JOmmy Tuberville wasn’t the best football coach available in Alabama when Republicans signed him up for a 2020 U.S. Senate race. In fact, he wasn’t even the best former Auburn coach available. What he was was a silver fox with name recognition who had pledged allegiance to Donald Trump and toed the party line. A useful idiot, in other words.
After defeating former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary and winning the Senate election by double digits, Tuberville has proven himself to be a far-right team player as advertised; unsurprisingly, he believed in the Big Lie and was among a dozen Republican senators who were willing to vote against certifying Joe Biden as US president. And yet, the 68-year-old hasn’t really stood out in his new career as a Trump surrogate until this month.
Speaking at a Trump rally in western Nevada on Saturday, Tuberville called Democrats enablers of crime who risked destroying the republic by engaging with black Americans in an overdue conversation about reparations. “[Democrats] because crime because they want to take what you have,” Tuberville sang to the blindingly white crowd. “They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the perpetrators are responsible for it. Bullshit! It’s not theirs.”
Offensive play, though greeted with thunderous applause on the stump, quickly left that arena and ran into a wall of backlash. NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the Tuberville rant was “completely racist” and in 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 Rep. Bakari Sellers was more outspoken, saying Tuberville “can go to hell.”
Doug Jones, Tuberville’s Democratic predecessor, called the senator’s comments “deplorable.” Jones added: “He made millions as a coach supposedly trying to mentor black men. He should know better.”
Should he, however?
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 former white coaches. And like those coaches, most of them decidedly mediocre, Tuberville had mastered the hokey art of indulging black families and promising their sons a better life — as long as they did exactly as he said. While that deal theoretically worked out for some signers, notably the 29 Auburn players who made it to the NFL during Tuberville’s time in charge of the Tigers, the scores for more have very little.
The NCAA freshman pass rate (FSR) indicates the graduation rates of varsity athletes. During Tuberville’s decade in office at Auburn, from 1998 to 2008, his teams posted an average FSR of just 53%, well below the national average. In a country where a college degree is a requirement for a wide range of jobs, Tuberville was far more interested in maintaining his one percent status than setting up his charges for a bright future.
Also, like many former fringe players who have become great football coaches, Tuberville is an unabashed climber. After helping the Miami Hurricanes to the 1993 national championship as defensive coordinator, he left for the same position at Texas A&M, where the team went undefeated in 1994. As coach of Ole Miss in 1998 , he swore to die on the job, stating that he would have to be transported from Oxford, Mississippi, “in a pine box”. Two days later, he reportedly took the Auburn job without even 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 guards Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. This success earned Tuberville a seven-year extension that brought in $2 million a year. But no sooner had the trio of black stars who had helped him land a lucrative contract headed to the NFL than Tuberville’s hot streak cooled. In 2008, the Tigers fell to a dismal 5-7 — a record that included losses to conference basement dweller Vanderbilt and a shutout to blood rival Alabama. At the end of that season, with three years left on his contract, Tuberville tendered his resignation in a two-paragraph letter to the school – along with a bill for $5 million, thanks to a waiver clause. well buried early termination.
Moving to Texas Tech in 2010, Tuberville logged three seasons at Lubbock before pulling out of a 2012 dinner with rookies to take a job in Cincinnati, outraged visiting students. Tuberville held the position for four seasons before resigning again, telling fans disappointed by his 29-22 record to “go to hell” and “get a job”. Between those coaching gigs, he set up a hedge fund with a former Lehman Brothers broker who would end up serving a 10-year federal prison sentence for fraud. Tuberville, meanwhile, was not prosecuted, presenting himself as an unwitting victim.
Football prepared Tuberville for the politics of hypocrisy. Where he effectively kicked off the era of megamillion reparations for college football coaches, he is now chastising the most vulnerable in society for “leaning on this country for handouts.” (Never mind Auburn’s $26 million in football and basketball coaching severance payouts over 15 years, including his own, ranked second in the NCAA, according to a 2020 study.) While he was at Ole Miss, he called on fans to stop waving the Confederate flag at football. As a rookie senator, Tuberville not only embraced Maga republicanism; he was seen fraternizing with members of the Jan. 6 mob at the Trump International Hotel the night before they stormed the Capitol. And even Tuberville’s top civil rights stance was self-serving. “In Mississippi State, all the top players are black,” a Tuberville State spin doctor recalled in 1997. “With flags on campus, we don’t get our share of black players who go in other schools.
Tuberville, who has not yet apologized for his remarks, has always been a seller first; he’s called himself that for years, while pocketing north of $25 million during his time as a football coach. And like a true American peddler struggling just to survive, Tuberville will do whatever it takes to close the deal: take credit for the careers of Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes (despite being recruited by Texas’ successor Tech, Kliff Kingsbury, now head coach of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals). Create a foundation to build homes for veterans (while apparently withholding two-thirds of donations). Dog whistle to appeal to white power followers. Everything it takes to win. What if he doesn’t know exactly how the federal government works? “That’s where he’s at right now,” Karlos Dansby, who played under Tuberville at Auburn, told AL.com. “I guess it’s a game within the game being played. He just took it to the extreme.
Alabamians should have known not to elect a football coach to the nation’s highest legislative body. Even though they preach to God and their families and uphold the principles of the game, great football coaches are not programmed to compromise. They measure success by how often they succeed, 10 yards at a time. It doesn’t matter who gets crushed in the process.