Tuberville savoring every moment

Originally Published: November 20, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The visiting locker room at Bryant-Denny Stadium was empty, save for some discarded ankle tape and the unmistakable olfactory bouquet of sweat and liniment. To borrow from Robert Duval in "Apocalypse Now," the Auburn Tigers' digs smelled like ... victory.

In a small back room was Thomas Hawley Tuberville, running a brush across his slick gray hair and grinning like a lottery winner. His team had just beaten hated rival Alabama 21-13 to go 11-0 and cap Tuberville's resurrection for the ages, one of the great 12-month turnarounds in athletic history. In the span of two Iron-y Bowls, he'd gone from being fired behind his back to being celebrated as the architect of the greatest Auburn season in 47 years.

Tommy Tuberbille
APTommy Tuberville and Auburn completed their first perfect regular season since 1993.
Yeah, that's why this man was smiling.

"This business is tough," Tuberville said, putting the brush away, hair perfect. "To go through something like that and get to this point makes it that much sweeter.

"The scheme didn't work."

Usually when coaches talk about schemes, they're talking about Xs and Os. Offense and defense. In this case, Tuberville was talking about betrayal of the seamiest sort -- a Judas Escariat kiss on the cheek from former Auburn president William Walker and outgoing athletic director, David Housel.

In the Iron Bowl a year ago, Tommy Tuberville was a dead man coaching. His team was an underachieving 6-5, he was going to be fired as coach of the Tigers, and he knew it. He just didn't let on to anyone outside the Auburn coaches' offices.

Not even a 28-23 victory over Alabama figured to change Tuberville's fate, which is why the staff couldn't disguise their bittersweet postgame emotions. The interview room last year was filled with coaches' wives wiping away tears.

"Coaches know," Tuberville said. "I knew. I couldn't get anybody to talk to me (the week of the Iron Bowl). Couldn't get any answers."

What Tuberville didn't know was that Walker and Housel were not just refusing to offer him support. They had already chosen his successor and flown off on a booster's jet to meet with him, two days before the Iron Bowl. In the final twist, Tuberville's replacement was to be one of his former assistants, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino.

But two days before Thanksgiving, the plot was uncovered by The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and the Montgomery Advertiser. When it hit the papers, Tuberville instantaneously went from embattled to empowered. How he handled that empowerment has resonated through his team to this day.

Tuberville did not lash out. He said he wanted his job back, and the shamed Auburn administration had no choice but to comply -- and to face the wrath of an appalled fan base.

From that point on, the coach took the high road in public. This was time to move on, not pile on.

"We all got together as a coaching staff and said, 'If the kids are going to learn anything from this, let's teach them how to handle adversity,'" Tuberville said. "Of course, it doesn't get any worse than that for a coach, people trying to run you off."

But his players didn't run off. They ran to the aid of their coach.

"It started last year with Coach Tub," said running back Carnell "Cadillac Williams. "The things he went through, the way he handled that whole situation, we saw that and knew he was special. We rallied around that."

Said safety Junior Rosegreen: "Some people stabbed him in the back, and our heart went out to him."

Since the backstabbing, Auburn is undefeated. Thirteen and oh. Somehow.

The loss of three NFL draft picks on defense has not damaged that unit a bit, and the formerly problematic offense has blossomed under first-year coordinator Al Borges. Behind Borges, quarterback Jason Campbell has become the least-likely Heisman Trophy candidate of 2004.

The result has been a dominant Auburn season -- not just unbeaten, but since mid-September the Tigers have been unchallenged. Until Saturday.

This being the Iron Bowl, there would be no getting off easy for the heavily favored Tigers. An injured-but-inspired Alabama team, gathering energy from a palpably fervent crowd, came out flying.

The Crimson Tide budged to a 6-0 halftime lead, holding Auburn to minus-4 yards of offense in the first quarter. The Tigers' defense continually had to make stops to keep Auburn in the game.

But even though Alabama took fresh hope with it to the locker room, it was accompanied by foreboding. Five first-half possessions in Auburn territory had produced just two field goals.

Tuberville's team was behind for only the second time this year, and the first time in two months. The Tigers might have been frustrated, but they weren't surprised.

"It's the Iron Bowl," Williams said. "We knew it wasn't going to come easy. When we were down, I wasn't bleeding."

It didn't take long for the Tigers to draw blood in the third quarter. They scored touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half to put the game away. Campbell rose ably to the tense occasion, completing nine out of 10 passes on those drives, and finished with trademark efficiency: 18-of-23 for 224 yards, one touchdown and one interception on a pass that slid through his receiver's hands.

Meanwhile, the Auburn defense did what it has done all season, suffocating Alabama's popgun attack. A touchdown with 86 seconds left made the final score look closer -- something that could be a concern for Auburn as it tries to impress voters in the battle with Oklahoma for the No. 2 BCS spot.

"People will look at this game and say, 'They struggled,'" Tuberville said. "Most people who vote haven't been to this game before. You better not watch it for style points. This isn't a style-point game. This is a slobberknocker."

And, very nearly, a tear-jerker.

As the final seconds disappeared on the scoreboard at Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night and the blue-and-orange visitors erupted in blissful screams, Suzanne Tuberville began walking after her husband, Tommy, toward midfield. Asked at that moment to compare how she felt at the end of this Iron Bowl vs. how she felt a year ago, Suzanne stammered.

"Oh, I don't think I have any words for that," she said. "If I say anything, I'll start to cry."

Her husband was too busy smiling postgame to choke up.

"This time last year, I didn't think I'd be back," Tommy Tuberville said. "Hopefully next year they'll let me come back."

You reckon?

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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