A few minutes with Tommy Tuberville

DESTIN — Tommy Tuberville is seriously thinking about offering a scholarship to an eighth grader. He knows the kid very well and has seen him play a number of times since he lives within shouting distance of Jordan-Hare Stadium at Auburn University. Tuberville thinks the young man is going to be a Division I football player someday but there is a slight problem. Tuberville can’t talk to the kid without mom around.

Folks are still buzzing that Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie took a commitment from an eighth grader a few weeks ago. Tuberville isn’t taking nearly as much heat about his offer to an eighth grader.

Maybe it has something to do with just who the kid is.

“My son,” said Tuberville with a smile as he held court at the SEC Spring Meetings at the Sandestin Hilton last week. “I can’t get him to commit to me and he’s in the eighth grade. His mother said don’t talk to him unless she’s around. We can’t talk about recruiting unless she’s around. I told him he’s been hurt too much already. He’s in the eighth grade and he’s had two operations already for a broken arm.”

Tuberville can laugh because he’s talking about recruiting his son, but he thinks recruiting eighth graders is never going to be a problem for football coaches in the Southeastern Conference.

“It’s foolish, to be honest with you,” he said. “It probably happens more in basketball because they look more at height. There’s more physical structure that they have to have involved than what we do. We see our guys change tremendously from the time we get them till they graduate. We have to build more of our players. We look more for quickness and speed and those things. They have to have more height. No ands, ifs and buts about that.”

When it comes to recruiting, Tuberville has some concerns. The NCAA passed legislation that took head coaches off the road this year during the spring evaluation period. Every time the NCAA makes a decision about football that involves recruiting, the answer is less contact for coaches.

While that might seem a good idea to the people that make the rules, it’s a serious concern for the coaches that have to recruit kids to their universities and into their football programs. The coaches are expected to recruit good kids with good character and good academics yet they are given less time each year to make a decision.

With less contact between coaches and recruits, the entire process has become one gigantic roll of the dice. What troubles Tuberville is that if he makes a mistake in judgment and some kid in his program goes off the deep end someday, it’s his job on the line. Rules passed by well meaning people have only handicapped him and every other Division I football coach from having a more positive effect by limiting the amount of contact.

“I guess it’s just a matter of opinion, but when they go through all this [making rules that limit contact] they never really want to talk to us about it, the guys that are responsible for 120 kids on campus,” he said. “They tie our hands a little more each year. They tie your hands on how much you can evaluate a player. They want us to bring in great athletes who are great students with great character but for some reason every year they give you fewer opportunities to evaluate that. Sooner or later somebody else has to take responsibility for actions with a lot of these kids other than the coaches because when you limit what we can do, like anything else you’re going to be less successful at it.”

One point of contention with Tuberville is that some of the folks that make the rules aren’t from Division I schools. In fact, some of the rules makers are from schools that don’t even field a football team.

“They’re on the committees and they’re making decisions that they really don’t know anything about,” he said.

One solution to this growing problem might be for the Division I schools to be given greater control over football matters. At one point there was the College Football Association (CFA), which proposed that the power conferences should be allowed to make their own set of rules and guidelines for recruiting, numbers of scholarships, etc. The CFA disbanded before it could effectively gain control of football, however.

The CFA proposal wasn’t a bad idea. The schools in the power conferences are the ones that take the greatest financial risks but they also generate more revenue. Football is indeed the engine that drives their entire athletic programs so allowing the schools in the power conferences to determine their own football fate would make economic sense.

“In college football there are probably about 60 teams that should be making decisions on how they do things because they make the majority of the money for the schools and the conferences but there’s a lot of other people who make the decisions,” said Tuberville.

Tuberville believes he has a sympathetic athletic director and president at Auburn and he believes that most of the presidents and AD’s in the Southeastern Conference would agree that the big football schools should have the right to exercise greater autonomy over their sport. Football is king in the SEC. Stadiums are generally sold out and the league annually leads the nation in attendance. There is an SEC championship game in Atlanta every year which generates plenty of revenue and the SEC is the only conference that has a guaranteed national game on television every week due to its contract with CBS. When it comes to success of its teams and money in its pockets, the SEC is the fat cat of all of college sports and it’s that way because of football.

