(USA Today) – Before he ran for election in the U.S. Senate, Tommy Tuberville had developed a certain reputation for himself as a football coach in the Deep South.
At Ole Miss, he was known as the “Riverboat Gambler” for the risks he took during games. After gaining greater fame at Auburn, he also built an image as sort of a junior version of Jimmy Johnson, the Hall of Fame college and NFL coach who mentored him. Both used similar silver hairstyles, folksy accents and gifts of gab to work to their benefit with television cameras.
Tuberville was “great with the media,” former Auburn running back Ronnie Brown told USA TODAY Sports.
But all that changed when Tuberville, 66, got into politics.
Running as a Republican in deep-red Alabama, he has avoided risk as he nursed a comfortable lead in recent polls – the political equivalent of downing the ball to run out the clock.
He has declined to debate his opponents – Jeff Sessions, the Republican he defeated in the primary election, and now Sen. Doug Jones, the Democratic incumbent he’s facing in the general election Nov. 3. He also has avoided interviews or even written questions from state and national reporters seeking to vet him on issues for voters, a point that Tuberville disputes.
“Tuberville campaigns in North Alabama, avoids public speaking and interview requests,” a television station in Huntsville reported on its website this month.
The Montgomery Advertiser has sent him written questions for his positions on various issues such as healthcare, COVID-19, gun rights and abortion. He hasn’t responded. Last week, Kyle Whitmire, the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, which includes The Birmingham News, wrote that “Tuberville is in hiding” and said his strategy is “to say as little as possible.”
Tuberville's campaign didn’t respond to interview requests or written questions from USA TODAY Sports, but on Wednesday, Tuberville was reached by cell phone. During a seven-minute interview, he denied running out the clock or dodging questions, though he and his campaign can control whose questions he answers. Jones says Tuberville is trying to avoid showing his lack of knowledge about issues.
"How in the world can you stay in the background and not answer questions when I’ve been a coach for 40 years?" Tuberville asked.
He gave his recent schedule as proof.
"I did a 30-minute interview for television today for five TV stations in the state, so I don’t know what the heck he’s talking about," Tuberville said. "I get up every morning at 6:30 and I hit six to 10 places a day. I talk to Democrats and Republicans and I’ve done it for almost two years now. Of course, all these other candidates, Republicans included, they try to win elections on television."
Referring to the polls, he said, "I don't look at scoreboard."
He still knew the score: "I’ve had a double-digit lead pretty much since I got in this campaign."
He deflected a bit in the interview, switching to his support for veterans and concerns about the educational system. "We’re not teaching histories or anything like that in our schools much anymore," he said. "Some we are. Some we aren’t."
Without a detailed record in government or public service, Tuberville's political standing instead has been built on two primary pillars: First, his devotion to President Trump, who remains quite popular in Alabama. Secondly, his local fame as Auburn’s coach from 1999 to 2008, including six consecutive wins against archrival Alabama.
“As far as I’m concerned this is about the easiest campaign I’ve ever seen for a position in the U.S. Senate,” said David Hughes, assistant professor of political science at Auburn University at Montgomery. “He has had to do virtually nothing to get it.”
It’s a race that reflects the partisan divide of our time, while raising certain questions that come with it. Do voters care if a candidate won’t take challenging questions because he considers it a risk? Or is political and party identity the only thing that matters?
In Tuberville’s case, his rise also prompts questions about how much he does know about the issues – as well as how he pulled this off.
A political novice with no experience in full-time public service, Tuberville is a small-town Arkansas native and recent resident of Florida who said in 1998 he'd only leave Mississippi in a “pine box” but then left to take the Auburn job days later. How did he end up as the favorite in a U.S. Senate race in Alabama, a state where a huge chunk of the population hated him simply because he was coach of the Tigers?
Experts say the answer is political calculation and hyper-partisanship.
“He’s been extremely reticent to engage with the press whatsoever, which is also part of his strategy," Hughes said. "He will give sort of set speeches to clubs with limited attendance, you know, friendly territory where he’s not likely to get asked questions from members of the press corps.”
Political challengers facing incumbents often need media attention. In this race, Tuberville can be selective.
“He will occasionally speak to a handful of clearly conservative outlets, but otherwise he’s been content to sit back and just let people assume he’s a run-of-the-mill conservative Republican," said Ryan Williamson, assistant professor of political science at Auburn. "This campaign has largely been defined by who will support President Trump and his agenda, which is emblematic of the increasingly high level of nationalization in our elections.”
It’s especially strong in Alabama, where there hasn’t been a bipartisan debate for governor or U.S. senator since 2010, though there was a bipartisan debate for state attorney general in 2018. Alabama Republicans don’t need to debate Democrats if they see no upside to it.
Jones sees it differently as a former federal prosecutor who won his Senate seat in an unusual special election in late 2017. His campaign cites a recent poll that shows Jones with a one-point lead.
