Tommy Tuberville Earned His Fate at Auburn

Gerald BallCorrespondent IDecember 4, 2008

Getting rid of Tommy Tuberville was the right thing for Auburn to do. This is the issue: Tuberville is an excellent defensive mind, recruiter and administrator who runs a clean program.

His problem is that he insists on meddling on the offensive side of the ball, especially in the passing game, and scapegoats his coordinators when things don't work out.

Tuberville has no idea when it comes to offensive formations, playcalling, and strategy, and even less of a clue regarding what makes a good college quarterback.

Best example: Jason Campbell. Campbell had a ton of ability, but Tuberville couldn't stand him because his idea of a great college quarterback is Jay Barker.

So Campbell was forced to platoon with the horrid Daniel Cobb for his first two seasons, and when he was allowed to play he was not given the freedom to audible or throw downfield that Tuberville gave his other QBs.

Tuberville was not above making cutting remarks about Campbell to the media, and allowed the story line to develop on talk radio and internet boards that Campbell wasn't intelligent enough to pick up the offense, which was very convenient to believe about black quarterbacks, and has dogged Campbell ever since, including hurting his draft stock.

Things got so bad for Campbell at Auburn, thanks to a coach who was undermining him, that his rival, UGA's David Greene, was actually forced to defend Campbell at press conferences.

(Also, Mobile native JaMarcus Russell abandoned his lifelong desire to play QB for Auburn and instead go to LSU as a direct consequence of what Campbell was enduring. Playing for Tuberville would have been a nightmare for Russell, who was more immature and mistake-prone than Campbell.) 

Even after Campbell saved Tuberville's job by leading that 13-0 season, Tuberville continued to dog him, claiming that his replacement, Brandon Cox, would be a better player because "Cox was more intelligent and more of a leader like David Greene."

This was not some personality conflict between Campbell and Tuberville, but rather Tuberville having no idea what constitutes an effective QB in the modern college game ...someone who actually has to make plays with his arms and legs.

Tuberville had fairy tales in his head of the QBs, who played in the SEC in times past for Johnny Majors, Pat Dye, Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley, etc., who would throw 10 passes a game, spend the rest of the time handing off, and get all the credit for being intelligent leaders the one or two times a season they would actually successfully complete a pass on third and 15, or complete a long bomb late in a game to win 16-13.

That was why Tuberville's attempts to run first the pro-style spread (with Bobby Petrino as coordinator) then the West Coast offense (with Al Borges) and then the college spread with Tony Franklin were ridiculous ... your QBs need to make plays in all three schemes, and Tuberville was trying to win without a true playmaking QB, especially if that QB was Campbell or anyone like him.

As a result, any Auburn offense was doomed to failure as soon as SEC defenses began to adapt to them or when the talent level began to drop. In Tuberville's case, both happened.

Opponents have long figured out that QBs would never have any real freedom to make plays in Tuberville's offense no matter the QB, scheme, or coordinator, and Tuberville no longer has future NFL starters like Rudi Johnson, Brandon Jacobs, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, Jason Campbell, Ben Obomanu, Marcus McNeill, etc. to largely waste.

Just look at how Tuberville has run through so many coordinators. He ran off his first offensive coordinator, a highly respected fellow who built the offenses that helped Tuberville rebuild the mess that Terry Bowden left behind. (Unfortunately, this same fellow went on to become Tommy Bowden's scapegoat at Clemson as well.)

He then hired Petrino, whom he clashed with frequently and often even seemed to be jealous of. (That there was no love lost between Petrino and Tuberville explains why Petrino was so willing to take his job in such an underhanded fashion.)

After Petrino left, Tuberville decided to take the reins of the offense himself, giving offensive line coach Hugh Nall the title of coordinator but making it a mere administrative post. Tuberville himself was primarily responsible for offensive strategy, preparations and gameplanning while the QB coach called plays (with Tuberville having override authority).

Result: the preseason No. 1 with Campbell, Jacobs, Brown, and Williams in the backfield, a corps of talented WRs, and the best offensive line in the SEC being shut out by USC at home and held to 3 points by Georgia Tech.

Tuberville relinquished his long sought role on the offense to members of his staff, who took over the preparations and gameplanning and running the office in practice, was what saved the season (and Tuberville's job), but they still lost three more games, including humiliating performances against UGA and LSU and dropping a game to an Ole Miss team that had Eli Manning but not much else.

THAT fiasco was what drove the Auburn trustees to try to hire Petrino. It was done secretly because Auburn did not want to fire Tuberville without having a contract from Petrino first, which considering what happened to Notre Dame (who conceded to demands to fire Bob Davie, believing that they would get Jon Gruden, only to wind up with Ty Willingham, and then conceded to demands to fire Willingham believing that they would get Urban Meyer and winding up with Charlie Weis) was very appropriate and at most should have only been a minor scandal.

