The Donald Trump of Alabama? Tommy Tuberville eyes outsider’s bid for governor
AUBURN, Ala. — There is news about the the job for which Tommy Tuberville might apply, but the news about this job moves so fast lately that the former Auburn, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Cincinnati football coach has missed the latest. “What did he say?” Tuberville asks, pressing a few times on his iPhone until the news pops up. “Oh,” Tuberville says after reading a few lines. “He says he won’t resign.”
“He” is Alabama governor Robert Bentley. Or, rather, he was Alabama governor Robert Bentley. Bentley’s impromptu press conference on the capitol steps happened Friday, shortly before Tuberville arrived at the Auburn University Club for a golf tournament that would include many of his former players. Bentley resigned on Monday, felled by a scandal that included an alleged affair, two inconveniently synced devices, the end of a 50-year marriage and the alleged misuse of state resources to keep the alleged affair going. Before he announced his resignation, Bentley cut a deal with the state to plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges relating to campaign finance. Had he not made the deal, he would have faced felony charges and potential jail time. When he pleaded guilty, he became the third of Alabama’s past six governors to be convicted of a crime committed while in office.
The details of Bentley’s exit aren’t yet available on this sunny, cool Friday in Auburn, but Bentley’s departure from office is inevitable after the release of the findings of the investigation into the scandal two days prior. Tuberville ponders the checkered history of the office he may seek and offers this: “We don’t need another black eye,” Tuberville said. “We don’t have any eyes left.”
Oooh, that’s a great line. That’ll definitely play with voters sick of being a national punchline. But will Tuberville?
Tuberville remains quick to point out that he has yet to decide if he’ll run for the Republican nomination in the 2018 election. He says he needs a few more weeks before he makes a final decision. But he already has filed financial paperwork with Alabama’s election commission and loaned himself $100,000 to fund the “listening tour” across the state that he embarked upon last month. He has met with the insurance people, the chicken people, the timber people, the teachers and practically every other major special interest group and asked them what they want in a governor. He also has spent time with political operatives learning more about how the job works. He also has spoken to consultants about running a campaign in the digital age.
After processing that information, Tuberville will have to decide if he thinks he can get elected. Less than five months ago, he was coaching Cincinnati’s football team. His potential opponents in the Republican primary* have far more political experience. Most of them have lived in Alabama much longer. Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh, the president of Alabama’s Public Service Commission and the only other person to have submitted paperwork so far, already runs an influential government entity and has demonstrated an ability to streamline her operation’s budget. Del Marsh is the most powerful person in Alabama’s state senate. In a stunning upset, Young Boozer could have only the second-best name in the primary (if Cavanaugh runs), but his two terms as Alabama’s state treasurer make him intimately familiar with the state’s finances.
*The winner of Alabama’s Republican primary likely will have a prohibitive advantage in the general election. A Democrat hasn’t won since Don Siegelman in 1998, and Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton by 27.7 percentage points in the state in last year’s presidential election.
Also, there is the matter of Tuberville’s time as the leader of the most hated opponent of the most popular entity in the state. He has the Auburn people, but could he get Alabama fans to vote for him? In most states, positing that a football rivalry might help decide an election would seem foolish. In Alabama, where the rivalry permeates seemingly everything else, it only seems logical.
Tuberville understands all this, but he also has paid attention. He watched last year as a celebrity from outside the political infrastructure beat seasoned politicians in the primary and general elections to become president. Could he do the same thing? “No. 1, people want a non-politician, and they want someone who can lead and organize,” Tuberville says. “There’s obviously been no vision.”
Ask Tuberville for his vision, and he offers vague sentiments about bringing more industry and jobs to Alabama and improving infrastructure to support that new industry. He focuses on Alabama’s population growth, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates at 1.7% between April 2010 and July 2016. That’s much slower than neighboring Tennessee (4.8%), Georgia (6.4%) and Florida (9.6%). If all those people are moving South anyway, Tuberville surmises, Alabama should give them reasons to move to Alabama. But Tuberville has yet to offer any specifics about how he might accomplish that. In fairness, neither have any potential competitors. With the primary almost 14 months away, this is the time for platitudes and generalizations.
