Tuberville focused on Tigers, not traitors

Originally Published: December 3, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

AUBURN, Ala. -- He hasn't gloated. He hasn't said I told you so.

A year ago, when Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville had been fired every way but officially, he didn't indulge in self-pity. He didn't attribute it to God's will, plot revenge, go into hiding, throw crockery, get drunk, kick the dog, or react with any of the manifold emotions that would have been legitimized by the overthrow of his administration by university president Dr. William Walker.

"The next day, after we beat Alabama, it sunk in," Tuberville says. "That's it. That's the last one. That week, I was staring out the window, talking to my wife, wondering what we're going to do."

Tommy Tuberville
Tommy Tuberville went from nearly unemployed to undefeated heading into the SEC title game.
So Tuberville turned to his wife and says, "Suzanne, what if the school's attempt to get ride of me backfires, and we stay, and the president resigns, and we go on out and win every game? Think that'd work?"

OK, Tuberville didn't say that. He didn't even think it.

"I didn't hear a lot of sound advice from a lot of people," Tuberville says, "because nobody had gone through anything like that."

Nobody who hadn't been a character in one of Shakespeare's plays, anyway. To recap our plot, Tuberville stood in his home with a whole set of Auburn cutlery in his back. His president had offered his job to Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, Tuberville's former offensive coordinator.

To this day, there are some at Auburn who believe that Petrino actually signed a contract, but until it pops up on eBay, it exists only in whispers.

Maybe that's why Tuberville has yet to complain about the unfairness of Auburn possibly going 12-0 and being left out of the BCS Championship Game. After you've escaped from a trap that would make Indiana Jones throw up his hands, your perspective tends to change.

"It would have been pretty easy to point fingers, blame people and walk out with a pretty big check," says Tuberville, if $4 million is your idea of a big check.

"If these kids are ever going to learn anything from us, they are going to learn how to handle adversity," he told his staff. "We're not going to hold grudges. We're not going to talk about the past. We're going to talk about the future. We don't want this to linger."

Auburn defensive ends coach Terry Price has been with Tuberville for the last 11 years, going back to Texas A&M, when Price was a graduate assistant and Tuberville was the Aggies' defensive coordinator.

"He was kind of a beacon, if anything," Price says. "You saw him standing strong in the middle of it. That was serious leadership. I've been around the guy 10 years. If anything was going to shake him, that was. He never was shaken. You could go into the fetal position, or raise Cain. You never heard him say one bad thing about anybody. He stayed steady.

"He has always seemed that way. He has always shown amazing leadership. Where he gets it from, I honestly don't know."

It is the day after Thanksgiving, and Tuberville is sitting in his office, one bank of windows overlooking the practice fields, another overlooking a gray, deserted campus. He's doing what most American males are doing, clicking from one game to the next and back again.

Tuberville always has radiated an amphibian calm. He has a friendly face, but one that could do as well at a table of Texas Hold 'Em as in a recruit's living room. He takes his humor dry. In his early days at Auburn, and his previous tenure at Mississippi, he could spring an onside kick or a fake punt at any time.

"I try to keep everything bundled up inside me," Tuberville says.

Coaches compartmentalize. They must be a father figure to their players, a CEO to their staff, the public face of the university to the fans and media and still have time for their wife and family.

Which brings us to the heart of how Tommy Tuberville, one year after the abortive coup, will be boarding a bus for Atlanta and taking his Tigers to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

"This wasn't personal," Tuberville says. "This was business."

He understood what Walker was doing. He reacted the same way. After the 1998 season, he walked out the door at Ole Miss without much more than a wave and came to Auburn. The catcalls didn't stop until the last year or two. The bitterness at Ole Miss didn't subside until Eli Manning mended the Rebels' broken hearts.

He says he is more relaxed this year. He says he learned from the way his players didn't react to the chaos around them. Maybe he did, but it's pretty clear from whom they took their lead.

"He's more aggressive now," senior safety Junior Rosegreen says. "He does a lot more talking at practice. He tries to get the players hyped. That's a good thing. He'll walk up to a player at practice and say, 'You ready to get fired up?'

"When you're more relaxed and you got your head up high, it's hard to bring a man down," Rosegreen says. "He's got his confidence in his players, his coaches and himself. It's hard to stop a man like that."

Auburn will go to Atlanta to play SEC East champion Tennessee, a team the Tigers beat 34-10 on Oct. 2, and that's when the Volunteers were healthy. Of the three BCS contenders at the top of the polls, Auburn has been the steadiest. The best Tigers are seniors, and that combination of talent and experience is more valuable than it used to be because in the era of early departures for the NFL, it doesn't happen as often.

It doesn't look as if the Tigers will be able to climb out of the No. 3 position in the BCS standings and get into the FedEx Orange Bowl to play for the national championship. USC and Oklahoma are undefeated and preparing to play lower-ranked, less-talented teams than Tennessee.

Auburn is trapped, with no way out. Tuberville has been there before.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com