The only reason why it became a national scandal was because other SEC interests, other coaches and newspapers, made a point of talking about what a horror and outrage it was.

Why? Because they all knew that so long as Tuberville stayed in Auburn, he would never be a threat to build a dominant program. (The squealing was loudest, incidentally, from the newspapers that cover the Georgia Bulldogs, who wanted Tuberville right where he was for fear that Auburn would hire someone better. Tuberville is the perfect coach to have at your rival...someone who wins just enough to make it impossible to fire him, but not enough to beat you when you are really good and have a shot at contending for a conference or national title.)

But Tuberville has his 13-0 season (the one where he, because of his "win big or else" ultimatum, actually allowed his offensive coordinator to do his job), earns tons of sympathy from the national media who didn't know about the history of Tuberville with his first coordinator, Petrino, or the Hugh Nall fiasco and didn't care (quite the contrary seeing USC beat Auburn was quite to their liking, and quite frankly would love it if every team in the SEC had a coach like Tuberville) which restored Tuberville his clout.

Which, unfortunately, meant the clout to again start meddling with the offense. Al Borges, a West Coast offense guy, was forced to run 1980s SEC offenses and had Brandon Cox imposed on him with no one else being recruited to compete for the job.

When the painful Cox era ended (not only because Cox did not have the ability to be anything more than a backup, but literally because Cox was not durable and battled injury problems throughout his career, even more evidence that he should have never been more than a backup, and please realize that Cox realized his limitations soon after coming to Auburn and was going to give up football BUT WAS BEGGED BY TUBERVILLE TO COME BACK!) without Cox becoming the all-SEC one of the best in Auburn history greatness that Tuberville had vocally predicted for him, Tuberville reacted (again to save himself) by firing Borges and switching to the spread offense.

However, again, it was something of a sham. The coordinator that Tuberville hired was extremely inexperienced...having been not long removed from high school, only elevated from position coach to offensive coordinator two seasons prior at a Sun Belt school, and even for those two years was coaching a previously established system with mostly upperclassmen who already knew the offense, including a star QB.

So, Tony Franklin had no background that would have allowed him to teach and implement the spread offense in the SEC to a mix of underclassmen and players recruited for Tuberville's power ball control offense.

And that was another issue, and the reason why Tuberville hired such a low profile coordinator like Franklin to begin with. Franklin was not given complete control of the offense.

Like Borges and the west coast offense before him, Tuberville wanted Franklin to run the spread offense, but according to Tuberville's philosophy of reducing risk and freedom in the passing game.

That was what was really behind the QB controversy between Chris Todd and Kodi Burns. Everyone knew that the job should have been Burns, and Burns was the one that Tuberville personally favored.

But the true sophomore option QB from Arkansas is a mistake-prone playmaker, and the conditions that Tuberville imposed on Franklin made Todd the only viable choice. So when Todd tried and failed, firing Franklin and installing Burns (telegraphing to everyone that playing Todd was never his choice to begin with) was the first thing that Franklin did.

However, what else was Franklin supposed to do? Kodi Burns isn't Bob Griese or some other prototypical "efficient smart leader" I-formation QB, but rather someone who even with the best coaching would only be able to run a sophisticated offense and cut down mistakes halfway through his junior season.

(Burns should have been redshirted, incidentally, or better yet gone to a program whose offense better fit his skills like Kansas or Missouri or ironically what Houston Nutt was running at Arkansas at the time, but Tuberville got him to Auburn, promising to turn him into another Jason if Burns ever had Campbell's height, arm strength, or dropback passer background and game.)

Now it actually is possible to implement a ball control philosophy with a spread offense. The issue is that you need first the talent and then an experienced offensive coordinator to pull it off.

Now there is NO REASON to do so, mind you, because a ball control philosophy out of a spread offense is a contradiction...the spread formation acts against the strengths of the offense and vice versa.

But it is possible, and Bobby Petrino actually succeeded in giving Tuberville most of what he wanted. Had A) Cadillac Williams stayed healthy and B) Tuberville not insisted on the practice of benching Jason Campbell whenever he made a mistake in favor of Daniel Cobb, who had complete freedom to be as mistake prone and/or ineffective as he wanted to be and generally exercised that freedom with plenty of mistakes and ineffectiveness, Tuberville and Petrino would have built Auburn into a powerhouse.

But not only did Cadillac Williams keep getting hurt, but as stated earlier Tuberville could not be restrained from meddling. Also, the fact that Petrino was earning all this attention as the hot young coaching prospect and getting so much credit for the Auburn success, Tuberville couldn't deal with it.

Even the much lesser acclaim that Borges got for saving the careers of Jason Campbell and Ronnie Brown, Tuberville couldn't handle it.

