SEC: One Year Later, T-Tub Is Crown Prince

BIRMINGHAM --- A year and a half after he survived a palace coup whose conspirators were the athletic director, school president and at least two prominent boosters, Tommy Tuberville is the man holding all the cards at Auburn University. He's got a 15-game winning streak heading into the 2005 season with a team he says is top to bottom the most talented he's had since he's been at Auburn. In this state where football is king, Tommy Tuberville is the crown prince.

If not for a leak to the press back in January of 2004, Tuberville would have been canned in favor of Louisville's Bobby Petrino. When the press got wind of a conspiracy in the making --- particularly since the leaders of the coup were meeting Petrino in Kentucky without the permission of the Louisville athletic department --- the deal that was to be fell apart quickly and Auburn was "stuck" with T-Tubs.

In the ensuing uproar, the president and athletic director got the axe and the big money boosters were effectively neutered. Though he was considered an underachiever in his Auburn tenure, Tuberville survived. Though he may not have been the most popular coach, it was agreed he had done nothing to merit an underhanded coup. In the wake of all the bad publicity, he rallied his team to a Southeastern Conference championship and a 13-0 record. If not for the ridiculous BCS he would have had a shot at a national title. Think he wouldn't have had a chance against Southern Cal? Well, consider this. The year before his Tigers held Southern Cal to 260 yards in a tough loss. Auburn was a whole lot better in 2004 and the Tigers ended up with four first round draft choices.

So Tuberville stood at the podium at SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel Thursday morning wearing a big grin and looking every bit the guy who sits on the throne in "The Loveliest Village on the Plains." Go back a few years ago and it was banker Bobby Lowder who was the power at Auburn. Lowder is out on his ear at Auburn now. Anything short of NCAA violations or a total collapse of the football program and Tuberville's ticket is punched for a long ride. When your response to being thrown under the bus by your own people is a 13-0 season, you are THE MAN.

In the months since January of 2004 he has successfully avoided stooping to the level of the folks who tried to slice and dice his Auburn career. He kept his cool last year when he could have lashed out and his team followed his lead. He continued to stay above the fray Thursday.

"There's no reason to make a situation worse," said Tuberville. "You take the hand that you are dealt. You play it and you go on. Never has anything good come out of complaining or looking back."

If there was one little dig at the people who tried to dump him, it was when he said, "I think our guys last year did a tremendous job of offsetting the things that happened the previous year and got focused on the year at hand and these are young men that we're training to be adults."

That little remark may have gone over most heads, but the folks who tried to can him understand completely. The only adults at Auburn last year were Tuberville, his staff and his football players.

The irony of last year's unbeaten season is that Tuberville knew even when his people were trying to hire Petrino that the 2004 season was going to be one to remember. He knew it the year before.

"I told all of you out there two years ago that 2003 we were going to have a good football team but that wasn't going to be our best one," he said. "Last year was going to be."

Once he escaped the firing squad, he turned his focus completely on putting Auburn's best product ever on the field. Behind running backs Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, two of the first five players taken in the April NFL draft, and quarterback Jason Campbell and corner Carlos Rogers, also first rounders, Auburn won the SEC and then beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.

No one can dispute that it was a great season and the best team in Auburn history. What can be disputed is that Southern Cal should have been the national champion. Sure, Southern Cal won based on the formula that was in place, this silly product of Roy Kramer's juvenile mind called the BCS. Just because it is endorsed for financial convenience by the presidents of the universities that make up the power conferences of college football doesn't necessarily mean it's right.

Considering the enormous amount of talent on his roster for 2005, he has a team that is certainly capable of another run at an unbeaten season. That only magnifies the unfairness of the system that is in place. Tuberville is well aware that if goes unbeaten again he could once again be a bridesmaid. At least in the preseason, the winners of the pretty bride contest are defending "champ" Southern Cal and Texas, the two teams popularly expected to play for the BCS title in the Rose Bowl. Of course, at last check Oklahoma is still on the Texas schedule and Mack Brown is still the coach in Austin. But an unbeaten Auburn team --- or any unbeaten team from the SEC --- could get shut out again. No one is more aware of the unfairness that could rear its ugly head a second straight year than Tommy Tuberville. Instead of a system where champions are determined on the field, the BCS is tweaked every year and instead of making it better, it only gets worse.

