A Question Haunting the Alabama Senate Race: How Could Auburn Lose to Vanderbilt?

Current Work | Tue, 10/06/2020 at 10:31 PM

(Wall Street Journal) – Alabama’s U.S. Senate race this fall features pressing 2020 questions: Whither the pandemic, the Supreme Court and the economy?

And how, pray tell, did Republican nominee Tommy Tuberville’s star-studded Auburn team lose 14-13 to Vanderbilt in 2008?

Mr. Tuberville is the former Auburn University football coach who used President Trump’s backing to defeat former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the July primary. He is squaring off against Democrat Doug Jones, who won the Senate seat in a 2017 special election over Republican Roy Moore.

Mr. Tuberville has never held political office but is well known to Alabamians for another reason. He was Auburn’s head coach from 1999 to 2008, posting a 85-40 record highlighted by a run of six wins over the University of Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

That means he is familiar with the deep division in the state, the one separating college-football fans who scream “Roll Tide” (Alabama) and “War Damn Eagle” (Auburn) on Saturdays.

Mr. Tuberville is refusing to debate Mr. Jones or say much publicly. So the Jones camp, trailing in the polls, is appealing to Alabamians’ gridiron sensibilities.

“Tuberville couldn’t score a TD for 2 weeks with 4 first rounders on his offense,” read a tweet from the account of Alabama Democrats, the official body for the state’s Democratic Party. “He also lost to Vanderbilt.”

That’s a reference to the 2008 Auburn Tigers team that beat Mississippi State 3-2 and lost by one point to Vanderbilt University, despite that team’s playing with its backup quarterback.

The primary focus of the attacks is Mr. Tuberville’s peripatetic nature as a coach. He led four teams—Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati—from 1995 to 2016.

A Jones ad released last weekend runs through the foibles that followed Mr. Tuberville from job to job. He left Ole Miss two days after telling players “they’re going to have to carry me out of here in a pine box.” He received a $5 million buyout from Auburn despite the fact that he resigned. At Texas Tech, he excused himself from dinner with a Red Raiders recruit to accept the head coaching job at Cincinnati. There is footage of Mr. Tuberville yelling at a Bearcats fan to “Go to hell! Get a job!” as he gets booed off the field after a loss.

“He wants you to trust him as United States Senator. It’s a six-year term. Fear the thumb, remember the quitter,” says the ad, invoking Mr. Tuberville’s method of trolling Alabama fans with fingers to represent consecutive Auburn victories.

“This is not just bringing up football,” said Mr. Jones of his campaign’s offense. “This is about him and his chosen careers up until this point and whether or not that same kind of lack of integrity and dishonesty with people will carry forward if he becomes a United States Senator.”

Mr. Tuberville and his campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Republican’s backers see the invocation of football as a Hail Mary by Mr. Jones’s campaign. “The attack ads, he’s starting to smell a little desperate,” said Brad Taylor, chairman of the Republican Party in Madison County, where Huntsville is located.

“Coach Tuberville has had some job opportunities and job changes over his career and he’s been successful as a coach,” Mr. Taylor said, adding that his Alabama diploma gives him no qualms about voting for Mr. Tuberville.

State Rep. Kyle South, a Republican from rural Fayette County, was a student at Alabama for the first two years of Mr. Tuberville’s win streak, but said he would vote red come November. He said of Mr. Tuberville’s finger taunting: “Didn’t appreciate that at the time, but you kind of leave the football aspect of it aside.”

The Democratic Party’s Twitter account has mostly needled Mr. Tuberville’s time at Ole Miss and Auburn, said Alabama Democrats executive director Wade Perry, due to the large contingent of Southeastern Conference football fans in Alabama. Five of Alabama Democrats’ six executive employees are University of Alabama alumni.

When Mr. Jones made Mr. Tuberville’s football résumé a campaign talking point, he also raised a question of loyalty. Do anti-Auburn Alabamians care more about their hatred of the school or their allegiance to the president?

If July’s Republican Primary was any indicator, it may be the latter. Mr. Tuberville, with Mr. Trump’s endorsement, won about 60% of the vote over Mr. Sessions, who had previously won the seat in 1996 and held it for over two decades.

“They say blood is thicker than water. Well, the blood here is Republican and Donald Trump,” said David Housel, Auburn’s athletic director from 1994 to 2005. “I never thought anything could turn the Alabama-Auburn rivalry into water, but this thing did.”

Mr. Sessions was trailing slightly in some polls heading into the July 14 primary. Yet the thinking was that no right-minded University of Alabama fan would vote for a man who, as coach of their archrival, openly taunted their beloved Crimson Tide football team en route to six consecutive Iron Bowl victories, said Wayne Flynt, a longtime Alabama historian and Auburn professor.

“Tommy gave them not one finger, not two fingers, not the middle finger, but six fingers,” said Mr. Flynt of Mr. Tuberville’s gestures toward Alabama fans in the 2000s. “One middle finger would be an insult,” he said. “Six fingers is an outrage, mortal culpability, a mortal sin.” Most Alabamians see any job that followed coaching an SEC football team as a step down the career ladder, Mr. Flynt said.

Bobby Johnson, the former Vanderbilt coach who dealt Mr. Tuberville the infamous defeat, is among his coaching brethren who wonder why he would want to enter politics. “Tommy worked inhumane hours as a football coach, he has certainly earned the right to enjoy this stage of his life,” said Mr. Johnson.

After running into Mr. Tuberville at a charity golf event in the spring of 2019, Mr. Johnson said his wife “walked up to him and jokingly said, ‘Hi Tommy. We heard that you have lost your mind!’ ”

Mr. Johnson nonetheless takes issue with using a coach’s win-loss record to judge his readiness for office. And he is sympathetic about the fallout from Vanderbilt’s 2008 upset.

“It is very hard to win a football game,” he said.

(Laine HigginsWall Street Journal