But Tony Franklin did not have the experience or ability to meet Tuberville's demands. Even if he did, he didn't have the talent. Again, Petrino was able to meet Tuberville's contradictory delusions because he had a bunch of future NFL players.

Franklin had what amounted to an average SEC offense. In order to succeed, Franklin would have had to either go flag-football style like Hal Mumme at Kentucky or Mike Leach in his early days at Texas Tech, or continue with the ball-control offense while recruiting and teaching spread personnel.

I mentioned earlier that what Tuberville had been trying to do was unnecessary to begin with. Why? Because all Tuberville needed to do in order to get what he wanted out of his offense was to run a two tight end offense, either out of the I-formation (preferred since this is college ball) or what the Redskins used to run. A TE on one side, a TE or H-back on the other (with the H-back at times lining up in the backfield as a fullback) ... that is actually a spread formation because it is a one back offense that replaces the fullback with a pass catcher on the line of scrimmage, and you also have the option of taking even the RB out and going with 3 WRs and two TEs (especially if the TE that is playing H-back lines up in the backfield instead of the RB, and particularly if the QB is a scrambler that can run draw plays).

Yet, even though it is a spread look, because you are playing two TEs as opposed to three, four, or five WRs, you can still have a dominating rushing attack. And the QB will be able to make a living throwing safe passes to the TE instead of the high risk passing that Tuberville hates.

NFL teams have run that offense from time to time, including the 1999 Tennessee Titans that came within a play of winning the Super Bowl, the conference rival of the same Jacksonville Jaguars that Tuberville hired Bobby Petrino from.

All Tuberville had to do was hire an offensive assistant from Tennessee instead. But the fact that he didn't even look for a guy like that demonstrates my point: Tuberville doesn't know a thing about offense.

That isn't a bad thing, as again Tuberville is a defense guy anyway. The problem was Tuberville's insistence on meddling with the offense, his refusal to share glory with his offensive coordinators (especially Petrino), and his total refusal to accept responsibility when his plans failed. And that was why he had to go.

This is not just about the Franklin fiasco or the loss to Alabama. No one is going to force out a head coach after one bad season, especially not Auburn, who isn't exactly USC or Oklahoma when it comes to tradition.

Tuberville was forced out because he has been frustrating Auburn's fans, powerful boosters, and administration with his machinations for years.

And there is more evidence that he was simply losing control of his situation at Auburn: it was filtering down to the players.

Consider the DeRon Furr incident. DeRon Furr was one of the top QB prospects in the southeast and probably the top prospect overall in Tuberville's 2007 recruiting class. (One of Tuberville's biggest attributes is that he has a Frank Beamer-like quality of being able to find talented players without needing a boatload of four- and five-star recruits.)

Furr came to Auburn to run their new spread offense, as he himself led a Georgia high school to the state title using that offense. However, in spring drills, Furr found himself deep on the depth chart at QB, so he decided to switch first to WR and then to CB.

Fall practice comes along and Furr decides to move again, to safety. Now some of the Auburn defensive backs had developed the idiotic opinion that the team's underachieving the prior two seasons was due to the underclassmen not working hard enough.

So, they decided that they were going to beat the tar out of a freshman the next chance that they got. The ringleader? Zac Etheridge. So, when Furr starts trash talking (as football players are wont to do) and has trouble adjusting to the very tough fall practices in the SEC (as again high school true freshmen are known to do) Etheridge attacks Furr and several other defensive players pile on top of him.

No one, not another player or a coach, stood up for Furr, who was soundly pummelled by several older players. He had absolutely no opportunity to defend himself.

Furr, beaten and publicly humiliated in front of a team filled with virtual strangers, again none of whom lifted a finger to aid him, had to be helped off the field and to the locker room.

Even better: no action whatsoever was taken against Etheridge or the other losers who thought the way to win an SEC title was to gang up on and beat up a 17-year-old.

So Furr, perceiving himself as having no advocates at Auburn, transferred. Again, as one of the most highly touted players in the Southeast, there was much demand for his services, even after Tuberville limited his options by refusing to allow him to transfer to anyone on their schedule.

But Furr chose to play for a program where a respected former athlete at his high school was serving as defensive coordinator, to make sure that if he was ever violently scapegoated in such a manner again, something would be done to the malefactors.

That was not all the damage, as Furr's brother, who is also a highly regarded recruit, is obviously no longer going to go to Auburn.

So, this incident cost Auburn not only a future starting safety but also a starting linebacker as well.

Of course, when Furr left, he was called a quitter and a prima donna by the Auburn faithful (see the comments to this article for an example) and some even blamed Furr's father.

Again, make no mistake, the real reason why Etheridge and his band decided that beating up a freshman who likely was going to redshirt that season anyway was the way to win a national title was because of their frustrations at an Auburn program that failed to follow up on their 13-0 season with so much as a trip to the SEC title game.

The source of that failure? The offense. Whose fault was that? Tuberville.

