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Ole Miss' Tommy Tuberville Rebel With A Cause

To both cheers and jeers, Tuberville has questioned the presence of the Confederate flag at Ole Miss games.
by: Richard Scott
Birmingham Post-Herald
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Legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant used to say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. With his quick climb up the college coaching ladder, Tommy Tuberville might seem like a lucky guy, but he's really just living proof of Bryant's coaching axiom.

From his days as a high school in Arkansas to his current job as the head football coach at Ole Miss, Tuberville has met every opportunity with commitment, enthusiasm, planning and a broad vision for both the big picture and the small details. A little luck along the way didn't hurt, but when luck came knocking, Tuberville picked it up and ran with it.

"I started setting goals when I was in my early 20s and coaching high school ball in Arkansas,'' said Tuberville, a native of Camden, Ark., who played college football at Southern Arkansas and started his coaching career at Hermitage (Ark.) High School. "I coached high school ball for four years, and after going to PTA meetings and doing the lunch room duties and all those things, I decided I wanted to do something different.

"So I sat down and tried to map out what I wanted to do. Not being from a major university, I found out it was very difficult to become a graduate assistant, because I found out that's how you break into the college ranks. But I sat down and made goals of when I wanted to be an assistant in college, when I wanted to be an assistant at the Division I-A level, when I wanted to be a defensive coordinator.

"And I set a goal to be a head coach in major college football by the time I was 40 years old. Now, this was back in my early 20s, and I got the job at Ole Miss on Dec. 2nd, and I turned 40 on Sept. 18. I missed it by about two months.''

Getting the job according to your own personal schedule is one thing. Doing something positive with that job is a different challenge altogether. If his record is any indicator, Tuberville must be doing something right.

When he took over in December, 1994, Tuberville inherited a program smacked hard by NCAA probation and penalties and immediately turned it toward a more positive future with a 6-5 record in his first season. After going 5-6 in 1996 with fewer than 60 players on scholarship, Tuberville entered the 1997 season with true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores representing nearly 80 percent of his roster. Despite the youth and the lack of overall numbers and depth, the Rebels went 8-4 and defeated Marshall in the first Motor City Bowl.

Being at the right place at the right time hasn't hurt Tuberville, but his instant success and his immense popularity at Ole Miss have very little to do with luck and everything to do with his preparation for the opportunities he encountered on his way up the coaching ladder.

"I was fortunate that I got involved in good environments with coaches like Larry Lacewell, Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Erickson and R.C. Slocum,'' Tuberville said. "There aren't four better guys to learn from all from different backgrounds, all with different philosophies in most areas, and all successful in their own way. I've been very fortunate that I worked for four guys who really taught me a lot."

Tuberville's college coaching path began under Lacewell at Arkansas State in 1980. After two years as an assistant and two years as head coach at Hermitage, Tuberville spent five years at Arkansas State coaching defensive ends and linebackers for Lacewell, the current director of college and pro scouting for the Dallas Cowboys.

Tuberville's time with Lacewell provided some valuable groundwork for Tuberville's coaching career.

"I learned most of my Xs and Os from Larry Lacewell,'' Tuberville said. "He's probably one of the best X and O coaches I've ever been around, and he's very technique-oriented. I was fortunate that I worked for him first because that got ingrained in me that you win with teaching, and by players learning from what you teach them."

Tuberville's next step up the ladder involved taking a big chance with his career. Tuberville gave up his full-time job at Arkansas State in 1986 for a chance to be a graduate assistant at Miami, where he worked with the defensive ends and linebackers. After two years as a graduate assistant, Tuberville remained at Miami as a volunteer assistant for two more years. It paid off two years later when he became a full-time assistant and coached linebackers. Two years later, he became the defensive coordinator.

During his eight seasons at Miami, Tuberville coached on teams that won three national championships with some of the best defenses in college football. Just as important, Tuberville spent considerable time and effort learning from his head coaches, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.

"I learned most of my recruiting and organizational skills from Jimmy,'' Tuberville said. "Jimmy is a very organized person, a very good recruiter, very good with people. And he knew what he wanted for the whole program.

"When Dennis came in, he was more like Larry Lacewell, but where Lacewell was more of a defensive coach, I learned a lot about offense from Dennis Erickson. He ran the wide-open passing attack that we run here, and he's where I learned my offensive philosophy."

Tuberville's next step took him to Texas A&M, where he served as Slocum's defensive coordinator and linebacker coach in 1994. Under Tuberville, the Aggies finished fourth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 13.3 points per game.

"To put it all together, I went to work for R.C. Slocum, a guy who did it like I did: work 17, 18 years as an assistant coach and had only been a head coach three or four years, and I saw how he ran things,'' Tuberville said. "Plus, I got there when they had just gone on probation, and I saw how he handled the probation and how it can take a toll on your players when you're not playing for anything but pride."

