SCOTT: Tubby Walking Tightrope With No Net

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville appears to be walking a dangerous tightrope.

One side leads back to Auburn, one side leads to Texas A&M. Below him, there is no net. The wind is picking up, the result of speculation, last week's Georgia loss, and this week's Alabama game.

Of course, the rumors regarding his possible interest in the Texas A&M job are just that at this point – rumors – and could lead to nothing of substance once A&M officially fires coach Dennis Franchione.

And that leads to a dangerous alchemy of circumstances: What if Tuberville doesn't get an offer from A&M? What if this is all a ploy by his agent, Jimmy Sexton, to get Tuberville a big raise at Auburn? What if Auburn calls his bluff?

The unfolding soap opera is mired with sub-plots, including one that goes all the way back to the end of the 2003 season.

Then-Auburn University President William Walker had already made up his mind about getting rid of Tuberville and led a delegation of Auburn representatives to interview then-Louisville coach Bob Petrino for Tuberville's job – one week before the Auburn-Alabama game. They even flew in a jet owned by Colonial Bank, whose chairman and chief executive is Auburn's most powerful booster, Bobby Lowder.

Just when Walker seemed to be on the verge of pulling off his plan, Auburn beat Alabama and the media got wind of the clandestine trip to meet with Petrino. Public sentiment sided with Tuberville and led to Walker's firing and a rift with Lowder and his minions on the Board of Trustees.

With a 13-0 record in 2004 and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools breathing down Auburn's neck due to excessive interference from the BOT, Tuberville was able to negotiate a contract that solidified his power while widening the abyss between him and the BOT. If he leaves, he owes Auburn $6 million. If Auburn fires Tuberville, it owes him $6 million.

When the rumors about A&M's interest arose, Tuberville didn't help his case by trying to talk his way around questions. Over the past month, he's made it clear he doesn't want to discuss the future until after the season when he can sit down with Auburn President Jay Gogue and Athletic Director Jay Jacobs.

In the process, Tuberville hasn't said anything definitive about staying at Auburn or done anything to quiet the speculation. Even if he did say he was staying, critics would be quick to disregard such a statement by pointing out that Tuberville said he would leave Ole Miss in a pine box just days before leaving the Rebels for Auburn in 1998. At this point, no matter what he says, supporters and critics will attempt to pick his words apart, looking for clues of his intentions.

Critics insist Tuberville has lost too many games they believe he should have won over the past three seasons, especially this season's home losses to South Florida and Mississippi State. Any chance he had at a raise, they insist, went down the drain when Auburn fell apart in the fourth quarter of last week's 45-20 loss at Georgia.

Supporters point to the program's stability under Tuberville: to the fact that Auburn possesses Division I-A's fifth-best record over the past four seasons as well as five consecutive victories over Alabama.

Those factors make Tuberville a desirable candidate for the A&M job. He also spent a season as A&M's defensive coordinator in 1994 and has shown, at both Ole Miss and Auburn, an ability to put a program back on solid ground.

Then again, he only spent one season at A&M, so it's not like he has deep Aggie roots. Tuberville is also 53 years old and he's hinted at retirement in the past, so why would A&M want to invest its future in someone who might not be around in 5-7 years? Would it make more sense for A&M to search for someone younger who can counter 56-year-old Mack Brown with new energy and enthusiasm?

On a more personal level, some wonder if Tuberville is still happy at Auburn. After all, familiarity can breed contempt, and the longer he stays it seems the more he's criticized for what he's not rather than praised for what he is. After re-energizing Ole Miss and Auburn, he might be ready for a new challenge and a fresh start.

There's also the "Saban Factor." With Nick Saban now at Alabama and making $4 million per year, the timing could be right for Tuberville to leave, especially if Auburn won't pay him a comparable salary and continue to pump more money into paying assistants and improving facilities and resources. Saban, even with three consecutive losses over the past three weeks, has raised the stakes in a dangerous card game, and it remains to be seen if Tuberville wants to stay at the table or move to another one.

At the same time, Tuberville isn't your average 53-year-old. At an age when most men's children are at least in college, Tuberville's boys are 13 and 11 years old. His family is happy in Auburn, his kids are involved in youth sports, and his wife recently directed the design and construction of the dream house Tuberville had promised her since they moved to Auburn.

He's also got an abundance of talented young players who saw more playing time than anyone planned this season. Three freshmen start on the offensive line, and Auburn has played 29 freshmen in all (15 true, 14 redshirt).

There are reasons to go and reasons to stay. There are reasons for both sides to start over and reasons for both sides to continue, even if the rift remains between Tuberville and Auburn's power brokers.

Either way, Tuberville has to listen if A&M comes calling. That's IF. Tuberville could even get a call about replacing Houston Nutt at Arkansas, the state where Tuberville was born and raised. Some out there wonder if LSU will contact Tuberville if Les Miles leaves LSU for Michigan.

The one thing Tuberville can't do is keep walking this tightrope. He's got to make a definitive move at some point, the sooner the better. The Tigers lost all their hard-earned momentum with the loss at Georgia, but they've still got the home-field advantage over an Alabama team with even less momentum after an inexplicable loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Too much A&M talk could level the playing field.

Win this game and Tuberville improves his position while the winds die down a bit. Lose this game and the winds pick up and the tightrope starts to wobble.


Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. Reach him at

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