Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville wins election to US Senate
Tommy Tuberville said this week he believes Donald Trump was sent by God to win election as U.S. President in 2016.
Four years later, Trump may or may not win election again as president, depending on the ongoing counting of ballots. But voters in Alabama have sent Tuberville to the U.S. Senate as Trump’s loyal supporter.
The former Auburn football coach won his Senate race Tuesday, defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, according to the vote projection by the Associated Press. His victory helps counter Democratic hopes for control of the Senate, flipping this seat back to Republicans after Jones won it in a special election in late 2017.
"I want to thank President Donald Trump," Tuberville said at his victory party Tuesday. "He is without a doubt in my lifetime the guy that's done more for the United States of America than any president that I've ever been around."
A big question now for Tuberville is how he will govern if Trump, his political benefactor, is not reelected. Two days before the election, Tuberville even spoke at a campaign event and said, “I do believe God sent us, and elected, Donald Trump.”
At his victory party, Tuberville threw mini-footballs to the crowd, with few if any wearing masks on their faces during the pandemic. He thanked conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, whom he described as an inspiration. He also said he would make it his mission to fight "the doctrine of socialism" and "fringe liberals" in Congress.
His political rise came because of Trump, who endorsed him, helping Tuberville launch a career in politics despite having no experience in politics or full-time public service. During the campaign, Tuberville also declined to debate his opponents and became known for avoiding questions from state and national reporters about voter issues.
Tuberville said at his party Tuesday he's become friends with Trump in recent months and got a call from him earlier in the day.
"He was coughing; he couldn't hardly talk," Tuberville said. "I said, `Mr. President, you all right?' He said, `Coach, it's been a long three weeks.' But he said it's been worth it... The guy doesn't sleep."
In the end, Tuberville essentially parlayed his football fame into a political opportunity in Alabama, where much of the state once hated him simply because he was the leader of the Tigers, the archrival of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Tuberville, 66, isn’t even a longtime recent resident of the state or a native. He instead is a small-town native of Arkansas and recent resident of Florida who said in 1998 he’d only leave his coaching job at Mississippi “in a pine box” but then took the job at Auburn days later.
To win, he simply stressed a message of “God, country and Trump,” who remains popular in the Deep South. On Tuesday, he emphasized the cultural divide again, saying at his victory party that "we don't get enough conservative values taught" in public and private schools.
"The only way you can get it is from people like Rush Limbaugh," he said.
Such a platform is all he needed against Jones, who was the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state in 25 years in 2017, when he defeated controversial GOP candidate Roy Moore in a special election.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Tuberville told USA TODAY Sports last month.
The Jones campaign outspent Tuberville’s by nearly a 4-to-1 margin, thanks to help from supporters outside the state. The Jones campaign also had described Tuberville as “Coach Clueless,” depicting him as a coward who avoided debates and who ran for election on an ego trip but had no real interest in governing or voter issues.
At his concession speech Tuesday, Jones said he would reach out to Tuberville to congratulate him. He also stressed his message of "one Alabama" to make the state better.
"Alabama is still a work in progress," said Jones, a former federal prosecutor. "We know that. Alabama sill ranks low in education. We still rank high in unhealthy outcomes."
Tuberville now takes over the same Senate seat that once belonged to Jeff Sessions, who vacated it in 2017 to become Trump’s attorney general, putting it up for special election later that year. After Sessions fell out of favor with Trump in 2018, Sessions tried to get his seat back this year but lost to Tuberville in the Republican primary election, after Trump endorsed Tuberville, not Sessions.
Tuberville also declined to debate Sessions during the primary campaign, preferring to sit on his lead in the polls, just like he did later against Jones. The strategy was akin to sitting on the ball to run out the clock, avoiding the risk of making gaffes or giving an opponent an opportunity to score points on him.
In a certain sense, he was sailing with the political winds of the moment, much like he did as a coach.
One example came in November 2003 after Auburn suffered a 26-7 loss at Georgia. Under the cover of darkness, his bosses at Auburn then made a secret plane mission to an airport near Louisville to court a new coach to replace him – Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino. But after this clandestine operation leaked out, Tuberville’s bosses retreated in embarrassment for going behind Tuberville’s back during the week before the Iron Bowl against archrival Alabama.
Instead of being fired, Tuberville became the perceived victim of backroom plotting, transforming him into a sympathetic public figure. He then took advantage of it to gain a contract extension at Auburn shortly afterward. A year later, Tuberville led Auburn to a 13-0 season.
Tuberville coached at Auburn from 1999 to 2008 before finishing his coaching career at Texas Tech (2010-2012) and Cincinnati (2013-16). His career record in 21 seasons is 159-99.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com