During that same season, Tuberville had his eye on the Ole Miss program. Because violations under former coach Billy Brewer led to a coaching change during the summer and NCAA probation and sanctions in Nov-ember, Tuberville spent the fall formulating a plan to pursue the job.

Ultimately, Tuberville decided he could get the job done at Ole Miss, and he went after the job with all the resources he could muster. When he interviewed for the job with current Chancellor Robert Khayat and Athletic Director Pete Boone, he made sure they knew he had been preparing for this job throughout his coaching career.

"I didn't even know if I was going to get the job, but I made a lot of phone calls and I basically had seven of my coaches hired before I even came and interviewed for the job,'' Tuberville said. "I called guys and talked to them during the season and asked them if they would consider coming to Ole Miss if I got the job.

"I think that helped me get the job because when I went in I sold them on the fact that three-fourths of my staff could be here tomorrow if I got the job."

To fill his staff, Tuberville had to find eager, hungry young assistants willing to take a chance on a program that would need time, patience and a lot of hard work. He found that in his current staff.

"When I came here I hired the second youngest staff in major college football, as of two years ago,'' Tuberville said. "I did that for a reason: I knew we were going to run into a lot of problems, and younger guys can work through problems sometimes and just let it go over their heads and go on to the next thing.

"We haven't lost a coach since I've been here. Several of them have been offered jobs at other places, but I had asked them to commit to me for three years when they got here because we knew it would be a tough job until we got over the hump, and they've done that."

Ole Miss cleared the first hurdle much sooner than anyone expected it could be done. It started with a strong recruiting class in his first season. Despite severe scholarship reductions and NCAA penalties that prevented the Rebels from playing on television or in a bowl, Tuberville's staff signed a respectable class that included some of the state's top prep recruits and at least 16 walk-ons. Many were the sons of longtime Ole Miss fans. Others were willing to walk on and compete for a scholarship when they became available later on.

"We pinpointed the kids who were going to be seniors for the next four years and we started cultivating relationships, working closely with the high school coaches to make sure they understand what we were trying to do here,'' Tuberville said. "It's been like building a house from the ground up.''

Tuberville's plan continued to take shape when he spent his first six months on the job meeting with Ole Miss alumni groups, boosters and fans throughout the South. Tuberville responded to 75 requests to meet with people who wanted to talk about the program. He used those opportunities to ask for the patience and support he would need to turn the program back into a winner.

The Rebels have used their allotted scholarships to occasionally pursue and sign blue chippers like Rufus French, one of the nation's top tight ends.

For all the speeches Tuberville delivered, nothing spoke as loudly as the Rebels success in their first year under the new coach. Despite the negative effects of two years of prolonged NCAA investigation, scholarship limitations, and no television coverage or bowl eligibility, Tuberville delivered a scrappy, hungry, enthusiastic team that overachieved by winning six of 11 games, including a 13-10 victory over archrival Mississippi State in the regular-season finale.

"The thing I worried about the most when I got here was trying to keep the players from being embarrassed,'' Tuberville said. "You know how tough this conference is, and trying to compete with half the scholarships the rest of them have got, and the fact that Ole Miss hasn't been a powerhouse since the 1970s, even with full scholarships, we just had to start from scratch.

"But going 6-5 that first year got people back to enjoying football again. The first thing we had to do was get our fans, alumni and students believing we could win again, and once that happened, everything else happened."

That initial success allowed Tuberville to proceed with the next step in his big plan.

"After the first year I sat down and talked with Pete (Boone) about what I thought it would take for us to get to the level where we could compete every week in the conference,'' Tuberville said. "The first thing I told him was, 'we're not filling our stadium, but we need to expand it, because that will help with recruiting, and it will show we're building for the future. People will see that we're expanding our stadium to 60,000 seats, so something big must be happening.' "

Ole Miss leaders agreed, and the current stadium expansion is expected to be completed in time for the first game of the 1998 season. The Rebels still haven't played a home game in front of 60,000, but Tuberville can already see the positive impact of expansion.

"When you've got a 40,000-seat stadium and you're recruiting against teams with 60- and 70,000-seat stadiums, recruits see that,'' Tuberville said. "Plus, our attendance is getting better, our enthusiasm is getting better, because we showed people we were building for the future and this program wasn't going to be extinct."

Even though the Rebels went 5-6 in 1996, fans generally saw it as a positive because Tuberville's team continued to overachieve with fewer players, younger players, and in many cases, less talented players. But his staff continued to beat the bushes for top recruits, bringing in enough in-state to keep the fans encouraged about the future.

Tuberville also decided to take a strong public stand against a long-standing tradition among many Ole Miss fans. Even though Ole Miss does not recognize the Confederate "Rebel" flag as an official symbol of the university or its athletic teams, fans have long flown flags during Ole Miss football games. For years, opposing schools have used the Rebel flag to hurt Ole Miss' recruiting efforts, citing the flag's history and its racist implications for those who perceive it as symbol of The Old South.

