A Q & A with Tommy Tuberville, part one

Tommy Tuberville was announced as the University of Cincinnati’s football coach on Dec. 8, 2012, replacing Butch Jones after Jones left UC for the job at Tennessee.

Tuberville has been a head coach at Mississippi and Auburn in the SEC and came to UC after three seasons at Texas Tech from the Big 12. He left Texas Tech in much the same way that Jones, Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio had previously left UC – on short notice.

He was an assistant coach under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson at the University of Miami during the Hurricanes during the mid-80’s and early 90’s. Tommy Tuberville has been there and done that when it comes to college football. His teams have been successful on the field and his players have performed well in the classroom over the years.

The Bearcats are coming off a 10-3 season which included a 48-34 win against Duke in the Belk Bowl. It was the program’s fifth 10-win season in the last six years and it has won outright or shared four of the last five Big East championships.

As his first spring practice session wraps up, Tuberville took time to speak with FoxSportsOhio.com about himself, this team, the UC athletic program as a whole and the state of college football as it continues to evolve with conference re-alignment.

This is the first of a two-part Q&A with Tuberville. You can read Part II here.

FSO: What are your impressions of the team as spring practices come to a close?

TT: Pleasantly surprised. You never know what you’re walking into. I knew there had been a lot of games won here, and the they’ve gone to two BCS bowl games, so there has been some success but I’ve taken over teams before and the one thing you always worry about is how are the players going to receive you and the coaching staff? And what are they made of? Is it a team that has leadership? Lacks leadership? Do they have the drive? Do they have the will? What do you really have? I’ve been really impressed with, No. 1, their work ethic and their desire to win, to win games. They practice hard.

I put them through it. Our offseason is hard. It’s not just spring practice but it’s about their work ethic in the weight room, the class room and all of that. I hold them accountable for everything. The reception we’ve been given by the players is outstanding. They want to win. They want to continue to get better. They know there are obstacles. There are always obstacles when you change, when the philosophy changes from one coaching staff to the next – no matter who you are it’s going to change – but I think the transition has been great. Obviously there is a lot we have to do in terms of getting to know people and recruiting and the area but just within this building the players have been great and I’ve been excited about their desire to learn what we’ve been trying to teach them, to change over the ways that we believe in. It’s not that the other was wrong but you can only do what you know.

It’s been a lot of fun but transitions are hard. Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas Tech and now here – this is my fourth one and the first six months are very tough because you’re bringing in new coaches and families and getting moved, getting to know the players, changing work habits and times. There’s just not enough time in the day. Once you get to the six-month point normally you feel a little bit relieved. Actually after three months here. It’s been a lot easier after three months than it has been the other places I’ve been. For some reason it’s all just kind of fell into place.

FSO: Is there a chip on the shoulder of this athletic department? Not just the football program but the whole department? I ask that because of the many changes going through college athletics in terms of conference alignments.

TT: I think there should be because this has been one of the winning-est teams for the last five, six years in college football and has done a lot of good things. But sometimes you pay the price for what has happened before that. You’ve had some good football teams but – and I don’t think it was the people in this building’s fault – the emphasis from the higher ups wasn’t what it is now. I think when you don’t have the emphasis put on it for many, many years like it is at other schools I think you’re lacking in something.

To answer your question, I think there is and should be a chip on the shoulder of the administration here and the players in basketball and football of ‘hey, what about us?’ But, as I’ve told our players, don’t worry about anything you can’t control. We can’t do anything about that. We’ve got a good schedule next year and we’ve got to get ready to play. We’ve got to put the best team out there we can.

Is it going to change? Are we going to change conferences? I don’t know. Nobody knows. College football has changed more in the last five years than it did in the first 30 I was in it. I think there’s going to be more change coming. I think you’ve got some conferences that do have to grow. They can’t stay where they’re at when you’ve got some that are twice the size as others. I don’t think TV is going to let that happen. I think you’re going to see a more balancing effort between four or five conferences. Are we one of the top 50 or 60 schools in the country in terms of its football program the last six, seven years? Sure, and so I think that’s going to pay dividends but we’ve talked about it as an athletic department. I’ve talked about it to the athletic director and with the president that we need to do everything we possibly can to make our situation look better if the situation arises. Whether it does or not, we can’t worry about it, but if it does we’ve got to make it more attractive.

We’re adding on to the stadium. We’re enhancing all of our scholarships in our other sports.

FSO: Since you just touched on it, how important is enhancing the other sports programs? From what I understand, you brought it up to the administration.