“He’s one-dimensional,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports. “If you get outside of sports and football, he’s out of his league and doesn’t know what to say or what to do. He has no experience, and he just can’t talk about the issues. … We have seen it time and time again. The worst possible thing (for Tuberville’s campaign) is to have him show his true colors and try to have him give a coherent answer to a legitimate question. He cannot do it.”
Jones noted several examples of questionable public statements from Tuberville on various issues:
– Last month, Tuberville was on a Zoom call with the Birmingham Sunrise Rotary Club when he was asked about legislation that would restore federal protections from the 1965 Voting Rights Act, an important law in the state, given its history of Black voter suppression. The U.S. Supreme Court revoked such protections in 2013. He gave this answer:
“Yeah, you know, the thing about the Voting Rights Act, is it’s, you know, there’s a lot of different things you can look at it as, you know," Tuberville said. “Who’s it going to help? What direction do we need to go with it? I think it’s important that everything we do we keep secure. We keep an eye on it. It’s run by our government. And it’s run to the, to the point that we, it’s got structure to it. It’s like education. I mean, it’s got to have structure. Now for some reason, we look at things to change, to think we’re gonna make it better. But we better do a lot of work on it before we make a change.”
His campaign later clarified Tuberville’s position by saying he didn’t support the legislation. After USA TODAY Sports brought up this matter to him, he didn't directly address it and spoke about his hectic schedule meeting people across the state.
"I don’t want our country to be destroyed by people that don’t like the country, so I’m going to fight that every day,' he said. "That’s kind of my issue all along. I’m an outsider, so I had to get out there to tell people why I’m (running for Senate)."
– Last year in an interview with the Daily Mountain Eagle, Tuberville addressed climate change. “There is one person that changes climate in this country and that is God,” he said.
– He has said on the campaign trail that he wants to be on the Senate’s “banking finance committee,” according to the New York Times, even though those are two separate committees. Tuberville also has faced scrutiny about his judgment in financial dealings, especially after his former business partner went to prison for financial fraud.
– In 2011, Tuberville appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and added his name to those raising doubts about whether former President Obama was born in the U.S., a discredited conspiracy theory that tried to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. Tuberville wanted to see a detailed birth certificate.
“Obviously there's got to be something on there that he doesn't want anyone to see,” he said then as coach of Texas Tech.
Tuberville’s campaign website gives his stance on other issues with general boilerplate descriptions. The website says that he wants to protect individual liberty, protect citizens, help veterans, lower taxes and repeal “Obamacare.”
His candidacy otherwise is almost all about Trump, whom he has called “the greatest president to serve in my lifetime.” He wouldn’t have made it this far without him. That’s because this Senate seat used to belong to Sessions, who ran unopposed for it in 2014. After Trump was elected president in 2016, Sessions became Trump’s attorney general, vacating his Senate seat and putting it up for a special election in 2017.
Jones narrowly won that election, beating controversial Republican Roy Moore to become the first Democrat elected senator in Alabama in 25 years. The question now is whether that victory was an anomaly.
'Better to keep your mouth shut'
Sessions even tried to reclaim his old Senate seat this year after being forced out as Trump’s attorney general in 2018. Tuberville then took advantage by gaining Trump's favor against Sessions and beating him in the primary, sending him to the general election against Jones.
“His campaign has been basically been, and I quote, 'Thank God for President Trump,’" Hughes said.
Fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide also don’t care if Tuberville once coached their bitter instate rival.
“Bama fans are perfectly happy to support Tuberville,” said Hughes, who polled that very issue.
Such loyalism to Trump still has led to some reported dismay among his former players. Several didn’t return messages seeking comment about him from USA TODAY Sports. Brown, the former Auburn running back, expressed reluctance to talk about Tuberville’s politics.
“It is what it is,” Brown said.
In the absence of other issues to debate, Jones even has gone after Tuberville’s football record and labeled him a quitter for how he left his coaching jobs. Tuberville’s six-year winning streak against Alabama ended in 2008, when the Crimson Tide whipped the Tigers 36-0 in the second year of the rising Alabama dynasty under coach Nick Saban. It was Tuberville's last game at Auburn.
“He gave up when the (Southeastern Conference) started getting really difficult,” Jones said.
Now Tuberville appears to have an easy path to election, according to three polls since last month that showed him ahead by at least 12 points. Hughes calls his strategy smart.
“Better to keep your mouth shut, and ride on the fact that you are the Republican nominee,” he said. “Having that party label on the ballot is more than sufficient to win in Alabama. … There’s no point in engaging with Doug Jones. There’s no point in engaging with the press corps, who are only going to ask him about his record or his positions on policy when he doesn’t really have a lot of positions on policies. He doesn’t have a political record. He’s got a football record.”
(Brent Schrotenboer, USA Today)