Tommy Tuberville wasn’t the best available football coach in Alabama when Republicans tapped him for a US Senate run in 2020. He wasn’t, in fact, even the best available former Auburn coach. What he was was a silver fox with name recognition who had pledged allegiance to Donald Trump and to toe the party line. A useful idiot, in other words.
After trouncing former US attorney general Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary and winning election to the Senate by double digits, Tuberville has proven as much a far-right team player as advertised; not surprisingly, he believed the Big Lie and was one of the dozen Republican senators who were prepared to vote against certifying Joe Biden as US president. And yet the 68-year-old really didn’t distinguish himself in his new career as a Trump surrogate until this month.
Speaking at a Trump rally in western Nevada on Saturday, Tuberville blasted Democrats as crime enablers who risked destroying the republic by engaging with Black Americans in an overdue conversation about reparations. “[Democrats] want crime because they want to take over what you got,” Tuberville crowed to the blindingly white crowd. “They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that. Bullshit! They are not owed that.”
The offensive play, though met with thunderous applause on the stump, ran swiftly out of that arena and smack bang into a wall of backlash. NAACP president Derrick Johnson pronounced Tuberville’s rant “flat out racist” and of a piece with “a centuries-old lie about Black people that throughout history has resulted in the most dangerous policies and violent attacks on our community.” Former South Carolina state representative Bakari Sellers was more blunt, saying Tuberville “can go to hell.”
Doug Jones, Tuberville’s Democratic predecessor, scorned the senator’s comments as “deplorable.” Jones added: “He made millions of dollars as a coach supposedly trying to mentor Black men. He should know better.”
Should he, though?
If the past half-century of college football has taught us anything, it’s that the system, rather than helping Black players, exploits them to enrich old white coaches. And like those coaches, the bulk of them decidedly mediocre, Tuberville mastered the hokey art of ingratiating himself with Black families and promising their sons a better life – as long as they did precisely as he said. While that bargain notionally worked out for some signees, not least the 29 Auburn players who reached the NFL during Tuberville’s time in charge of the Tigers, scores more got very little.
The NCAA’s freshman success rate (FSR) charts graduation rates for college athletes. During Tuberville’s decade-long tenure at Auburn, from 1998 through 2008, his teams posted an average FSR of just 53%, well below the national average. In a country where having a college degree is a requisite for a vast array of jobs, Tuberville was far more interested in upholding his one-percenter status than setting up his charges for a bright future.
Also, like a lot of fringe former players turned big-time football coaches, Tuberville is a shameless climber. After helping the Miami Hurricanes to the 1993 national championship as defensive coordinator, he left for the same job at Texas A&M, where the team went undefeated in 1994. As coach of Ole Miss in 1998 he famously vowed to die in the job, declaring that he’d have to be carried out of Oxford, Mississippi, “in a pine box”. Two days later he took the Auburn job reportedly without so much as saying goodbye to his Ole Miss players.
At Auburn, Tuberville guided the program out of the doldrums to a 13-0 record in 2004 with a backfield that included three Black stars – quarterback Jason Campbell and tailbacks Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. That success earned Tuberville a seven-year extension that paid $2m a year. But no sooner had the trio of Black stars who had helped secure him a lucrative contract headed to the NFL, Tuberville’s hot streak cooled. In 2008, the Tigers fell to a woeful 5-7 – a record that included losses to conference cellar-dweller Vanderbilt and shutout to blood rival Alabama. At the end of that season, with three years still to serve on his contract, Tuberville tendered his resignation in a two-paragraph letter to the school – along with an invoice for $5m, thanks to a well-buried early termination clause.
Moving on to Texas Tech in 2010, Tuberville logged three seasons in Lubbock before skulking out of a 2012 dinner with recruits to accept a job at Cincinnati, outraging the student guests. Tuberville hung in that job for four seasons before resigning again, telling fans disenchanted with his 29-22 record to “go to hell” and “get a job.” In between those coaching gigs, he started a hedge fund with a former Lehman Brothers broker who’d wind up serving a 10-year federal prison for fraud. Tuberville, meanwhile, was not prosecuted, casting himself as an unwitting victim.
Football primed Tuberville for the politics of hypocrisy. Where he once effectively kicked off the era of megamillions reparations for college football coaches, now he scolds society’s most vulnerable for “leaning on this country for a handout.” (Never mind that Auburn’s $26m in football and basketball coaching severances paid over 15 years, including his, ranked second in the NCAA, according to a 2020 study.) While at Ole Miss, he called on fans to stop brandishing the Confederate flag at football games. As a rookie senator, Tuberville has not only embraced Maga Republicanism; he was seen fraternizing with members of the 6 January mob at Trump International Hotel the night before they stormed the Capitol. And even Tuberville’s early civil rights stand was self-serving. “In the state of Mississippi, all the best players are Black,” one state spin doctor recalled Tuberville saying in 1997. “With the flags on campus, we’re not getting our share of Black players that are going to other schools.”
Tuberville, yet to apologize for his comments, has always been a salesman first; he’s been calling himself as much for years, all the while pocketing north of $25m during his time as a football coach. And like a true American huckster who’s simply hustling to survive, Tuberville will do whatever it takes to close the deal: Take credit for the careers of Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes (despite their being recruited by Texas Tech successor Kliff Kingsbury, now head coach of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals). Start a foundation to build homes for veterans (while reportedly withholding two-thirds of the donations). Dog whistle to appeal to adherents of white power. Whatever it takes to win. So what if he doesn’t exactly know how the federal government actually works? “That’s where he stands right now,” Karlos Dansby, who played under Tuberville at Auburn, told AL.com. “I guess it’s a game within the game that’s being played. He just took it to the extreme.”
Alabamians should have known better than to elect a football coach to the country’s highest legislative body. As much as they preach God and family and respecting the tenets of the game, big-time football coaches aren’t programmed for compromise. They measure success by how often they get their way, 10 yards at a time. It hardly matters who gets run over in the process.