Senator Tommy Tuberville? Will they carry him to Washington, D.C. in a pine box?

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Ole Miss athletics

Tommy Tuberville, who spent four years as Ole Miss football coach, hopes to spend the next six years in the U.S. Senate.

So I am trying to wrap my arms around the fact former Ole Miss football coach Tommy Tuberville, who hails from Arkansas and recently has lived on the beach in Florida, might well be the next U.S. Senator from Alabama.

Turns out, my arms are not nearly long enough.

Polls show Tuberville leading Jeff Sessions, whom he faces in a July 14 Republican primary runoff. The winner will be favored to defeat incumbent Doug Jones. Nothing – in football or politics – is certain, but Tuberville, who won 25 games and lost 20 at Ole Miss in his four seasons from 1995-98, is the clear favorite to become Senator Tuberville.

Rick Cleveland

The guess here is that the average Mississippi football fan could not have told you Tuberville’s Ole Miss record before reading that last sentence. But the average fan could certainly tell you the circumstances of Tuberville’s departure from Oxford.

For weeks during the fall of 1998, rumors had circulated that Tuberville was headed to Auburn. For weeks, Tuberville denied the rumors. He looked directly into the eyes of sports writers, one of whom was me, and said this: “They’ll have to carry me out of here in a pine box.”

Two days later, he stepped onto a private jet, sent from Auburn, and took the job after all. Turns out, no pine box was required, although many Ole Miss fans would have gladly provided.

“I’m a Rebel at heart,” he had told us. “I want to be where people want you, where you have a chance to win, where your players are giving all they can and where it’s a great place to live. That’s exactly what we have here in Oxford.”

As former Ole Miss athletic director Pete Boone says, “Tommy always did have the gift of gab.”

Often, politicians talk out of both sides of their mouth. Tuberville has that part down pat. And he has for a long time. As one of his best Ole Miss players told me recently, “Tubs was always a politician.”

Long after he left Ole Miss, long after he was fired by Auburn, Tuberville was the head coach at Texas Tech. In December of 2012, Tuberville was at a dinner with several recruits, talking up the Red Raiders program. Shortly before dinner was served, Tuberville got up and left the table. “We thought he was going to the bathroom,” a recruit later said.

Tuberville never returned. The next day, he became the head coach at Cincinnati, proving once and for all that the grass is not always greener. Tuberville was 85-40 in 10 years at Auburn, 20-17 in three years at Texas Tech, and 29-22 in four years at Cincinnati.

This is not to say Tuberville could not coach. He most certainly could. You could argue – and I would – that Tuberville’s best coaching was done at Ole Miss, where he became known as The Riverboat Gambler for his propensity to buck traditional football odds. He inherited a program decimated by severe NCAA sanctions and somehow won six games his first season. His 1997 Rebels finished 8-4 and he was voted SEC Coach of the Year and deserved the honor.

Ole Miss athletics

Tuberville lifted the Golden Egg high after the 1995 Egg Bowl. victory in Starkville.

He used it, too. After that 1997 season, rumors were rampant that Tuberville was headed to Arkansas to replace Danny Ford as the head coach there. Tuberville got a huge raise and announced he was staying at Ole Miss. And then Frank Broyles, the Arkansas athletic director and legendary former coach, said Tuberville was never offered the job. Broyles, you may remember, hired Houston Nutt.

Tuberville resigned from his last coaching job at Cincinnati in 2016 when his final Bearcats team finished 4-8. He moved to Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., and voted there, as a Floridian, in 2018 – as Jeff Sessions gleefully reminds everyone in his campaign ads, one of which shows an interview with Tuberville talking about moving to the “white sands and blue water of Santa Rosa – what a great place to live.”

The Sessions campaign lately also has zeroed in on Tuberville’s involvement in an investment fraud case from back in his coaching days. Former Lehman Brothers broker John David Stroud, with whom Tuberville founded a hedge fund, was sentenced to 10 years for bilking investors out of millions. Tuberville, who says he was an innocent victim, was sued for millions and settled out of court in 2013. Make of it what you like, but know this: The investment firms in question were TS Capital Management and TS Capital Partners. The T stood for Tuberville, the S for Stroud.

T also stands for Trump, and Tuberville famously has the president’s endorsement, which is like gold in Alabama and which he flouts in his campaign ads. In fact, Tuberville’s campaign can be summarized thusly: God, guns and Trump. That’s not all together different from Sessions, who also touts his own experience while Coach Tuberville touts his leadership qualities. The self-promotion is winding down, and this last week of the primary campaign will likely get down and dirty – entertaining to watch from one state over.

One factor I wonder about: When push comes to shove, how will Alabama Crimson Tide fans vote? Would Ole Miss fans vote for Jackie Sherrill? Would Mississippi State fans vote for Hugh Freeze?

Keep in mind, when Tuberville was the coach at Auburn, he won 7 of 10 against Bama and once beat the Crimson Tide six straight years.

Again, like him or not or trust him or not, nobody ever said Tuberville couldn’t coach.