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In Rough Times, Tuberville Was Tough

SUGAR BOWL / Auburn (12-0) vs. Virginia Tech (10-2),
Monday, 5 p.m., Ch. 7, at the Superdome

Nearly fired Auburn coach is lauded for his class in guiding team to an undefeated season.

December 31, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

It looked as if Tommy Tuberville's take-this-job-and-shove-it moment had arrived at last.

A little more than a year after Auburn's president, athletic director and a couple of trustees met for a clandestine interview with Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino, Tuberville has undefeated Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, and Louisiana State is looking for a coach.

One early report implied he was ready to listen, but Tuberville quickly quashed it, saying he wasn't interested in any other job and would sign a new seven-year contract worth $16 million at Auburn.

"I'm not a vindictive person," Tuberville said. "If I was going to be that way, I would have never stayed."

He has let bygones be bygones, though it doesn't hurt that William Walker, the former president who led the coup attempt the week of the Alabama game, is long gone.

Walker resigned after the controversial episode amid questions about the university's accreditation and allegations of undue influence by trustees.

David Housel, the athletic director who went along for the ride, also announced he would retire, though Housel and Tuberville have mended fences.

"He's told me many times he made a terrible, terrible mistake," Tuberville said. "David just got caught in a situation with his boss. He tried to rectify it but [Walker] just wouldn't listen. He was told to do something, and he followed the chain of command."

Housel, in New Orleans with the team for No. 3 Auburn's game against No. 9 Virginia Tech on Monday before his retirement becomes official next month, said Auburn owes Tuberville gratitude for the way he responded to what Housel called "a process of evaluation that got out of hand."

"I think Tommy showed the highest degree of character and class and dignity through the whole thing," Housel said. "It could have gotten very messy and ugly."

Messy and ugly are the sort of words some use to describe Auburn's predicament in the bowl championship series system.

Despite a 12-0 record, the Tigers don't get a chance to play for the national championship. The Orange Bowl will match No. 1 USC and No. 2 Oklahoma for the BCS title.

An injustice? An affront? Doesn't that all sound a little familiar to Tuberville?

It does, but he didn't go from almost-fired to national coach of the year by letting resentment get the better of him.

"I think there's a parallel to be drawn," Housel said. "It speaks well of Tommy's perspective not only on football but on the dynamics of life. We want to think everything's fair, but it's not. You make the best of it."

Whether it was a university president who tried to hire Tuberville's successor without firing him first or a flawed system to determine a national champion that snubbed his unbeaten team, Tuberville has held steady.

"My wife was talking about when I was in New York to do a show with ABC in their studios, and they said, 'You're going to be left out.'

"She said, 'You handled that well,' and I said, 'I have no choice. It's what's handed to you.' "

Tuberville had a choice last season after the Petrino episode unfolded the week of the Alabama game.

He could have quit. Or could have stayed and stewed. He did neither.

When Bobby Lowder -- the powerful trustee and regional bank magnate who was portrayed as the mastermind of the Petrino plot because his plane was used for the trip -- made a $4.2-million donation toward an academic center for athletes a few months after the near-coup, Tuberville thanked him.

"Because of his generosity, we've been able to do a lot of things," Tuberville said.

"After all of my research, he was not the instigator. He was caught up in what the president wanted done. It was his plane. He wasn't on it. The president called to borrow it."

Tuberville made a decision to put the incident in the past, and it probably had an influence on what Auburn has accomplished.

"You can't live with a sense of turmoil or continuing adversity, or show that to the players," he said. "We sat down as a staff and said, 'If we can forget what happened, the players will do the same thing. If we don't, it will continue into next season.'

"The players learned and the coaches learned how to look forward and not look back."

Tuberville and his staff survived 2003 in part because they still had a foundation of support despite a season that began with a top-10 ranking -- one magazine, the Sporting News, even had them No. 1 -- before Auburn lost its first two games to USC and Georgia Tech and finished 8-5.

"When things started to crumble within the administration, things were pretty solid outside," Tuberville said. "The reasons I stayed were the people who stayed with us -- 99% of the fans and alumni, and 100% of the football team."

Three players who were potential first-round NFL draft picks -- running backs Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams and cornerback Carlos Rogers -- literally stayed with Tuberville by choosing to return for their senior seasons.

That's part of what troubles Tuberville about the BCS situation. He might get another chance. Some of his players won't.

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