AUBURN, Ala. -- Twelve days after Auburn's failed coup of football coach Tommy Tuberville last year, Tuberville was walking into a meeting with then-Auburn president William Walker and Athletic Director David Housel. Speaking to a reporter on his cell phone, Tuberville said, "I think I'm the only one in this meeting who is going to keep his job."
Last Nov. 20 -- two days before the Tigers played rival Alabama in the schools' annual "Iron Bowl" -- Housel, Walker and two university trustees flew on an airplane owned by another prominent Auburn trustee to a small airport in rural Indiana. For three hours on the plane, the men secretly interviewed University of Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino for Tuberville's job.
Defensive end Stanley McClover gives Coach Tommy Tuberville a lift after Auburn defeated Louisiana State in September. The Tigers (11-0) will play Tennessee Saturday in the SEC final.
(Todd J. Van Emst -- AP)
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When news of the covert interview broke six days later, Auburn's rabid fans vented their anger toward Housel and Walker, and not toward Tuberville, whose team, ranked No. 1 by at least one national publication during the preseason, had lost its first two games and finished 8-5.
By mid-January, Walker was forced to resign as Auburn's president after only 19 months on the job. Housel, an Auburn graduate who had worked his way through the school's ticket office and sports information department before being named athletics director in 1994, announced his retirement in March and was seen cleaning out his office last week.
In the end, Tuberville was the last one standing, as he not only kept his job but received a one-year extension on his contract, which will pay him more than $1.5 million this year. In Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Saturday, the No. 3 Tigers (11-0) can win their first Southeastern Conference championship since 1989 by beating No. 15 Tennessee (9-2).
If No. 1 Southern California or No. 2 Oklahoma loses on Saturday, and the Tigers win, Auburn would claim a spot in the Jan. 4 Orange Bowl, which will decide the Bowl Championship Series' national champion.
"It has been unbelievable," former Auburn coach Pat Dye said. "For Tommy to be in the situation he was in last year and to be where he is now, it's a miracle. Tommy has done an unbelievable job. He took the high road and has gotten all the rewards that go with it."
Tuberville, who is 49-24 in six seasons at Auburn, could have taken the easy road and walked away. But he chose to remain at Auburn, partly because his wife, Suzanne, and two sons, Thomas, 10, and Troy, 8, enjoyed living in the small Alabama town, often called the "Loveliest Village on the Plains" by the school's fans and alumni.
"This is a great place to live," Tuberville said. "This is a great university. We've got a chance to win a lot of championships and a lot of games here. I hope they want me here for a long time. But you've got to be wanted, obviously. I told people when I got here that this is the dream job I always wanted."
Tuberville, 50, didn't learn of the secret meeting with Petrino, his former offensive coordinator, until after the Tigers beat Alabama, 28-23, in their regular season finale. Tuberville's coaches and friends feared he was the target of powerful Auburn trustee Robert E. "Bobby" Lowder, the chief executive officer of Montgomery, Ala.-based Colonial BankCorp. The plane Housel, Walker and the Auburn trustees flew to Indiana to interview Petrino was owned by Lowder's bank.
Lowder, a 1964 Auburn graduate and a trustee since 1983, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this story. Dye, one of the Lowder's closest friends, said Lowder was aware of the interview with Petrino but wasn't behind the movement to fire Tuberville.
"It is perceived that Bobby Lowder runs the entire university," Dye said. "It's not like that. Bobby knew what was going on because they used his plane. But Dr. Walker was the driving force behind firing Tommy. Bobby isn't the one who instigated that change. I could be wrong, but I'm as close to Bobby as anyone."
Shortly after the Auburn officials' meeting with Petrino, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools issued a 28-page report, in which the accrediting agency threatened to strip Auburn of its accreditation and placed the school on academic probation. Among other problems, SACS cited the school's administration for failing to take control of the athletics department from the school's powerful boosters.
This past Tuesday, a group of Auburn faculty voted 131-9 to ask Lowder and trustee Jack Miller to resign from the board. SACS will vote next week whether to remove Auburn from probation or extend the sanctions.
Tuberville apparently has mended his relationship with Lowder, who earlier this year donated $4.5 million to Auburn to build an academic center for athletes.
"That situation last year was totally handled wrong," Tuberville said. "It was just a bad situation that got worse."
For everything that went wrong for Auburn last season, it has gone right this year. After beating Wisconsin, 28-14, in the Music City Bowl in Nashville after last season, Tuberville persuaded tailbacks Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Ronnie Brown to return to school, instead of entering the NFL draft. Tuberville hired former UCLA, California and Indiana assistant Al Borges as his offensive coordinator. Under Borges, much-maligned senior quarterback Jason Campbell has flourished -- his efficiency rating of 170 and quarterback rating of 171.4 are better than Southern California's Matt Leinart and Oklahoma's Jason White.
"He's taken a lot of criticism," Tuberville said of Campbell. "He's a student-athlete that's getting his due now. There hasn't been a more important player come through this program than Jason."
More than anything, though, Auburn learned how to win. Two of the Tigers' five losses last season were against Southern California and LSU, which split the national championship. This season, Auburn beat LSU, 10-9, on Sept. 18 and then won its next seven games by 18 points or more, before beating Alabama, 21-13, in its finale.
"Life is great," Tuberville said. "It was great last year, except for that one week."