Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville defeated former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Alabama’s Republican primary runoff election on Tuesday, setting up a November match against current Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the state since 1992 when he defeated Roy Moore, who has been accused of child molestation, in a 2017 special election.
In a state Donald Trump won handily in 2016, Tuberville is favored to win in November.
Tuberville has never served in elected office (and moved to Alabama only two years ago), and his campaign against Sessions was largely based on his support for the president. Trump endorsed Tuberville in March, tweeting, “Tommy was a terrific head football coach at Auburn University. He is a REAL LEADER who will never let MAGA/KAG, or our Country, down!” On a Monday call with Alabama voters, Trump said of Tuberville, “He’s going to have a cold, direct line into my office. That I can tell you.”
Whether Tuberville was a “terrific” football coach at Auburn is a matter of some debate, but his close ties to college football — in a state where football is king — played a big role in his campaign against Sessions. I spoke to Bill Britt, editor-in-chief of the Alabama Political Reporter, who told me that while Sessions was enmeshed in his first real campaign since the mid-1990s, “Tuberville, who is a decade younger and appears to be much more vital, is proving to be very good at one-on-one politicking.”
Britt added that Tuberville’s college football experience was perhaps paying off in a new arena. “Years of recruiting players and back-slapping wealthy alumni has given him a far greater ability to reach people in rural Alabama,” Britt said. “A Republican has to win rural Alabama to win any primary.”
Tuberville’s football past could play a surprisingly big part in November’s general election. Though he gained national attention for leading the Auburn Tigers to an undefeated season in 2004, five years earlier he handed down a one-game suspension to a player who was charged with the second-degree rape of a 15-year-old girl. Despite the player pleading guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, Tuberville permitted the player to remain on the team.
Tuberville also abandoned Texas Tech recruits and assistant coaches mid-dinner in 2012, the night before he announced he would take a new job at the University of Cincinnati. And then there was his infamous radio appearance in 1998 when, as then-head coach at the University of Mississippi, he promised he would only leave the job “in a pine box” — and then flew to Auburn two days later to become head coach of the Tigers.
On the field, as Sessions’s campaign noted on Twitter, Tuberville’s stints at Auburn, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati did not end successfully. “He was the leader of a team that went bad,” Sessions said July 11.
Whether he’ll serve his team well in November remains to be seen.
If watching you coach taught me anything @TTuberville, it’s that you’re no good at sitting on a lead. That’s why you finished 5-7 and 4-8 in your last seasons at Auburn and Cincinnati. If you are too weak to debate, you do not deserve to represent the people of Alabama. https://t.co/3Jdt8XC2mG— Jeff Sessions (@jeffsessions) May 26, 2020