Not every school and not every conference in Division I — even among the 60 or so schools that make up the BCS conferences — is willing to stand by the SEC on changing the rules and giving football a bit more autonomy.

“You have to feel for AD’s and presidents,” said Tuberville. “They understand and they can listen and say we understand what you’re saying but once you get out of this building, the people at the other schools could care less what they think because they’re going to vote the way they want to think. Too many people have to agree to make something happen.”

A prime example is the idea of a Plus One game. Under the present arrangement with the BCS, two teams are selected to play in the BCS National Championship Game by a complicated and difficult to understand formula. Under the Plus One formula, four teams would play in two bowl games and a week later, the winners of those two games would square off to determine the national championship.

This is probably the closest thing to a playoff that we’ll see anytime soon, but even that idea has been shot down by some of the larger conferences. The issue is the conference championship game. Under NCAA rules a conference can stage a championship game if it has 12 teams. The SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 all have a conference championship game but the Pac-10, Big 10 and Big East don’t have one. Because of the championship game, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 have less a chance to get their champion in the BCS National Championship Game because there is a very good chance for an upset. The Big 10, for example, doesn’t have enough teams for a conference championship game and doesn’t intend to have one. Under the present arrangement, if a Big 10 team has a great season it has a very good chance of making it to the BCS title game.

“This Plus One deal — there are several conferences would love to have that but several conferences that don’t play a championship game that say we’re not going to do it because we’ve got a great chance to get in the championship game the way we do it,” said Tuberville. “They say let those other goofballs beat themselves up [with a conference championship game]. That’s exactly what we’re doing but we’re making a lot of money doing it.”

Tuberville used to be a proponent of a playoff along the lines of the Division I-AA system that has worked well for years. With the addition of the 12th regular season game to go with the conference championship game, he no longer supports a full-scale playoff.

“I’d be in favor of a four-team playoff but I wouldn’t be for anything more because the season would be too long,” he said.

Had there been a four-team playoff system in place in 2004, Tuberville would have had a chance to win the national championship. Auburn went 13-0, the only SEC team to go undefeated in the last 10 years other than Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team. Under the BCS rules that were in place in 2004, Southern Cal and Oklahoma played for the national championship game and Auburn was left out in the cold.

Under the BCS rules that were in place at the time, the Associated Press and Coaches polls carried a good bit of weight in the final determination of which teams would square off for the national championship. Tuberville is still a bit steamed about one voter in particular.

“We had a guy in our own state that wouldn’t vote for us and he knew how good we were,” said Tuberville. “Sometimes people that vote don’t look at the facts.”

In this particular scenario, the voter in question had Oklahoma either number one or two all season long and he wouldn’t jump Auburn over Oklahoma since the Sooners had stayed in the same spot all year.

What happened to Auburn has brought about some changes in the way the BCS operates. Tuberville thinks that what happened to Auburn in 2004 weighed on the minds of the people making the decision to put Florida in the BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State in 2006. They weren’t going to slight the SEC two times in three years.

“I just think people started to recognize this conference is pretty good,” he said. “I think we’re getting more recognition all over the country. I think ESPN controls a lot of it. I think we’re starting to prove a point and if you look at the last two national championship games it hasn’t been close.”

After 15 years in the SEC as a head coach, first at Ole Miss and now at Auburn, Tuberville understands just how tough the SEC. Because the teams are so good in the league, he thinks that the league champion should merit plenty of consideration for the national championship game. The SEC’s reputation helped put twice-beaten LSU in the national championship game in 2007 where the SEC made it two straight years of total domination in the biggest game of all.

This is the kind of league that will eat up a coach and spit him out if he’s not at the top of his game every single week.

“It’s a hard league to coach in because it’s so competitive,” he said. “It’s kind of like being president. You age pretty quick in this league. You have no holidays.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.