It would have been much easier for a football coach to distance himself from the debate by ignoring the situation. Instead, Tuberville wrote a letter to the student newspaper and asked students to stop waving the flags at games and respect the feelings of African-American students, athletes, their families and future Ole Miss students and athletes.

In Tuberville's opinion, it was not an easy stand to take but it was the right stand to make.

"I represent this football team, and we're a football team for everybody,'' Tuberville said. "I don't want anything to embarrass any of these kids. They represent this university, not anything else.

"A lot of people have perceived that the Confederate flag was part of our university, and it's not. Never has been. It's never been adopted. It's just been used by a few people. And I don't think something like that should be used at an athletic contest. We're not a political stage. We're part of a university for everybody: black, white, red and green.

"I'll tell you what: it raised some eyebrows for a while, but it worked. Most people have really accepted it. I had very few bad phone calls or letters, probably just 10 percent of the hundreds and hundreds of positive phone calls I got. We actually got a lot of good publicity out of it, too, especially out of state. I never thought the story would go nation-wide the way it did, but I got calls from California, Seattle, New York, all over. I thought it would just be a Southern issue, but when you talk about race, it's a national issue."

Of course, it helps to be successful on the football field, and Tuberville's program continued to overcome its limitations and move forward in 1997. Ole Miss entered the '97 season with sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen comprising 80 percent of its players, but with bowl and television eligibility restored and an influx of young, talented players, the Rebels defied preseason predictions by going 8-4.

"It was a miracle season,'' Tuberville said. "We had two goals for this season: have a winning season and go to a bowl game. After that, we made another goal of making the Top 25, and in some polls, we made it into the top 20. In the final AP and coaches' polls, we ended up 22nd.

"It was a Cinderella year. We beat our in-state rival (Mississippi State) on the last play of the game, we won our bowl game on the last drive of the game and we beat the eighth-ranked team (LSU) that had just beaten the top-ranked team (Florida) the week before.

"As a coaching staff, we've sat back and looked at it and said to each other, 'we might win a national championship someday, but we'll never be involved in a more satisfying season with the way these guys accomplished against such tough odds.' ''

Still, even though the Rebels overcame long odds and caught a few breaks along the way, the fact remains that Tuberville's team was prepared to take advantage of the opportunities the season presented.

"The thing we've done is we put an offense and a defense in the first day we got here and we've recruited to that. We haven't changed, and these guys are growing up in that system,'' Tuberville said. "I learned that at Miami, that if guys grow up in it, even if they aren't as talented as some of the guys across from them, they'll sometimes out-execute them.

As a direct result of Ole Miss' season, Tuberville won the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year award, an honor he accepted for his entire coaching staff.

Another compliment came after the season when Tuberville found his name linked with several job opportunities for the second year in a row. Most of the attention focused on Tuberville's interest in the head coaching job at Arkansas. In fact, at one point, media reports had Tuberville accepting the Arkansas job, but Tuberville moved quickly to squash those rumors by making a public commitment to Ole Miss. In the process, he also earned a new four-year rollover contract and raises for his assistants.

"The Arkansas offer was intriguing, because it's my home state and I grew up a Razorback fan and a Frank Broyles fan all my life. The money was great at Arkansas, but we've come too far to not see it through. Plus, this is a great place to live. I've got a young family and a young coaching staff with probably 30 young kids, and nobody wanted to move.

"It wasn't tough to turn down (the Arkansas job), but it was tough to turn down what I thought for 20 years would have been my dream. But this is my dream here now. We've brought a program back from, basically, down and out and it's getting better and better. It's not where we want it to be yet, and that's the reason why we're still here. We want to be here for a long time, as long as people will give us an opportunity to move forward and be competitive."

The next step in moving forward and staying competitive is learning how to deal with the increased expectations that come from winning. With so much young talent and last year's late-season success, the Rebels will be expected to win even more games in 1998. However, the Rebels will still be 10-15 scholarships short of the 85-scholarship limit allowed by NCAA rules and the majority of the players will be sophomores, redshirt freshmen and freshmen, so Tuberville knows the challenge won't get any easier, especially not in the SEC.

"I've already been out telling our alumni I think we're going to be a more talented team, but everybody's got to be realistic and understand you win with experience,'' Tuberville said. "If we make young mistakes by inexperienced kids, we're not going to win as many, and that's just life.

"I also think this year coming up is really the last year of our tough times. Our numbers are still low, most of our players are still freshmen and sophomores and they're going to be have to be the ones to take us to the next step. We're going forward, and we had great recruiting year and hopefully things will get even better."

And if things do get better, it will have very little to do with luck, and everything to do with opportunity and preparation.


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