ALEXANDER CITY, Ala. — The door swings open, the scent of smoked meat wafting into the rain-soaked parking lot behind him, and in walks the former football coach who’s running for a U.S. Senate seat. He’s looking for a few hands to shake.
The blue motor coach is big and gaudy and a gas guzzler, by God, decked out with faded stars and stripes, a waving Alabama state flag, and “TUBERVILLE + TRUMP 2020” on its rear. It’s ostensibly the candidate’s ride for his 67-county “The People vs. The Swamp Tour,” and neither the colors nor the decals reference Tuberville’s decade at Auburn University, the college football power whose campus is about 40 miles from here. Auburn is where Tuberville established his reputation as a mild-mannered coach and charming recruiter. More than that, it’s where he led the Tigers to an undefeated record in 2004 and gained national attention — and maybe a few enemies — for beating the mighty University of Alabama six years in a row.
“Roll Tide!” a man having lunch at Big B Barbecue shouts as Tuberville begins visiting tables. Tuberville smiles at what amounts to an Alabama catcall, but he doesn’t engage.
“What’d y’all have?” he asks instead. “Ribs?”
Tuberville is a politician now, in a traditionally deep-red state that in 2017 elected Doug Jones, the first Alabama Democrat sent to the Senate in 25 years, to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was named attorney general. Jones beat Roy Moore — who faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls — by less than 2 percentage points. Now Jones is up for reelection, Sessions wants his old seat back, and he and Tuberville are locked in a statistical dead heat ahead of Tuesday’s primary, in what appears to be a competition for who can pledge more watertight loyalty to Trump.
“God sent us Donald Trump,” Tuberville says in a television ad that began airing this month, “because God knew we were in trouble.”
He has adopted some of the president’s favorite language, declaring “fake news” on unflattering media coverage, and Trump’s propensity for exaggerations, if not outright falsehoods. Perhaps more notably, Tuberville, who sold football recruits and built the Auburn program on a foundation of unity, has taken on many of the president’s more hard-line — and, often, xenophobic — talking points.
“They told me we got more Middle Easterners coming across the border than we do Mexicans,” Tuberville told a gathering of Alabama Republicans in June. “This was before the caravans started coming. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said they’re coming all over the Middle East. They’re coming across the border, and they ain’t leaving. They’re coming for a reason. Folks, they’re taking over, and if we don’t open our eyes, it is going to be over with.”
Like the bus, such incendiary language draws attention. Some former Auburn players have noticed, pointing out that campaign-trail Tuberville sounds nothing like the man who recruited and coached them.
“That doesn’t reflect the person that I knew,” said Devin Aromashodu, a former Auburn wide receiver who usually votes Democrat. “It sounds like two different people.”
Has the former coach changed in the 11 years since he left Auburn? Or is Tuberville just recruiting again, a specialty that, for Tuberville anyway, involves saying whatever he needs to for a preferred result? (After agreeing to make Tuberville available for an interview, two campaign staffers stopped replying to The Washington Post’s messages.)
“I’ve seen this guy in the heat of battle, and we’ve bled and cried together,” said former Auburn quarterback Ben Leard, who’s white and usually votes Republican. “It’s a question on all of our minds. It’s not just the African American minds; it’s in all of our heads: ‘Did he really mean that? Did Tubs type that?’ ”
But as Tuberville makes the rounds in a state Trump won by 28 percentage points, in a county the president carried by nearly twice that margin, in a restaurant with a moose head and football memorabilia on the walls and “Redneck Nachos” on the menu, nobody seems especially conflicted.
“At the end of this,” he tells one group, “I'm going to pick out the best — after the election — the best restaurants that I've been to.”
“When you do win,” a man says.
“That’s right, when we do win,” Tuberville says.
A woman approaches.
“Sir, I’d like to shake your hand,” she says.
They make small talk, and Tuberville vows to remake Washington.
“Amen,” she says. “We need you up there.”
Nearly two decades ago, Tuberville stepped into a house near Miami and made himself at home. Aromashodu’s father was an immigrant from Nigeria, and he was anxious about sending his son so far away. Devin, a blue-chip receiver, was waffling as he decided among Florida, North Carolina State and Auburn.
Tuberville flashed that easy grin and turned on his Arkansas drawl, promising to protect and guide young Devin as if he were his own son.
“When you’re recruiting players, they have to say a lot of stuff. It may not necessarily be true,” said Aromashodu, who’s now 35. “But I do know that he’s very, very persuasive.”
