Monday, October 13, 2008

We should probably go ahead and have this conversation

Because this is the conversation you have when you have a head coach who has been at his post for 10 seasons and now finds his team in the worst shape it's been in since those 10 seasons began: should this head coach still be the head coach when the season is over?

The JCCW's answer, for whatever that's worth, is that Yes, Tommy Tuberville should be Auburn's head coach in 2009. Probably.

Also probable is that there's a handful of Auburn fans on either extreme end of the spectrum who are bothered to have that conservation started: some who feel like Tubby's accomplishments mean he doesn't deserve to have his job security tossed up for debate in the middle of the season like this, and some who feel like his fate has already been sealed with the loss to what had previously been the worst team in the SEC. I have some sympathy with the former group, but disagree pretty strongly with the latter. As depressingly unlikely as a victory over either half of Amen Corner might be, I cling--and will continue to cling until the intermingling demands of scoreboard and time remaining make it rationally impossible--to the possibility Auburn will salvage some defining victory from the wreckage of this season.

If they don't, well, that's where the "probably" comes in. Intact possibility of Fearing the Middle Finger As Well as the Index Finger On the Opposite Hand aside, 5-7 seems the most likely final record for Auburn in 2008. Auburn's offense got as much help as it could possibly expect from its special teams and defense (yes, defense, more on this later) and it still wasn't enough to hang with Arkansas at home; barring some sort of practice-field miracle over the coming bye week, the same offense hanging with West Virginia or Ole Miss on the road or Georgia or Alabama anywhere is "unlikely" at best and "just this side of 'Tubby having the Petrinos over for Thanksgiving dinner' kind of likely" at worst. The conversation here should be more specific than "should Auburn fire Tubby?" It's "should Auburn fire Tubby in the event of 5-7?"

There are reasons, let's be frank, to think Auburn should. This is, sadly, the worst possible time for Auburn to endure the worst season of Tubby's tenure. I shouldn't have to explain why, not when the conventional wisdom that Alabama and Auburn cannot coexist as equally strong teams is becoming more conventional by the day. The easiest way to blunt the westward tilting of the Iron Bowl's axis was by winning, but with that method potentially no longer available, there's an argument to be made that the sooner Auburn acts decisively to reverse that tilt the better. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and all that, and if Auburn does not find some form of forward momentum, some spark of belief, by the end of the 2009 season we will need a truly staggering amount of cure indeed.

More damning: Tubby may simply not be the sort of coach who can consistently build his program a competent offense. Since Leard and Rudi Johnson left after the 2000 season, Auburn has fielded eight offenses. Two were fearful beast-machines. One other dwelled on the good side of competent. The other five, however ... two dwelled on the bad side of competent. One was a train wreck that pulled itself together just long enough to beat Florida and Alabama and scare LSU. And two have been season-destroying catastrophes that have taken SEC-championship caliber defenses and sucked the life clean out of them. That's 3-of-8, a .375 hit percentage, with as much chance of an offense that will implode and take the entire team down with it as an offense that other teams will actually fear. That's a track record that is, how you say, not so good, especially when you consider that the personnel riches that produced the joys of 2004 and 2005 are unlikely to ever come again.

Those are the facts (or a slightly pessimistic slant on them) and they're worth going over because, hey, this is the conversation. But they're not enough for me to call for Tubby's head. Not even close. No, the only reason I would say Tubby should "probably" return rather than "definitely" comes down to the atmosphere surrounding the program at season's end. I'd call it Phil Fulmer Syndrome: sometimes, I believe, the negativity, pessimism and general lack-of-support can poison the tenure of even a good and deserving coach to the point where it's best if all parties shake hands and agree to walk away. And should Auburn fall in Morgantown and Oxford and wind up on the wrong end of wallopings at the hands of Georgia--a third straight--and the coachbot's Tide, yes, I wonder if things could reach that point on the Plains. If Tommy Tuberville is going to run onto the field in 2009 to boos, if every bad snap is going to prompt another round of "Is he gone now?", if the question of Tuberville's job security to going to hang like a proverbial black cloud over every aspect of this football program, then it will unfortunately be to time to move on.

I don't believe it's going to come to that, though. I hope--I really, really hope--it doesn't. For starters, there's the practical financial side of things. As Acid Reign writes:
(C)ertain economic realities make getting rid of the head coach a nigh-impossibility, at this time.

.....The economy is in shambles, with a stock market crash every bit as big as the one in 1929. While it may not have registered to the average football fan, there are a lot of big companies, including ones controlled by the most prolific Auburn givers, that are in deep trouble. Bobby Lowder's Colonial Bank stock has plummeted down to about $2 a share, and the bank is in danger of failure. Jimmy Rane's wood sales have fallen to a near halt, as construction project after construction project continue to be canceled, or worse, in default with supplies unpaid for. Auburn University is ALREADY in deep proration, and funding/government revenue is expected to plummet even farther. Coach Tommy Tuberville has a six million dollar buyout. Where on earth would that money come from, in these dark times?

But beyond that, Tommy Tuberville is a good football coach and a good football coach for Auburn. There's the usual accomplishments we can point to: the six consecutive wins over Alabama. The ridiculous 34-3 stretch from 2004-2006. An SEC West title won, somehow, on the arm of Ben Leard and the legs of Rudi Johnson. More memorable all-caps BIG WINS than in any other era of Auburn football. (Anyone who'd like to argue 2003 was a darker time than now: we beat Tennessee and Arkansas on consecutive weeks that season when first one and then the other were ranked seventh in the country. Remember?) And, of course, that glorious 2004 season, when Auburn put together what is inarguably the greatest team this conference has seen in the BCS era. All those things did not just happen. They happened because of Tommy Tuberville.