Naturally, beating up and running off the top player in their recruiting class did not yield the result that Zac Etheridge and his sucker-punch allies desired, but the opposite: a 5-7 season.

But the root cause was nonetheless Tuberville's losing control of his program because of his own antics, and his failure to rise up to the occasion and defend his player (when Furr left Tuberville claimed that it was because Furr wanted to play quarterback, but as Furr will be playing defensive back at a lesser school that obviously wasn't it), and that was the same trait that was seen in Tuberville's undermining and then scapegoating a string of offensive coordinators.

Auburn had enough, and rightly so. They deserve a coach who will be accountable, instead of one who will keep blaming and firing people for his mistakes. They also deserve a coach who will simply let well enough alone, acknowledge his limitations, and let people who are capable and qualified to do what he is not serve in their jobs.

Now I will grant you: what Tuberville did at Auburn reminds me a lot of how Pete Carroll ran off Norm Chow, an action which cost Carroll at least two national titles (2005 and 2008) plus spots in the 2006 and 2007 national title games.

But A) Carroll has his two titles already and B) is in the Pac-10. He can afford to indulge his whims. But not only is Auburn in the SEC, he is not at one of the top programs in the SEC. Auburn will never enjoy the recruiting success that LSU, Alabama and Florida does.

It is not only a second-tier SEC program in terms of recruiting like Georgia and Tennessee, but even in that group they are at a disadvantage: Georgia pretty much has a much more populous and talent-rich state to itself (technically it shares the state with Georgia Tech, but in reality, unlike Auburn-Alabama, the two schools compete head to head for very few recruits, and when they do UGA almost always wins) and Tennessee has a history of being able to recruit nationally.

So Carroll will have five-star talent and a Pac-10 that cannot compete with USC in recruiting to mask the questionable gameday coaching, playcalling, and player development since Norm Chow left. (I bet Vidal Hazelton wishes that he had listened to his stepfather and gone to Penn State, don't you?!)

Auburn needs to develop players that will generally be lower profile recruits than those at LSU, Alabama, Florida, and even at times UGA and Tennessee, and often not much better than what a very good coach will be able to bring to Ole Miss, Arkansas, and South Carolina (the third tier, with Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Mississippi State making up the fourth).

Auburn couldn't afford to put up with Tuberville's nonsense any longer, and quite frankly put up with it longer than they should have. While that 13-0 season worked out very well for the Auburn players, the truth is that it only delayed Tuberville's inevitable departure and hurt Auburn in the long run.

Bobby Petrino (or preferably someone else really good, as I really do not like Petrino and do not think that the program of Bo Jackson, Brent Fullwood, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams should rely on a passing offense; look where it's gotten Mark Richt at UGA, not very far) should be at Auburn right now, but instead he will be one more very good coach that the next Auburn coach will have to beat to go along with Les Miles, Nick Saban, Houston Nutt, Mark Richt, Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Mike Bellotti, and Bobby Johnson in that conference. (Incidentally, Auburn should hire Bobby Johnson.)That will make hiring the next coach at Auburn that much harder.  

Now Tuberville is still a very good coach. He will succeed wherever he goes. I hope Washington stops trying their best to throw away whatever there is left of Don James' legacy and hires him.

Syracuse could do a lot worse. Or Tuberville could sit on the sidelines for a season and see if Randy Shannon continues to flounder at Miami and gets himself fired.

But whoever hires Tuberville should condition his hiring on Tuberville's getting an experienced, respected offensive coordinator (hey, why not Borges!?!) and allowing that coordinator to do his job.

If Bobby Johnson doesn't want the Auburn job, then Auburn really does need to go after Wake Forest's Jim Grobe. (You won't get Mike Leach, Auburn fans.) Whoever it is, it has to be a person that doesn't mind the challenge of going up against LSU and Alabama with lesser players, so it is going to have to be someone used to competing with lesser players already.

Although if you hire Grobe, well I am concerned that he has been unable to upgrade his recruiting despite all the time that he has spent at Wake Forest, especially during the time that UNC and NCSU weren't any good.

Grobe should have been able to make real headway in North Carolina recruiting but failed, and now with Tom O'Brien and Butch Davis at UNC and NCSU (plus David Cutcliffe at Duke) that window has now closed, so it is a good time for Grobe to seek a graceful exit.

Auburn should be that place, but Auburn should require that former Auburn and now UGA assistant Rodney Garner be hired as his recruiting coordinator, even if it means making Garner defensive coordinator (an opportunity which Garner has long deserved anyway, but his previous stops have preferred he focus on recruiting).

So, hire Grobe, who has proven that he can consistently beat teams with better players (including both Ole Miss and FSU this very season!) and also hire Garner away from Georgia, severely weakening the Richt regime in the process. I don't see a downside. Hopefully Auburn's administration will see things the same way.


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