By then, the man known as “Coach Tubs” was seen as a master recruiter, comfortable in any living room from the Mississippi Delta to the Atlanta suburbs. He genuinely seemed to enjoy meeting people and sharing his own story: how he had taught high school chemistry before making the leap to college football, and did they know Tuberville made the best hush puppies around? He told them about Tubby’s Catfish, the roadside shack he had opened in the 1980s in Tullahoma, Tenn., and how his secret was mixing a little cornmeal into the batter. He usually left out the fact that a friend actually ran the place while Tuberville was an assistant at Miami and that the shack went out of business.
“I’m a salesman,” Tuberville told reporters in July 2005. “I sell every day, and I try to sell the truth.”
His assistant coaches would come to believe Tuberville never, ever considered a player’s race on the recruiting trail — unless, of course, it could benefit him. Then hewould point out that when Mississippi fans waved Confederate flags at Rebels games it was Tuberville who demanded they stop — even amid death threats.
Tuberville also cultivated a reputation as an attentive, hyper-focused coach, but he was often more interested in socializing with the local beat reporters during practice, frequently talking politics and bemoaning the country’s direction. He preached loyalty, too, though there was that time in 2012 when he went to dinner with some players he was recruiting to play at Texas Tech. During the meal, Tuberville famously excused himself to take a phone call offering him the job at Cincinnati and never came back.
He could, at any given moment, be whatever a group or situation needed him to be, and he seemed at home in environments other coaches dread: surrounded by alumni, glad-handing donors, filming take after take for a television commercial until his delivery was just right.
“That man can walk into a room — he can meet everybody in the room,” Leard said, “and you may see him a month later, and he'll remember what you talked about. Man, it's a gift.”
And that’s the thing: Even now, nobody says they suspected Tuberville of being phony or opportunistic. Former players are almost awed by the way he made them feel. This was college sports, and though there’s a Coach Tubs in every football office in America, Auburn fans and players and assistants bought what Tuberville was pitching — and, on occasion, actually delivered.
After talking his way out of being fired after the 2003 season, Tuberville led the Tigers to a 13-0 record, still one of the best seasons in program history. As he beat Alabama six years in a row — Auburn’s longest winning streak in a bitter rivalry more than a century old — Tuberville taunted Tide fans by stalking off the field with his fingers extended to represent his consecutive wins. He even wore a “Fear the thumb” T-shirt on his way to the fifth straight victory.
Alabama fans hated it, which made Auburn fans love it even more, just like they loved how Tuberville walked onto the field arm-in-arm with his players. He earned their loyalty and he brought out their best because he wasn’t leading a football program. He was the patriarch of their family.
“That confidence gave him a level of respect with everybody — made you want to be a part of what he had going on,” said Marcus McNeill, the left tackle for that 2004 team. “It doesn’t matter what color you are or what race you are. That’s kind of what led to you having so much respect for him: He treated everybody equally.”
Tuberville announced his campaign early last year on one of Trump’s favorite shows, “Fox & Friends.” He planned to follow Trump’s playbook, too, even bringing on former White House press secretary Sean Spicer. But the coach’s stumbles were impossible to ignore. He formed an inexperienced campaign team, plowed through cash, called potential Alabama donors from a cellphone with a Florida area code.
He also made a potentially fatal miscalculation: He criticized Trump. He told a gathering of Republicans he was “pissed off at Donald Trump that our vets can’t get health care.” Then he took on Trump’s trade war and its effect on Alabama’s farmers. “He’s putting a noose around their neck a little bit in terms of choking them out and keeping that price down,” he said during a radio appearance in October.
“One mistake after the other,” said a person familiar with the race, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer an honest assessment of Tuberville’s campaign.
In November, Sessions announced that he was entering the race, too. Suddenly two candidates — one a novice finding his political voice, the other a well-known but wounded Washington shark — seemed to be appealing to the same voter.
Sessions reminded Alabamians that he had never publicly criticized the president, calling such acts “dishonorable.” Tuberville, sensing his opening, reminded voters that Trump had forced Sessions out and called his appointment the “biggest mistake” of his first term, after Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions “had his chance,” Tuberville wrote on Facebook, “and he fumbled the ball.”
With the polls tightening, Tuberville reorganized his campaign staff and adopted an all-in embrace of Trump’s policies and messaging style. He complained about “drag queens” in the Opelika, Ala., Christmas parade; criticized the “whack jobs in the Democratic Party” as he defended the University of Georgia’s use of a live bulldog mascot; and blamed “liberal academia” after Harvard and Yale students staged a climate change protest at halftime of a football game. He tweeted more than ever, including messages to Trump himself.
“Alabama loves YOU, Mr. President!” he posted in late January. “HIGHEST APPROVAL RATING IN HISTORY! #MAGA.”