Beyond that, there's two things of equal or maybe even greater importance:

1. Auburn has not been in trouble with the NCAA, has by-and-large graduated its players, and while not dressing out a teamful of saints, Auburn under Tuberville has never been Outside the Lines'd a la Penn St., never been dogged by a Fulmer Cup's worth of minor violations like Tennessee or Georgia, never had two players arrested for major felonies in a single offseason a la a certain other school I could name.

I say this honestly: I would rather Auburn be embarrassed on the field than off it. In 2003, after the beating in Athens, I still had no problem telling you it was great to be an Auburn Tiger. After we found out about Jetgate, it became a little bit harder. The Auburn football team under Tuberville has never given us a Jetgate of their own, and that matters. A lot.

2. Auburn under Tommy Tuberville is a team with an identity. We know what Auburn is. We know what Auburn will be. Auburn will be an undersized but lightning-quick, athletic, hard-hitting, well-coached defensive football team. This defense will not give up points easily and will often find ways to score them itself. Auburn will find overlooked kids on the recruiting trail and coach them into players you'd name your children after. (Someday, little Pybus Groves Hinnen will forgive me, I'm sure of it.) Auburn's offense will feature demons at running back and look to grind out drives with an effective, if not always explosive, offense. (Auburn will warp the brains of their placekickers after a single successful year, but we should probably ignore that for this argument's purposes.) This is Auburn. And as Auburn is unlikely to ever be the sort of name-brand juggernaut who collects NFL-bound studs like baseball cards, this is a very good thing for Auburn to be.

It's also an Auburn that wins whenever the offense is adequate. Not even "successful" or "sort of OK" -- "adequate" would have Auburn at 7-0 and ranked in the top 10 right now. This is an identity that is, too, not easy at all to come by. What is, say, Tennessee's identity under Fulmer? What's South Carolina's under Spurrier? To cast our net a bit wider, what was Michigan's under Lloyd Carr? What does the current incarnation of Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher's Florida St. do well? Kragthorpe's Louisville? Hell, the just-fired Tommy Bowden's Clemson--maybe they have an identity, but it's an identity as big-game chokers with a wealth of offensive talent they couldn't figure out what to do with. 5-7 or not, Tubby will still have a clear vision for his team and a vision for how this program ought to be run, and it's a vision I believe might not be easily replaced.

His problem is when other factors--loyalty to his old assistants, for instance, a desire to see Auburn make the transformation to a more exciting offense before the staff or arguably personnel were ready for it--cloud that vision. Tommy Tuberville made a terrible mistake in preparing his team's offense for this season. But he deserves the chance to correct that mistake, another chance to restore that vision of this football team before we discard it entirely. We can talk about doing otherwise, yes. And we'll talk about doing otherwise when this miserable season is finished. But it's far, far too early at this stage to do more than talk.

Besides, Tubby may still just shut the conversation up entirely. I hope the way my body hopes for air he does.


Sullivan013 said...

Check back in any decade of the Iron Bowl. Do you see any that show Auburn winning seven of ten? Yet even considering Auburn losing this year after a string of six victories, that is Tuberville's record at Auburn.

Who out there saw the Barfield era? I did. I saw the top two running backs in the entire SEC play on the same team and we STILL lost all the big ones.

Tuberville needs to stay. He's our best coach since Pat Dye, and one that will continue to win in the same manner. Sure, it's ugly now, but our high expectations are only due to what he has achieved for us in the past.

Grotus' Acorn said...

Tommy Bowden is looking like the ghost of Christmas Future here... if Tubby keeps running the hump, a mid-season axe job could be in his future.

Still, sullivan013's absolutely right. Tubby's earned the benefit of the doubt. The best Iron Bowl streak in the history of the rivalry has to be worth something, right?

Ed Gunther said...

Solid piece, Jerry. A balanced & thoughtful look - well done. I wrote about the whole coaching carousel in an essay a couple weeks back, asking the main question that I think most fans forget to think about - who are you gonna get to replace him?

Auburn is in a solid position - it's got great tradition & history, is in probably the most prolific BCS conference, and will be able to pay a coach quite well. But who? If Tuberville is gone at the end of the year, who, realistically, would you want at the helm next year?

Jerry Hinnen said...

Sully, I would agree save one thing: I think many younger Auburn fans' expectations were set by Dye's reign in the 80s. I would argue that since then, even if Auburn fans can live with not winning an SEC title every year, we'd like to be in the mix. This year wouldn't have been seen as anything but a disappointment for a coach as entrenched as Tubby going back to that time.

ed, there are some young coaches out there I'd be sort of intrigued to have at Auburn's helm, but none with the kind of track record Tubby's already put together on the Plains, that's for sure.

harry said...

i agree that tubby should stay. firing a coach really is a big deal and if we do that, we can expect another season like this one next year. but something i always come back to is that we only have 1 SEC championship in tubby's 10 years. he has to pick it up and pick it up soon.

Jan said...

Name my grandchild "Pybus Groves" & I'll kill you... as will your mother & your wife...
(of course, I know you were kidding.... right???)

Jerry Hinnen said...

Of course ... as far as you know ...