I’ve known Tommy Tuberville for almost exactly 20 years. I was the editor of the Opelika-Auburn News when he was hired to replace Terry Bowden as head football coach of the Auburn Tigers in 1999.
Since then we’ve known each other, worked alongside each other and even been friendly. I certainly never thought of us as close friends – that is until last week.
After spending part of a day interviewing Tuberville then just shooting the breeze about old times and new challenges, I left wondering when we were going to get together again for a barbecue or vacation together.
But here’s the thing. If you ran into Tuberville last week on his visit to Mobile as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, you’re probably as tempted as me to break out your favorite potato salad recipe. Because, no matter if you first met Tuberville last week or 20 years ago, there’s a good chance you believe you’ve made a friend for life.
That is in no way a criticism of the coach-turned-politician, who loves campaigning and looks disappointed when there are no more babies to kiss.
Tommy Tuberville genuinely loves people and getting to know their personal stories. He wants to know where they work. He wants to hear what issues mean the most in their lives. He loves to hear where they were when his team beat Alabama for the sixth straight time or even how happy they were when Nick Saban came to town and put an end to that winning streak.
It’s a personality trait that is fascinating to watch – and one that might take him all the way to Washington, D.C.
Tuberville as a coach was basically the same guy as Tuberville the politician. Most college coaches love to coach and view all the other off-field responsibilities as necessary evils. Tuberville was never like that. He always enjoyed the press conferences and rubber-chicken dinners and fan interaction as much as he did diagramming a defense to slow down Brodie Croyle (lots of success) or Tee Martin (not so much).
Tuberville enjoys visiting with young and old, black and white, Tigers and Tide fans. That latter group could hold the key to whether he is electable in this state.
A quick aside.
If you’ve been around Alabama politics and football long enough, you may recognize the name Shorty Price. Price was briefly a college roommate of George Wallace, but he repeatedly tried to unseat Wallace as governor. Price ran for governor in 1958, 1970, 1974 and 1978, never earning more than 2 percent of the vote.
Part of Shorty’s problem was that he was a nut. At Alabama football games he would often dress and act in outrageous ways. One legendary story goes that Price was arrested for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct after the 1979 Alabama-Tennessee game. At his sentencing, the judge ordered him to pay a fine of $125 then sent him on his way by saying, “See you next fall.”
Price was never going to become governor, which is why he had no problem saying he would rather lose than receive a single vote from any Auburn fan.
Tuberville couldn’t be further from Price.
First, he’s serious about representing the state in the Senate. Second, he’s happy to court fans and voters who cheer for Alabama or South Alabama or Troy or Auburn.
Tuberville already has the perfect response when asked how he plans to convince Alabama fans to support him.
“I tell them that I’m the reason they have Nick Saban,” Tuberville said. “If we hadn’t beaten them six times in a row, they wouldn’t have gone out and gotten the best coach in the country. So the Alabama fans should thank me.”
I’m not sure if Tuberville is going to win his race for the Senate. I do know that he has the name recognition – and not just because people in this state are crazy about football.
Watch Tuberville at a brief stop at a gas station or in a radio station for an interview and you can’t help but walk away thinking he might very well earn the vote of every single person he just asked about their lives and truly listened with interest as they answered.
Can he generate enough of those positive one-on-one encounters to win public office? That’s unclear.
But if he loses it won’t be because he didn’t make every effort to connect with as many people as possible. It’s who Tommy Tuberville was as a coach. It’s who he is as a candidate. It’s who he will be if he’s elected to the U.S. Senate.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station. Follow him on Twitter: @Kennedy_Randy
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