Will Alabama fans make an Auburn coach their next senator?


IN EARLY NOVEMBER, with No. 1 LSU invading Tuscaloosa to try to end an eight-game losing streak to No. 3 Alabama, Tommy Tuberville sets out to work the tailgate tents on 4th Street. Tuberville is one of eight candidates for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate seat in the March 3 primary, and based on limited polling data, he’s a legitimate candidate to beat out Jeff Sessions and others for the chance to unseat Democrat Doug Jones in the general election nine months away.

Tuberville coached Auburn in five Iron Bowls in nearby Bryant-Denny Stadium and won four of them, which makes him about as popular in the crimson-and-white portion of the state as toenail fungus. In 2006, after Auburn had won four straight Iron Bowls, Tuberville promoted the slogan “fear the thumb.” When the Tigers beat the Tide, 22-15, he walked off the Bryant-Denny field holding his hand above his head, his thumb joining its four mates splayed in victory.

At one of Tuberville’s first stops among the tents on this day, an older gentleman named Charles Patrick, a Bama fan by way of Tallassee, approaches. Tallassee is not far from Auburn, but Patrick made it clear where his loyalties lie.

“Coach,” Patrick says, elongating the word to roughly two-and-a-half syllables, “the thing I remember about you the most was if I had a gun when you held up those five fingers, I would have shot you.”

Tuberville grins, and Patrick has a twinkle in his eye, an indication that he has moved on. Probably. A few minutes later, Russ Rice of Montgomery says to Tuberville, “I’m just glad you ran out of fingers.”

“I didn’t run out of fingers,” Tuberville says. “I ran out of time!”

Last year’s 48-45 loss at Auburn notwithstanding, Alabama fans feel pretty good about themselves these days. The Tide have won five national championships since Auburn forced Tuberville out in 2008, forced him out because he got steamrolled by Nick Saban, same as the rest of the Southeastern Conference.

But the half-life of Iron Bowl memories remains strong and enduring. Alabama fans haven’t forgotten that Tuberville beat them seven times in 10 seasons, including a record six straight wins, and no one in the state had more fun during that winning streak than Tuberville. Now he must campaign on what amounts to foreign turf.

TUBERVILLE HAS A full platform for his Senate run. He can talk about education, about immigration, about supporting President Donald Trump, all issues important to him. Yet he’s running in a state where the Iron Bowl is contested 365 days a year, and he coached one side for 10 years.

There’s some benefit in that. Tuberville might be a political novice, but his name recognition this past August registered at 87%, well higher than that of any other candidate until the last-minute entry into the race of Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general who has won this Senate seat four times. One of Tuberville’s staffers estimates that kind of name recognition would cost $3 million to generate.

On the other hand, the other candidates in this crowded field don’t need to wonder whether half the state will write them off without a look. Tuberville’s tenure as the Auburn head coach remains the most successful decade against Alabama since the rivalry resumed in 1948. A dozen years after Auburn pushed him out the door, Tuberville needs the votes of Alabama, the people whom he mocked, scorned and, most of all, humiliated on the football field.

“There’s a difference between football and life,” Tuberville insists.

In Alabama, that is strictly rumor.

TUBERVILLE HAS NEVER been to a game in Tuscaloosa as a ticket holder, and he is just unsure enough of himself in these surroundings that he wears a gray suit over a gray crewneck sweater. He wants to impress people.

“You’re pulling for Alabama today, aren’t you?” someone asked him in his hotel lobby.

“Oh yeah,” Tuberville replies. “Roll Tide!”

Tuberville and his campaign manager, Paul Shashy, who holds two degrees from Alabama, slowly work the tailgate tents on 4th Street. Tuberville chats and poses for pictures, Shashy grabs the phones and shoots the pics, saying, over and over, “1-2-3 click; 1-2-3 click.” He hands out 2,000 stickers; the table the campaign set up across campus at The Quad goes through another 6,000.

The volunteers who work the Quad say they were cussed and spit at, but no one said anything unkind to Tuberville within his earshot. Most sounded like Warren Austin of Birmingham.

