Tommy Tuberville, the Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama, is leading incumbent Sen. Doug Jones by 14 points in the polls. The highly watched race has attracted huge outside spending, and pundits have speculated about what it might take for the country’s most vulnerable senator to hold onto his seat. But the reality is the race can be boiled down to two of Alabama’s favorite things: Trump and football.
Tuberville has clung close to President Donald Trump throughout the campaign. Trump endorsed Tuberville in the primary over Jeff Sessions—Trump’s former attorney general and an Alabama senator from 1997 to 2017. In return, Tuberville has said that his number one priority was “taking that stick out of [Trump’s] hand and giving [him] a baseball bat.” He has also promoted birtherism, complained bitterly about environmentalists, said immigrants were bringing “drugs” and “diseases,” and stoked fear about the socialist and communist “indoctrination” of the education system.
Tuberville has never held elected office, but he gained fame in the state from nearly a decade as head coach of the Auburn Tigers. In 2004, Tuberville led the team to a 13-0 season and an SEC championship. He also led Auburn to six straight victories over the University of Alabama in its longest winning streak against the in-state rival. (Remarkably, Crimson Tide fans do not seem to hold this against him.) Jones’ campaign has attacked Tuberville’s team loyalty (highlighting one story from Tuberville’s time as coach of Texas Tech, when he ditched a dinner with recruits after getting offered a job at Cincinnati). Tuberville, meanwhile, has continued to cite his leadership experience as a coach, and his outsider status, as the reason he should represent the state.
To get a better sense of how Coach Tuberville could translate to Sen. Tuberville, Slate spoke with four of his former Auburn players to hear what they make of his turn to a Trump-loving politician. Their answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: Were you surprised Tommy Tuberville ran for Senate?
Prechae Rodriguez (played 2005 to 2007): I was really surprised. Because he had his fair share of coaching, and I thought he was going to be a [football] analyst.
Spencer Johnson (2000-2003): Honestly, I didn’t see it coming. I’m not a Trump supporter. So I was a little disappointed to see that Coach Tuberville had aligned himself with those beliefs. But I don’t know if I was completely surprised by it. Just because of where Tubs is, financially. So aligning with big businesses and stuff like that, I can see from that standpoint.
Adlai Trone (1996-1999): I’m not surprised. I know at some point he had considered running for some other offices. His name has rung in the political world for a couple of years. It’s a big jump, but I’m not surprised at all.
Tommy Jackson (2002-2005): All I could think is, why?
Why do you think he’s doing this?
Jackson: In terms of power, popularity, social capital—what’s beyond being a head football coach at Auburn University in the state of Alabama, in the Southeastern Conference? Running for public office. To me, this is a power grab.
Rodriguez: Most athletes usually just play ball, and after that it’s just retire and invest your money. Being a professional athlete, [you can] use that tool to be involved in the community. Provide to society in another way. So it’s the same thing with Tuberville: he has more to offer to society. And that’s getting into politics and making changes.
What do you think about his decision to align himself with Trump?
Rodriguez: I’ll be honest. I didn’t really know what [party] he was representing. He coached multicultural kids. I would have thought it was gonna be on the Democratic side. You have knowledge of these kids’ backgrounds, where they come from. You sit in their homes and see their circumstances. But with him going on the Republican side, and backing in what Trump is trying to do, it’s raised a level of concern. And it makes me want to do my own research on what he is advocating.
Trone: I’m disappointed, because he did come into everyone’s living rooms and have this personal connection with everyone when they were young, and they weren’t aware of what his political beliefs might be. I think it’ll be interesting to know what things that Trump has said or done that he does not agree with. I would be curious to know that.
Johnson: That’s the part that disappointed me the most. Just knowing who Tubs was, and knowing that a lot of these kids that he recruited, including myself, were minority kids that came from areas that weren’t privileged.
Jackson: It’s very disingenuous. He coached a team that had a majority of African American players. And President Trump has no interest in Black males. And so for Coach Tuberville to support someone like that—what does that say about somebody who has always thought this way to make millions of dollars off the same people the president is intending to overlook or mistreat? It’s shameful. It’s downright shameful.
Have you talked to other former players about this?
Johnson: At Auburn, we have a really close-knit group of guys. We talk about every issue. So there’s been conversations. I’ve got a few guys that do agree with Tuberville and support him. And there’s a majority of the guys who I deal with that don’t. When you talk about Donald Trump, of course some of the guys that are African Americans don’t take kindly or don’t agree with those particular sentiments.
Trone: A lot of guys keep up with each other. There’s lot of different circles. It’s the majority that are disappointed. I think a lot of us would like to remain optimistic in saying that maybe if he gets in office, he’ll listen to what we have to say. I just hope he stands for something that represents the players that played hard for him.
Are there particular qualities he had as a coach that are relevant to his ability as a senator?
Rodriguez: As a head coach, at that level, there’s a lot of pressure. Everyone’s criticizing from all angles. There’s the naysayers, the critics. You’re heavily scrutinized. Everything you do is watched really carefully. And you have to take the blame and fall for a lot of stuff.
Trone: He knows how to place his words in the right place. He knows how to handle the camera, and he knows how to handle a general conversation. He’s got a good personality. He held himself accountable. He took problems and accepted responsibility. He knew how to delegate. He had a vision of what the end goal is. And he’d do everything in his might to make sure to get to that goal. That’s the type of leader that he was. So [putting aside] politics, just as a person: yeah, I liked the guy. But those [the person and the politician] are two different people.
Sometimes we look at him and say, OK, is this Coach Tuberville? And it’s like, nah, that’s not Coach Tuberville. So it’s kind of confusing to us, as well.
Jackson: He was smart and let the people around him do the work. And I think that’s also an indictment on what he would do in the Senate. If you’re going to leave it to all your coaches pretty much all the time to do the work, that’s a problem.
Johnson: It’s tough for me to take what I’ve seen from him as a football coach and put into the realm of politics. Yes, you have to be able to recruit and do things like that. But my issue is that I honestly don’t think he’s qualified to do the job.
What do you think of the idea of a former football coach representing Alabama in the Senate?
Jackson: Football has never just been a game. It’s the only way you can force a racist to actually cheer for a Black man. Football is powerful. In the South, in particular. So you’ve got a coach who is truly ill-prepared to be a senator. Yet he is polling well. Are you kidding me? I don’t want some guy talking about football making decisions about what should be done with federal dollars.
This is a very serious job, this isn’t something that you don’t just decide to do. It’s concerning. And a lot of people have begun making the decision to vote for him based on him being a former football coach. I’m a guy that played for him: He wouldn’t get my vote.
Trone: Politics can [turn into] into a popularity contest to a certain extent. And the state of Alabama is a popular place for college football. When you think of Alabama, that’s probably the first thing that comes to your mind. And it’s sad, but it’s true. I just pray that we don’t get lost in college football.
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