Still, Tuberville does offer clues about potential campaign strategy. That black eye line? It’s straight out of the Trump playbook. At its basic level, Trump’s main platform plank was this: Things are awful now, but I can make them better. That message found enough agreeable ears for Trump to win the White House. If Tuberville runs, expect him to take a similar tack—running down the current state of affairs while simultaneously promising a brighter future. “In the state of Alabama, we’re in the cellar. We’re not winning. We’d better get to .500, but we’re not close to .500,” he says. “Everybody else is having winning seasons, and they’re kicking our butt.”
This is a time-tested political strategy, but as an outsider candidate, Tuberville has a built-in weapon to attack a veteran politico. I didn’t help get us in this situation like you did, he can say to an opponent, but I’ll get us out. Whether he or anyone else can actually do that remains a complete unknown.
Meanwhile, Tuberville already has crafted a defense should an opponent attack his lack of government experience. Being a college football coach, he says, makes him uniquely qualified. Who better to recruit new business to the state than an experienced recruiter? “Coaches are salesmen,” he says. “If you can’t sell players on coming, you’re not going to make it. You’re not going to outcoach anybody. You’re going to out-recruit them and out-organize them.”
The more convincing argument is that Tuberville’s coaching career might help him understand the state’s socioeconomic issues better. Spending 10 seasons as Auburn’s head coach will take a man to nearly every high school in the state. It will take him into the living rooms of million-dollar homes and double-wides. Simply because his job required him to forge relationships with people from every walk of life in order to recruit their children, Tuberville might have a better understanding of how people actually live from Mobile to Opelika to Gordo to Anniston. “What potential candidate has been in high schools in Mountain Brook and Wilcox County?” asks Tripp Skipper, the veteran Republican operative who has helped Tuberville explore the possibility of a campaign.
Skipper has worked for former Alabama senator and now U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions. He also managed a successful campaign for current U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers before becoming an advisor to Rogers. Skipper understands that if Tuberville runs, he’ll be subjected to intense scrutiny. But Skipper considers that an advantage as well. Few people are more scrutinized than those who hold the jobs Tuberville already has held. “He’s got the hide of a rhinoceros already from being an SEC coach,” Skipper says.
Tuberville knows that if he runs, everything he’s ever done will be fair game. “I don’t have a voting record, so they’re going to come after me grabbing players on the sideline or yelling at fans,” Tuberville says. “I’ve made some bad business deals like everybody has—2008 wasn’t kind to me on some land deals.” This is the part where the football-savvy will also note that 2008 wasn’t kind to Tuberville on the football field, either. That’s when he went 5–7 and got forced out at Auburn. Tuberville also lost money to a Ponzi scheme.
He also could face fire for the way he left Texas Tech. A recruit told 247Sports.com that Tuberville left a recruiting dinner and never returned. The next morning, Cincinnati announced it had hired Tuberville.
Tuberville expects criticism, but he laughs and says no when asked if there are any skeletons that might be unearthed by Russian hackers sifting through his email. Tuberville has nothing in his past that compares to the scandal that engulfed the man who just left the governor’s mansion in Montgomery.
Tuberville already has an [insert word here]-Gate, but he was the sympathetic figure in JetGate. In 2003, then-Auburn president William Walker and trustee Bobby Lowder conspired to replace Tuberville with former Auburn offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, who was in his first stint as Louisville’s coach. Two days before Auburn’s 28–23 Iron Bowl win against Alabama, Walker, then-athletic director David Housel and trustees Earlon McWhorter and Byron Franklin flew to Louisville to interview Petrino on a jet owned by Lowder. The meeting was sniffed out by reporters Pat Forde and Eric Crawford (from the Louisville Courier-Journal) and Jay Tate (from The Montgomery Advertiser). The news of the secret meeting, which broke after Auburn’s Iron Bowl win, embarrassed Walker and Housel and swung support back toward Tuberville. He kept his job and went 13–0 in 2004.
One of the people in Tuberville’s corner during JetGate was then-Alabama governor Bob Riley. Riley, who is not one of the governors whose tenure ended in disgrace, released a statement after news of the Petrino interview leaked. “It is also difficult for me to understand why I, as chairman of the Auburn board, was not informed that a search process for a new head football coach had begun, especially considering the fact that the promised meeting with coach Tuberville had not yet taken place,” Riley said in the statement.