TT: There are some areas where we don’t have scholarships in some sports. I’ve made a donation to it, and I hope that helps, but that can’t be it. It’s got to come from more other places. I think all of those enhancements we’re making are going to make it a brighter package to look at and a better package when the time comes. It’s going to come and it might come between us and two or three other schools. The only thing we can do is make it look better.

FSO: Is that something you’ve always believed in, that the overall athletic program development was important?

TT: I don’t think universities can live off of one sport, although football is going to bring in the majority of the money. I think all of the other sports do their due diligence in terms of making and giving students an opportunity to say I want to go there because I like baseball. I’m not a baseball player but I want to be a student there and I want to follow the baseball team or follow the basketball team. I think you have to be competitive in all. It’s obvious that you have to be very competitive money-wise for football and basketball but I’m a true believer in all of the sports – in golf, in tennis.

We were competitive in a lot of sports at Auburn. We won national championships in swimming, and don’t think that didn’t bring a lot of notoriety to our football team. You can win a national championship at Auburn. Look at what David Morris has done. Heck they won seven, eight, nine national championships in swimming while we were there. It’s got to be a well-rounded athletic department. It can’t be built on one sport because what happens if that sport falters for three or four years? Then you’ve got problems. It’s hard to keep continuity going in one sport because there is a lot of competition going on.

I think Whit Babcock and president Ono and our Board of Trustees are well aware that our athletic department needs to grow and get better because it enhances our university.

I know at the University of Miami, a private school of 10,000, but our enrollment went up 15-to-20 percent every year that we won and won a national championship. Students who are not athletes at the college level but (still) want to go and they want to have someone to root for. They want to be a part of that. Even though they might just be a student or a fan, they want to be a part of that. I think that’s important for schools to have a well-rounded athletic program.

FSO: Have you made any decisions with the quarterback position? If not, when do you plan to make a decision?

TT: No. We’ve got two seniors and I told both of them I want them to compete. That’s the best way to make you better. When we get about mid-way through two-a-days we’ll let them know who the starting quarterback is going to be but until then we won’t make a decision.

If you look at the scrimmages we’ve had, Brendon Kay has played better but there have been better practices that Munchie (Legaux) has had. Then you have Bennie Coney, who is a sophomore, who has played well. There really is no sense of urgency. It’s more for talk between alumni and media than it is for me. Our sense of urgency is having a quarterback that everyone believes in when we get to the first week of the season, not now because that could change overnight.

FSO: How much do you look at tape from last year in determining what’s going to go on this year?

TT: We looked at some but kids grow up and change every year. They’ll be totally different next year than they are now both physically and mentally. We’ve looked at cut-ups. We’ve looked at more cut-ups than we’ve looked at games. We’ve looked at certain situations they were in and how they played, how they blocked or how they tackled. The worst thing is to make a decision on film before you can make one up from actually watching the kid do it. We’ve tried not to get any preconceived notions of any player anywhere I’ve been before or here.

There are some kids here that I’ve talked to who are happy because they think we’re looking at them more than the last group. Now, that’s probably not true but if we had just gone on starters from last year or backups or any of those things and had preconceived notions then we might have made mistakes. The best thing to do is to just go in with an open mind. I’ve brought them in, talked to them one-on-one, asked them what they play, where are you from, what are your goals and all of that. I didn’t care whether it’s first, second or third team. I just want to get to know them.

You play left guard? Good. We’ll give you every chance to be the starter. You’ve got to show us what you can do. That’s pretty much how we’ve handled it.

FSO: You have found that people will respond to that approach in a positive way?

TT: Oh yeah. All they want is a chance. That’s what I told everyone: Everyone is on a level playing field, everyone has the same chance. We don’t know you, you don’t know us. We’re going to coach you hard. I don’t care who it is, whether you’re black, white, green, red, freshman or senior, A-student or D-student, we’re going to play the best ones that get the job done. That’s the bottom line. They usually respond to that.

FSO: What are your biggest concerns coming out of the spring?

TT: Just depth in some areas, and that’s every school. You can go to every school in the country and that’s a concern. We’ve got some experience in some areas. We’re not as experienced on defense as we are on offense. We lost four starters but I think we brought in a good mix of experienced junior college guys, six or seven guys who I think can help. All of them aren’t here yet so the jury is still out on those guys, but we wanted to come out of the spring with a good idea of what these guys could do.