“We need you to win,” Austin says. “I didn’t think an Alabama guy would ever tell you that.”

Tuberville and Shashy head toward The Quad, their destination being the lawn of the President’s Mansion for a pregame reception. On most Saturdays, the reception attracts a sampling of the state’s power brokers. On this Saturday, for this game, there was no sampling; the attendees include pretty much the whole menu, plus some national figures.

As soon as Tuberville walks in, he says hello to Sen. Jones, the only Democrat who has won statewide office since 2008, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a childhood friend of Nick Saban’s. A few steps farther onto the lawn stands Sen. Richard Shelby, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and an Alabama graduate, with his wife, Professor Emerita Annette Shelby.

Shelby has already thrown his support behind Sessions; they served together in the U.S. Senate for 20 years. But Shelby greets Tuberville warmly. Kent Hance, the retired Texas Tech chancellor who hired Tuberville as the Red Raiders’ coach in 2010, went into the U.S. House with Shelby in 1979.

“Kent Hance loves you!” Shelby says. “I said, ‘I don’t know Tommy, but I respect him because he beat us so often.'”

They chat for a few moments, and Shelby eyes him closely.

“Run hard,” he says.

That hasn’t been an issue. Tuberville has applied a coach’s work ethic to his political career, taking note of the similarities and differences to his life’s work. As a football coach, fundraising meant treating the biggest donors to an all-expenses-paid trip with the team to an away game. As a candidate, Tuberville has chained himself to his desk for eight hours to cold-call potential donors.

Then there’s the travel. Tuberville bought a new truck at the beginning of the campaign, and in five weeks he put 14,000 miles on it. Enough of that — he parked the truck at his house and had the campaign rent one. He leaves the house on Sunday with a rack full of clean clothes on a rod across the back seat. He comes home at the end of the week, swaps out the clothes and heads back out on the next Sunday.

“This is recruiting on steroids,” Tuberville says. “This is full-speed all the time. You’re raising money, and while you’re doing that, you got to get people voting for you.”

Tuberville has attended a polo match in Point Clear on the Gulf Coast, the Peanut Festival in Dothan in the southeastern corner of the state and a Fourth of July breakfast on Sand Mountain, where the Appalachians peter out. If he loses, it won’t be because he sat back and waited for people to vote for him. Tuberville actually enjoyed football season, if only because the games meant he got time every Saturday to decompress.

HE WATCHES THE LSU-Alabama game in Suite 346, a north end zone box that belongs to his friend Frank Brown, who’s in the nursing home business in Cullman. President Trump is at the game, sitting in a suite on the same level on the east side. Tuberville walks past the suite several times, weaving through the gaggle of dark-suited Secret Service agents to visit friends. Someone coordinating the president’s visit tracked where Tuberville would be sitting, in case Trump asked for him. Tuberville did not ask for an audience.

“This is the type of guy, that, I think, you don’t push him,” Tuberville says. “He’s coming there to watch a ballgame. I just think it would be overkill.”

Among the guests in Suite 346 is Taylor Hicks, the Birmingham vocalist who won the fifth season of “American Idol.”

“Winning is everything in this state,” Hicks says. “I always knew that if I won ‘American Idol,’ I would always be recognized as a winner. That’s important. To a degree, Tommy Tuberville is in that same vein. There’s a level of respect that people have. Winning, and the essence of winning, is an undercurrent in the state of Alabama. People understand that. It’s involuntary.”

Tuberville went 85-40 at Auburn. He won one SEC championship and at least a share of five division championships. If Hicks is right, Alabama voters might transfer that success to the ballot. But other states faced with similar choices have not. Bud Wilkinson and Tom Osborne ran statewide races and lost. Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley both considered running in statewide races and blinked.

All four of those coaches won national championships. All four of them are in the College Football Hall of Fame. Three of the four of them coached at the state university for 25 years. Tuberville has none of those credentials. But Tuberville is more approachable than any of them.