Tuberville says that before Riley finished his second term, several Riley confidants asked Tuberville—who had just been forced out at Auburn after the 2008 season—if he’d be interested in running for governor in the 2010 election. Tuberville told them he still intended to coach again and declined. Just as he might now, Tuberville would have entered a fairly wide-open field in the Republican primary. In that election, Republican frontrunners Tim James and Bradley Byrne spent time tearing one another apart. As they did, support grew for a Tuscaloosa dermatologist who had entered the race with little name recognition beyond his hometown. The dermatologist’s name? Robert Bentley. “Until he came on our show and was a guest in our studio, no one in the state had even heard of him,” said Pat Smith, the Birmingham radio host who produced Paul Finebaum’s Birmingham-based sports talk show until Finebaum moved the operation to Charlotte, N.C., to work for the SEC Network. “We got him on because he was Bear Bryant’s dermatologist.”
James is the son of former Alabama governor—and former Auburn football player—Fob James, and he might have cost himself the election with an attempt at Iron Bowl-related humor. A few weeks before the Republican primary, the Twitter account for the James campaign sent out this message: “Dispelling another untruth from the Byrne camp: I will neither be firing nor cutting Coach Saban's salary if elected.” The joke was an attempt to head off rumors that had bubbled up on Alabama message boards that the Auburn-educated James was making jokes during campaign events that he might fire or reduce the salary of Alabama coach Nick Saban. The tweet lit up the lines on the Finebaum show, forcing James to do damage control. He would go on to finish third in the primary. Bentley finished second, only 270 votes ahead of James. Had James never made that statement, Alabama citizens may never have had to read their governor’s goopy text messages to the advisor who wasn’t his wife.
Tuberville understands the Iron Bowl dynamic better than most. After all, he won six of them in a row from 2002–07. His stock joke during his listening tour is that Alabama fans should thank him because he helped bring Saban to Tuscaloosa. Tuberville isn’t exactly wrong; an inability to beat Auburn was a major reason Mike Shula was fired.
But would Alabama fans still simmer in the voting booth at the memory of Tuberville holding out his thumb after that fifth consecutive Iron Bowl win? “For our recruiting, we bragged about our success quite a bit,” Tuberville says. “‘Fear The Thumb’ is one of the best T-shirts ever made in this state.” Smith, who now hosts Smashmouth Radio on Birmingham’s 99.1 The Game, isn’t sure how voters would handle that past. “The western half of the state and half of Birmingham would potentially be an issue for him just because of the six fingers,” Smith says. “Seriously.”
Tuberville turns serious when discussing this subject as well. While he’ll freely compare politics to football, he wants to make clear he doesn’t consider running for governor a game. Nor should voters. “You can look at me as the Auburn coach or whatever. But can I—more than anybody else that’s running for this position—help you have better healthcare, education for your kids and a better job to put money in your pocket?” Tuberville says. “If you think that, and you don’t vote for me because I was the Auburn coach, there’s something wrong with that.”
In an appearance last month on Smith’s show, former Alabama Republican party chief Marty Connors said something similar. “If you base your political decision-making on getting beat in a football game,” Connors said, “you probably shouldn’t be voting anyway.” In the same interview, Connors criticized Tuberville for not being more specific on his goals for the state if he chooses to run.
Tuberville claims a run wouldn’t be a step toward a complete second act in politics. “I don’t want to be a career politician,” he says. “I’m not running for governor to be a senator or to try to run for president. This is it.” If voters prefer, he says, they can call him “Coach” instead of “Governor.” He says that if someone else comes forward who would make a better leader for the state, he’ll step aside and support that person. “I don’t want to be governor for the name, per se. I don’t have that ego,” Tuberville says. “I’ve had a better job in this state and made a heck of a lot more money and had a lot of fun. I want to help. If I can do that and help this state in four or eight years, I’d be glad to do that.”
Sometime in the next few weeks, Tuberville will decide whether he’ll run. If he does, pay attention to the bumper stickers in Alabama. The supporters of the man whose defense inspired the “Honk if you sacked Brodie” sticker will be the ones slapping the “Honk if you’ll vote Tommy” stickers on their cars.