offensive side, Borges' West Coast offense finally cured the woes that have ailed Auburn under Tuberville. Quarterback Jason Campbell blossomed in his senior season and the Tigers finally were able to maximize the ample talents of tailbacks Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.
And just like that, Tuberville has gone from embattled to beloved on The Plains.
"You've just got to believe in what you're doing," he said. "We believe in hard work, teaching work ethic on and off the field. Let the players know you're here for them."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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