Trump hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the primary, and he isn’t expected to; in the 2017 primary, he endorsed Luther Strange, who lost to Roy Moore. Still, this month, when Tuberville started his tour, he made sure to get Trump’s name on the bus. Then, during one of his first stops, he said that communities that practice sharia law make it so “you can’t drive through a neighborhood.”
“Why?” he went on. “Because terrorism has taken over.”
In Alabama and points beyond, his former players are trying to make sense of their old coach’s new rhetoric. He had always been outspoken about his Christian faith and conservative values. But this? Deep down, which of his personas was closer to reality: the “Coach Tubs” they thought they knew or the Candidate Tuberville who might soon represent them? They have mostly decided it’s impossible to know. And that, as sad as it is, getting older sometimes means realizing your role models are just people, too, often destined to let you down.
“As much as I love the guy,” Leard said, “now he’s a politician.”
McNeill, though, listened to Tuberville’s words and seemed to struggle with them more than the others.
“Uh, to be honest, I didn’t hear Tommy,” McNeill said, contemplating Tuberville’s statement about Middle Easterners storming the U.S.-Mexico border.
He kept trying to make the words fit, to find a way to accept them, but he couldn’t.
“I . . . I don’t really have an opinion right now,” McNeill said. With Tuberville no longer an authority figure, he wondered whether he should just call his old coach and ask him what he actually believes.
Going table to table at the barbecue restaurant, Tuberville is inching toward an unavoidable — and potentially uncomfortable — destination. The six men in the private room meet for lunch here most days. Many are Tuberville skeptics. All are Crimson Tide fans.
Trailing a campaign aide, Tuberville takes a breath and heads into the breach.
“My gosh,” he says, “look at this group.”
They laugh, and Tuberville asks what they do for a living. Attorney, attorney, ironworker. Tuberville stops there, a veteran pitchman identifying his prospect, and makes eye contact.
He asks the ironworker whether he has enough work, considering Trump’s tariffs on steel, and when the man says he does, away Tuberville goes.
“I’m telling you,” he says, “everywhere I go — somebody said the other day: ‘When you see the president, tell him to take a couple-week vacation. He’s killing us; we’re working too hard!’ We’re tired of winning.”
“Tired of winning,” says Jason Jackson, one of the lawyers.
“He said that when he ran: ‘Y’all are going to get tired of me winning,’ ” Tuberville says.
“I’m tired of him winning,” says Thomas Radney, Jackson’s law partner and a Democrat, and his friends laugh.
Cautious when he walked in, Tuberville is loose now, breezing from story to story: his old catfish shack, the grueling bus tour, how he tends to leave places better than he found them. In fact, Tuberville says, when he departed Texas Tech, he left the Red Raiders with none other than Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes — a future Heisman Trophy winner and a future NFL MVP.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” the former coach says. He doesn’t bother mentioning that Mayfield was actually a freshman walk-on whom Tuberville didn’t recruit and that it was Kliff Kingsbury, Tuberville’s replacement at Texas Tech, who offered Mahomes a scholarship a few weeks after Tuberville took the job at Cincinnati.
Eventually, the conversation takes an inevitable turn: An ex-Auburn man who once taunted Alabama fans must now ask for their votes. He has been easing into this on the campaign trail by joking that without Auburn’s dominance in the rivalry, the Tide never would have hired legendary coach Nick Saban. It’s a Tuberville favorite, one this lunch crew has already heard, and one of the attorneys brings it up first.
“So you’re taking credit for them hiring Saban,” Jackson says.
“Well,” Tuberville says, choosing his words carefully. “I gave you an opportunity; I ran the rest of them off.”
“That's true,” Jackson says.
“You gave me a stomachache six years in a row,” Radney says. “I can tell you that.”
They’re laughing and nodding, and by now Tuberville is in — at least with one of them. Jackson will say later that he’s leaning toward voting for Tuberville, despite having no idea what he actually stands for.
“I wish he’d just be true to himself,” Jackson says in a phone interview a few days later, “which I think is a pretty good person.”
The lunchtime conversation fades, and Tuberville leaves the private room. He circles the dining area, bends a few ears and sits in a few booths, poses for more photos. The campaign aide hustles Tuberville toward the exit and into the parking lot, where the bus is waiting.
But instead of stepping on board, Tuberville darts behind the bus and climbs into the driver’s seat of a white Chevrolet Silverado. He puts it in gear and pauses where the restaurant’s driveway meets State Route 22. When traffic eases and Tuberville sees his opening, he accelerates into a hard right turn, on his way to pitch what he’s selling a few miles up the road.