The idea of Tommy Tuberville running for governor of Alabama is far from a sure thing. But a political outsider in a place of power is not that far-fetched these days, especially considering a certain new resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“Two words -- Donald Trump,” said Terry Lathan, the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, when she heard Tuberville was a possibility for the GOP. “See, Nov. 8.”
Tuberville isn’t Donald Trump, but he isn’t coaching either, which makes him available for a run at the state’s highest office. And that availability -- in this day and age -- essentially makes him qualified.
Celebrities, actors, athletes and -- of course -- reality show hosts have already won office seats at state and national levels. Few have experience dipping their toes into the roiling waters of Alabama politics where the conversation starts with one basic question: Who ya pullin’ for?
Another Alabaman’s perception of you depends on the answer: Bama or Auburn.
So you can see why a Tuberville candidacy would be so divisive, uniting, inspiring, perspiring -- anything but boring. For 10 of his 21 years as a head coach, Tubs had his greatest success leading the Tigers to an 85-40 record and an SEC title.
You can also see why Lathan was surprised Monday when she was told Tuberville was considering a gubernatorial run. You’d think the chairman of the state’s party would have heard whispers. But that’s the way Tubs wants it. On the down low.
In fact, Auburn’s former coach might read this and get upset. But it is known he is currently in the process of gauging interest for his entry into the 2018 race.
“I think Tommy would stand a slugger’s chance of getting elected,” said Steve French, a former political consultant in Alabama.
There is an ongoing statewide phone poll being conducted involving about 50,000 people that will sway him. In a week or two, Tuberville is likely to make a go or no-go decision.
“Everybody wants non-politicians now,” said a person from his camp. “Eighty-percent of it is name recognition.”
If that’s the case, a 62-year-old native of Arkansas whose biggest political crisis used to be deciding Auburn’s starting quarterback could be (the state of) Alabama’s man.
“It would shake some things up, wouldn’t it?” Lathan said.
It sure would at a lot of places for a lot of reasons. Tuberville stepped down at Cincinnati -- his fourth head coaching stop -- in December. But he is most well known for that colorful run at Auburn from 1998-2008.
Tuberville has a deep knowledge of polls: Those of us who were there will never forget the coach working the press box at the Orange Bowl the night of Jan. 5, 2005.
Tubs’ Tigers had been left out of the BCS Championship Game despite a 13-0 run to an SEC title. The man was literally shaking hands with Associated Press voters in the media, lobbying for their No. 1 vote in the AP Top 25 as Oklahoma and USC played below.
USC won sewing up the BCS and AP titles. Nevertheless, Tuberville is more than familiar with the phrase that links the college football polls to the voting polls: “Ain’t nothin’ but a popularity contest.”
He has experience with back-room deals: If by “back-room” you mean a tarmac and by “deal” you mean Auburn sneaking around behind Tuberville’s back trying to land Bobby Petrino in 2003, then, yes he is experienced in those sorts of things.
He knows all about Alabama: In his 10 years at Auburn, Tuberville was around for six Alabama coaches, if you count interim Joe Kines in 2006.
The man once owned the state (university): There’s no question Tommy can get the job done. It just depends on what kind of job you’re talking about. Tuberville beat Alabama six years in a row (2002-07). Then he let the Crimson Tide know about the Joy of Six.
A season later, he was fired -- two years into the Nick Saban regime. He wouldn’t be the first coach left in Saban’s winning wake.
Imagine the coin toss at the Iron Bowl involving Gov. Tuberville. There might be demands for a state investigation if Auburn won it.
“He’s probably the only one I can think of who has been in a stadium with 80,000 or 90,000 people where everyone there could point him out on the sidelines,” Lathan said.
But when voters go behind that curtain, what affiliation will matter more -- Republican/Democrat or Tide/Tigers?
Fifty-eight percent of the state’s elected officials are Republican. It’s no secret the majority of state’s fans support Alabama.
“If you can connect with voters on an education message, that’s a big plus,” French said. “Tommy has recruited. He’s seen underprivileged youth come into his program and go out the other door and be a successful professional the rest of their life.
“Those are powerful messages. It’d be fun to package him, to be honest. I might want to dust off my credentials and go with him.”
Legitimacy shouldn’t be an issue. Tuberville ran the equivalent of major corporations at Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas Tech and Cincinnati.
Do three national championship rings (as a Miami assistant) do anything for ya?
“There is a little bit of a difference between fame and notoriety,” said French, also an Alabama state senator from 1999-2011. “Tommy’s a smart guy, a good promoter, a good marketer. He won’t shy away from the bright lights. He knows a lot of people that have a lot of wealth.
“The negative is he’s never run for office. He’s taken some barbs but he’s taken barbs from chat boards not from TV ads being run against him.”
Could it be any tougher than facing Dale Peterson?
Let’s drill down on the whole “outsider” issue: Comedian Al Franken (D) went from “Saturday Night Live” to Minnesota senator. California voted for an action hero, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Ronald Reagan (R) transformed himself from a B actor to California governor to president.
We even haven’t gotten to the outrageous: Wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura (I) as Minnesota governor.
So why not Tommy Tuberville as Alabama’s 58th governor?
How many governors have won 159 games in 21 years, been a national coach of the year and is personable enough to talk your arm off.
If the results of that phone survey are favorable, Tuberville could begin the process to be on the ballot for the Republican primary in June 2018. The election to replace current governor Robert Bentley is November 2018, about three weeks before the Iron Bowl.
“Not real sure if the state of Alabama can have those events colliding in one month,” Lathan said. “We’re pretty tough folks here; we been through a Civil War and some other things, but that one is a tough one.”
Who ya pullin’ for may turn into who ya votin’ for?
“I’ll use a football analogy here,” Lathan added. “You’re going out for the team. You got two-a-days. You gotta hit. You gotta run the 40 in a certain time. Then the voters can make their case.
“Our Iron Bowl is on election day.”
Full disclosure: Lathan would more than welcome a Tuberville candidacy. Sure, she’s a Republican. But she’s also a self-described “Auburn Girl” whose game day tailgate has included drop-bys from Pat Dye (former coach) and Jason Campbell (former quarterback).
What if Tommy Tuberville were to go for it and run for state office? What if that tailgate included a political outsider who was the ultimate Auburn insider?
“I mean, seriously, the climate for a non-political person? We saw this clearly on November the 8th …,” Lathan reiterated.
“We’ve just got a big old soup of fun waiting for us. As they say in stands, ‘We’re going to need some more popcorn.’”