Friday, December 05, 2008

Time Loves A Hero

Almost exactly five years ago, I got a call from Tim Stephens at the Orlando Sentinel, who was working on a story about the Auburn-Alabama rivalry. I'd done a few op-eds for Tim when he was the sports editor for the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald, and we chatted for a while about the then-news of the day. Tim asked at one point whether Scott Brown and I were planning to write a sequel to "The Uncivil War" that would cover the years after 1994. I told him I thought we probably would, and that I had the title already picked out, "Time Loves A Hero," which was lifted directly from the chorus of an old Little Feat song:
Well they say, time loves a hero
But only time will tell
If he's real, he's a legend from heaven
If he ain't he was sent here from hell

I doubt now that Scott and I will be doing another Auburn-Alabama book anytime soon, but I still like the title, and I'm as convinced as ever that those lines might as well have been specifically written about how football fans think, or more accurately, feel about their team's coaches.

As the prior post here at FTB indicates, I was pretty well convinced that Tommy Tuberville would remain at Auburn for the 2009 season as late as mid-day on Monday. After that, things started to change. Rumblings within and without the athletic department indicated that something more than a standard offseason staff shakeup was underway. By the time the story broke early Wednesday evening, Tuberville's departure was considerably less surprising than it would have been just a few days earlier.

The pressures that led to Tuberville's departure have been accumulating for a long time, probably since at least 2001, when he was forced to fire old friend and then-defensive coordinator John Lovett after a disastrous November slump. Tuberville has been working at odds with many of the big money guys at Auburn ever since that season, and it very nearly cost him his own job in the now-famous "jetgate" saga of 2003. Tuberville slipped through that crisis, but the hard feelings on both sides continued to fester. Every time something went wrong, the old bitterness welled up again, and I think those recurrences were destined to go for as long as Tuberville occupied the big office overlooking the practice fields. Sooner or later, something was going to give, and "later" turned out to be December 3, 2008.

Tuberville himself bears some of the blame for the ill will that's been building over the past ten years. Tuberville milked his near-martyrdom in 2003 for too long and too smugly, and instead of mending fences with people who, right or wrong, were not going to go away, he elected to rub their faces in it at every opportunity. He also didn't help himself any by allowing his agent, Jimmy Sexton, to float his name for nearly every coaching job that popped up over the intervening seasons.

The "duck hunting" incident in early 2008 cost Tuberville a huge amount of goodwill among Auburn folks both high and low, and by the time the '08 season went in the tank at Vanderbilt Stadium, much of the political capital collected during the 2004-2007 run had already evaporated. It was at that point when I started to hear talk about a mutual "amicable separation," although that talk pretty well died down by the open date before the Alabama game. The feeling was that given the size of Tuberville's buyout clause (which itself was all the proof you need that any college president or athletic director is just not in the same league as Sexton when it comes to contract negotiations) and his overall record, he'd get at least one year to try and turn things around.

On Monday morning, it was clear that Tuberville was expected to fire at least a couple of long-time assistants (Greg Knox and Hugh Nall being the most likely candidates), hire a top-notch offensive coordinator, and get started on rebuilding. There was considerable suspicion at that time that at least some of the "powers that be" had not only given Tuberville an ultimatum on a staff shakeup, but also had informed him that thanks to the ongoing contract payoffs to Al Borges and Tony Franklin, he would not be given carte blache with Auburn's checkbook when it came to new hires. Some were already calling this a recipe for "slow death" in 2009, and comparing the situation to Alabama's early-1990 poison-pill contract offer to Bill Curry.

The other view (although the two are likely not mutually exclusive) is that Tuberville simply decided by Wednesday that he really didn't have the heart to fire his old friends and start over again. If accurate, that's a position it's hard not to sympathize with. Ten years is a very long time in today's SEC, and even Tuberville's most severe critics can't deny that he's had a fine run. Tuberville has enough money to never work again if that's what he wants, and I don't think he's got anything to prove to anybody at this point in his life.

Auburn will also move on, and to be honest, it's probably better for everybody at this point to make a clean break and start anew. As in the past, and in the years to come, time will provide another hero, and if he's real...

1 comment:

AubTigerman said...

A voice of reason in all the angry, venomous, and vituperative coments that's been posted by so many. I for one take Tommy and Jay at their words. Divorce is never pretty but like two parents they want the family to get along.
It's time to start a new !