As I told them today in a team meeting, the big thing after spring practice is going to be determined not by the first three months that you’re here but the next five months that you do when we’re not around you. How much are you going to get better when we’re not around you between now and August? That’s where you make your football team, where your players push your guys when coaches aren’t there. Throwing, passing, lifting weights, running. All of those things will make a bigger difference than what we’ve done the last couple of months.

FSO: You hired Vince Suriano to help you with recruiting, especially locally. What’s your philosophy when it comes to recruiting and how important is Greater Cincinnati going to be to your program?

TT: There’s no bigger opportunity for recruiting than the immediate area that you live in. I did the same thing at Ole Miss, at Auburn and at Texas Tech. I hired a local guy that was a high school guy who knew the coaches in the area, who knew the lay of the land, because we had no clue. Every day we talk about different high schools in the area because if we’re going to have success here the majority of it is going to come from 100 miles from here.

A lot of it, when you’re in a city like this where we have probably 30-40 schools within 10 miles of here, you’re not going to get them all but you’ve got to do your homework. There are going to be some players that we take from the high schools that a lot of people are going to wonder why we took that guy but we’re going to know a lot more about him because we’re going to have had him in our camps, we’re going to have watched him play and we’re going to be able to watch him grow up. We’re going to be able to have good input from coaches that we see all of the time at events.

That’s how Miami was made. The University of Miami made it off of players that were 10 miles from their campus. The advantage that you have at a place like Miami and Cincinnati is you have the ability to be around players a lot more. Recruiting is like rolling the dice and the farther away you go from your campus the less time you have to spend with players in terms of being able to watch them grow up, be around them, get them to your games or go to their games, see them in basketball, see them run track. The farther away you go the harder it is to evaluate them.

At Miami, we were able to take guys that were players that nobody else recruited. I recruited Ray Lewis when nobody else offered him a scholarship.

FSO: So you and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis have a connection in Ray Lewis?

TT: He grew up in Lakeland, Florida, a few hours north of Miami, and I became good friends with the high school coach there. I helped him put the 4-3 defense in. He came to Miami a lot and we got to talking about some players. He told me about Ray. Ray played quarterback, he played running back, (and) he played a little safety. He was just an athlete. That’s how we got him, just through connection.

It’s going to be the same here. We’re going to get to know the high school coaches and they’re going to say ‘coach, look at this kid. He’s an 11th-grader, he’s a little undersized but he’s growing. Unlike 17, like most of them, he’s 15 and a half, he started early.’ You know more about these kids and you can keep an eye on them and you can watch them mature. You can see how much of a kid’s upside is going to be tremendous.

If you go to California to take a kid, we’re not going to hardly know anything. We’re rolling the dice. Out of 25 players that you sign every year, hopefully when they graduate you’ve got 20 of them on your team – you’re going to have attrition for a lot of reasons – and I tell people this all of the time: in college football, you’re going to win with good players. You’re not going to win with great players. It would be nice to have a lot of great players on your team but not many people do but if you have a lot of good guys who understand your philosophy, who work hard, who play hard together, that’s how you win in football.

I have this analogy that you can take Michael Jordan and any other four guys and you can win a basketball game. You can’t do that in football. You take Peyton Manning and put 10 guys around him and you ain’t going to win games. You’ve got to have a lot more. It takes about 50 guys every year. We usually play about 50 players in a season. You’re going to have your 50 and then your walk-ons, your scout team guys and your redshirts, but you’ve got to have 50 guys you can count on to play. The good teams are going to be the ones that have 50 that are a little better than somebody else’s 50. That’s what you shoot for.

You shoot for experience, guys that like football, that like to work out and want to get better. But they don’t have to be great players. I’ve seen a lot of guys fool me over the years. We had a kid one time we were recruiting out of Chicago and when we got him to the University of Miami he didn’t look like a good football player. He was 6-1, 350 pounds. We had a staff meeting and said there’s no way this kid is going to make it. He’s not ever going to play for us.

Well, Jimmy leaves and three years later takes him with the first pick of the draft.

FSO: Russell Maryland?

TT: Russell Maryland. That kid had no business playing college football when he first got there but he made himself a player. He lived in the weight room. He was not going to be told “no” or that he couldn’t do it. He had the heart to get it done and he just went into the college football hall of fame. I’m proud of that kid because, I’ll tell you, the other true freshmen that were running around out there, it didn’t fit. You still see things like that, and then you see it the other way around, you see guys come in and you say there’s no way this guy is not going to a great player but he just doesn’t have the drive to get it done.

If you can find every year 50 players that have the will to play and the heart and the work ethic, they don’t have to be great, they just have to buy into what you’re doing.