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tuberville thrived after he survived..


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by steve hummer

the atlanta journal-constitution

published on: 11/09/07 auburn, ala. a funny thing happened to tommy tuberville on the way to the palace coup.

instead of falling victim to one of the shiftier end runs ever in college football a couple years back, the most unflappable coach on the plains finds himself more established than ever.

he kept winning big game after big game until finally he won the biggest game yet: he got acknowledged as a pretty fair country football coach at one of the hungriest, most restless outposts in the sport, auburn.

"he's got the fans and all the people behind him," said former auburn coach pat dye, a four-time sec champ. "i don't think our program's ever been in better shape."

and, now, it is the auburn faithful holding its collective breath each time some other school is rumored to covet his services. this week as the tigers readied for their annual bloodletting with georgia, it supposedly was texas a&m getting ready to show tuberville a little leg and tempt him west.

in response, he neither pledged eternal fealty to the war eagles nor hinted that he has packed the china. all attention must be focused on upcoming games with georgia and alabama, he said. tuberville, 53, in his ninth year at auburn, has played it too smart for too long to get dumb now.

"a lot of class," dye said.

this is how you turn a backstabbing into a swedish massage.

mark the tuberville timeline with a big, red "x" at two days before the 2003 iron bowl with alabama. it was then the auburn university president and athletic director quietly boarded a booster's jet and made a surreptitious run to louisville to talk to bobby petrino about replacing tuberville. they followed none of the usual niceties, like informing tuberville of their displeasure or getting louisville's permission to dicker with their guy. when word got out, it smeared two coats of embarrassment over everybody.

the auburn president and ad are gone. the booster, bobby lowder, was momentarily subdued. petrino is doing time with the falcons. and tuberville? "he came out stronger," dye said.

"going into 2003, people were split down the middle (about tuberville)," said paul finebaum, the ubiquitous voice of football in alabama, whose radio show is heard in 23 stations around the state. "then it all turned around so quickly. they had the special season, he got the new contract, and there's been no looking back since."

tuberville's martyrdom was complete in 2004 when his team went 13-0 and was left out of the national championship equation. all he has done since the infamous "jetgate" episode is go 25-5 in the sec, stretch his winning streak over alabama to five straight and go 9-2 against top 10-ranked opponents. and that record might have been better if lsu hadn't beaten him with a last-play prayer three weeks ago.

when he talks about the falcons' petrino, tuberville can afford to say now, "no i don't (hold any ill will toward him). bobby's a good coach and i'm happy for the success he's had. things weren't handled very well in 2003, but some of that was beyond his control. we've put it behind us."

once he gained some security at auburn, the question became what would keep him there, especially with all the drama that comes with the job?

"i like it here," he said this week. "it has a good family atmosphere. i've got 13- and 11-year-old boys who are playing football and baseball and really like it here. and as a coach, you want to be somewhere where football is important."

last month, he moved into the dream home he had promised his wife when they left ole miss in 1998. "i put her off for eight years," he laughed. those looking for signs of his intentions point to the reassuring new-house smell.

he's making $2.5 million this year, and while he's well short of nick saban's $4 million deal at alabama, never underestimate the leverage of a good college station, texas-brewed rumor.

and apparently, auburn is getting a little better at loving him back.

no coach enjoys unanimous approval. about the best he can hope for is a fluid consensus. in some corners, tuberville still is regarded as an under-appreciated commodity.

"his name needs to ring a lot more than what it does. it doesn't need to ring only when the rumors come around," said senior lineman-linebacker quentin groves.

but consider the 7-3 tigers' stumbling start this season losing to south florida and mississippi state in games two and three and the relative calm with which it was greeted. toomer's corner did not spontaneously combust. no chat room lynching party assembled. "there was no panic among the fans or the coaches," tuberville said. "it seems like people have matured with us as we've matured."

like they usually do, tuberville and his staff got this thing back on the tracks, announcing as much with a 20-17 victory at then-no. 4 florida in game five. tommy two tone his mantra is run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense was at it again.

it is easy to overlook the defensive-minded tuberville in the landscape of offensive impressionists out there. he can win a game 9-7, as he did at arkansas this year, and consider it the prettiest thing since eva gardner.

that style keeps him in games last season auburn won five by a touchdown or less and it keeps him in seasons. so, when this season veered towards the ditch, things got especially fundamental around eastern alabama.

"we just get back to what we do best and that's run the football and stop the run," said senior tight end cole bennett. "after that mississippi state loss, that sunday, we went back and basically started from scratch, almost like camp stuff hitting the bags, chutes, everything. we focused on getting back to what made us good in the first place."

there are so many other complications coaching at auburn, the football should come simply. one of the obvious quagmires tuberville now contemplates is the presence of saban and the promise of a revival at alabama. the crimson tide dearly wants to own all the light in alabama.

"i wouldn't blame him if he left," said broadcaster finebaum. "i think saban will have a definite impact on auburn. alabama is a juggernaut when things are going well and it's hard for auburn to find its place."

at least now tuberville is the one in position to decide where he and auburn go from here. being wanted is the best revenge.

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