"Nothing has been done to solve the problem," said Tuberville. "We have used a Band-Aid. You can have all the voting polls you want. Popular vote is not the way you have a national champion. You need to play it on the field."

There are athletic directors and university presidents who claim that the season is too long, yet these same people just voted to expand the regular season to 12 games, collectively ending one of the two potential open dates that is on the schedule. Add a conference championship game and a bowl game and you have a 14-game schedule. Thrown in a trip to Hawaii, which earns one extra regular season game because of the time zones traversed and you've got some teams capable of playing 15 games. That's the same number of games played each year by the two teams that make it to the Division I-AA national championship game and the same number played by the two teams that make it to the Division II national title game. Ditto for Division III.

The same people who extend the season to 12 regular season games claim that a playoff which extends the season by four games would take players away from their studies. What? Only the Division I teams have intelligent players? The guys in Division I-AA, Division II and Division III play 15 games. You mean they're not missing class? You mean they aren't very smart? Spare us, please, and while you're about it, please explain March Madness. You wanna talk missing class? Check out how many class days are missed by a team that makes it to the Final Four.

There is that argument that playoffs would destroy the "bowl system" which allows a 6-5 team to win a game in San Jose, California and carry its coach off the field on its shoulders. Should those players be denied the right to hoist their coach on their shoulders? Absolutely! Why should teams be rewarded for mediocrity with a trip to Boise?

Tuberville believes "we're smart enough to be able to figure out a way to keep our bowl system and have a playoff to have a true national champion."

He understands why Auburn didn't get into the championship game last year, but understanding the reasons doesn't make the system any fairer. The Tigers began the 2004 season too far out to be picked up on the BCS radar. By the time the Tigers became more than a blip there was no chance. Oklahoma and Southern Cal were unbeaten and they went bell to bell at one and two.

"We got left out last year and rightly so," said Tuberville very diplomatically. "The way it was picked we were number three. We weren't number one or two. There's really no way to complain about it. It is the system we have, it's the only one we have, but we can do a lot better."

He said the fact that last year's team was denied the chance to play for a national championship by the system that was in place may be reason enough for his team to play the 2005 season with a chip on its shoulder. The tough part, he says, is that he can't look kids in the eye anymore and tell them that if they run the table in the Southeastern Conference --- arguably the best conference in the nation --- that they may not have a chance to win a national championship.

"That's hard to swallow, really is," he said. "Normally you'd be able to … especially in our conference … tell our guys, listen, we win them all, you are going to get a shot to play. That's the problem with our system."

At that point, he took dead aim at those who have the power to implement a system that can bring about fairness and give teams a legitimate shot at a legitimate --- not mythical --- championship.

"We should be able to handle it a little bit differently," he said. "Again, we're going to play 12 games. Why in the world can't we have a playoff system? Why can't we play for a national championship?

"Until the media or the fans start really getting involved in this we won't change it because our board is not loud enough. If you sit in our football team's seat it will make you pretty mad and make you disgusted with how it all went on. Nobody is at fault other than the group that of people that have the opportunity to change the rules."

If Tommy Tuberville were to lash out at the people who tried to unceremoniously replace him with Bobby Petrino, no one could blame him. If he complained loudly about the unfairness of the BCS, no would blame him, either. He's not sour grapes but he does question why it is that college educated people can't come up with a better system. He doesn't think about what might have happened if the Alabama media hadn't reported a coup in the making but he does take time every now and then to think about what could have been with a different system in place.

"You never know who would have won that game [Southern Cal vs. Auburn] but I think we would have won," said Tuberville. "If we had played 10 games I think it would have been pretty even. Again we'll never know. That's unfortunate what happens in scenarios like this. That game will always be played in the minds of a lot of people, but it will never be played on the field."

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