When it comes to asking the common man or woman for a vote, it might pay not to be an icon. Before a November campaign event in Phenix City, an older man asks Tuberville, “What made you run for the Senate?”

“Watch TV much?” Tuberville says. “It’s a mess!”

His reason for running is a little more complicated than that. He says it’s not an ego trip, although one friend believes Tuberville is looking for a way to stay “relevant.” His wife, Suzanne, says, “He’s always been into politics. Let’s just say I’ve always had to watch way too much news.”

There’s also a standard by which Tuberville measures himself. Charles Tuberville, Tommy’s father, served in the Army during World War II. He received five Bronze Stars, each emblematic of a major battle. He suffered shrapnel wounds during the Battle of the Bulge and, after the war, joined the National Guard.

When Tommy got out of coaching four years ago, he thought of what his dad gave back to the country. That compelled Tommy to think more seriously about politics. He took an online course from Hillsdale College about the U.S. Constitution. He passed on local races, thinking he could get more done at the state level.

“At the end of the day,” Tuberville says, “the reason I’m running [is] I’m too old for the military. This is the best way for me to give back. And it’s really a lot of fun. I’m a people person. I don’t see how some of these people get elected, because after doing this, I’m thinking, man, you really have to enjoy being around people a lot.”

Ricky Smallridge, a two-time winner on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, teaches golf at the Auburn University Club. He and Tuberville are old friends. “When he was coaching here, we talked politics a lot,” Smallridge says, recalling Al Borges, the offensive coordinator on Tuberville’s undefeated 2004 team. Borges is from California. “He and Al Borges used to argue all the time,” Smallridge says. “Al’s from the left. Tommy told me when he let him go, he told him to take his liberal ass and get out of here. I don’t know if he really said that. It makes for a good story.

“No, he never did say that,” says Borges, a self-described “liberal Democrat of mass proportions” who’s retired and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But he probably thought it.” They jabbed at each other all the time during his four seasons on Tuberville’s staff, Borges says. “I didn’t take it personally.”

Tuberville looked at the Alabama gubernatorial race last year and passed. He chose instead to wade into the crowded Senate race, a group of Republicans all anxious to have a crack at Jones.

If there were ever any doubt that Tuberville should be taken seriously, that ended this past September when ALFA, the state farming group, endorsed him. He has been among the top candidates ever since. Bill Kennedy, a longtime friend in Auburn, noted an autumn poll that put Tuberville ahead by seven points.

“I told him I’ve seen him blow a seven-point lead before,” Kennedy said with a grin.

That poll was taken before Sessions entered the race. An Alabama Daily News/Mason-Dixon poll conducted earlier this month found Sessions narrowly leading Tuberville, 31% to 29%, within the margin of error of 5%. If no candidate reaches 50% of the vote, the top two advance to a runoff election. If Sessions and Tuberville were to reach that runoff, the 500 likely voters polled give the former senator a 49-42 advantage.

AFTER THE EVENT in Phenix City, a meeting of the Russell County Republican Club that draws 90 or so people — more than double the typical number of attendees — Tuberville drives to Atlanta for fundraising meetings the next morning. With the rain tickety-ticking against the windshield of his pickup, Tuberville reflects upon the uncharted territory before him. There’s no practice video to grade, no scoreboard to provide an answer.

“You’re here tonight,” Tuberville says, “and you wonder, well, should I have been in Muscle Shoals? This is the first thing I’ve done where you get done at night and you wonder, did I get anything done or not? There’s no winning or losing. You don’t know if you’re getting any better.”

Tuberville will find out March 3 whether his career as a politician continues toward a runoff. If not, he has a fallback plan. A voter walked up to him last summer wearing an Alabama shirt.

“Coach, I don’t know,” the man said. “I’d like to vote for you. But I’m such a strong Alabama fan.”

Tuberville pulled at the guy’s Alabama shirt and said, “Look, I don’t care if you vote to send me to the Senate or not. If you don’t, in a couple of years, I’m gon’ be coaching again at Auburn. I’ll kick y’all’s ass seven years in a row!”

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