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Tommy Tuberville, the 2020 Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama, was head football coach at Auburn University in Alabama from 1999 to 2008. (AP) Tommy Tuberville, the 2020 Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama, was head football coach at Auburn University in Alabama from 1999 to 2008. (AP)

Tommy Tuberville, the 2020 Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama, was head football coach at Auburn University in Alabama from 1999 to 2008. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher October 6, 2020

Claim that ex-coach Tommy Tuberville ‘quit on his players’ is exaggeration

If Your Time is short

  • Tuberville was a head college football coach at four schools.

  • Twice he left jobs abruptly, shocking players and school leaders.

  • Twice he resigned after seasons in which his team performed poorly and the schools sought new leadership.

Name recognition, particularly for a first-time candidate like Tommy Tuberville, is all important.

The Alabama Republican gained his through 21 years as a Division 1 college football coach before deciding to run against Democratic Sen. Doug Jones.

So, it was no minor attack when Jones blitzed Tuberville with an ad calling Tuberville "a quitter," saying that each of the four times Tuberville left head coaching jobs, he "quit on his players."

The wording suggests Tuberville betrayed his players all four times. But while two of his departures were abrupt, that wasn’t what happened in two other cases. 

A pivotal Senate race

Tuberville had his greatest coaching success while at Auburn University in Alabama from 1999 to 2008. Though he considered a 2018 run for governor he decided against it, citing family concerns and challenges over his residency. 

Jones is an attorney who in 2001 and 2002 prosecuted two attackers in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 that killed four young girls. He won his Senate seat in December 2017 in a high-profile race against Judge Roy Moore after the position was vacated by Republican Jeff Sessions, who became President Donald Trump’s first attorney general.

The outcome of the Nov. 3 race between Jones and Tuberville could help determine whether Republicans keep a majority in the Senate, where they now control 53 seats. 

The race is rated as "lean Republican" — meaning the race is competitive but with the GOP having an advantage — by the Cook Political Report. It is one of 18 pivotal House and Senate contests up for election on Nov. 3 that PolitiFact is tracking.

Mississippi: Abrupt exit for new job

In November 1998, Tuberville’s fourth year as head coach at the University of Mississippi, Alabama newspapers reported that Tuberville had struck a deal to become the head coach at Auburn. Tuberville denied the reports, saying if he did leave, "it'll probably be in a pine box. Somebody will have to take me out of here."

Two days later, it was announced he was taking the Auburn job.

"It's not like we didn't know he was leaving," Ole Miss cornerback Timothy Strickland said the next season, just before his team played Auburn. "He just hadn't told us. Him not telling us is what hurt."

Tuberville later said he left because, the day after his "pine box" comments aired, the chancellor at Ole Miss told him he could not commit to funding for football. "It kind of forced my hand a little bit," Tuberville said.

Auburn: Exited under pressure

Tuberville coached Auburn for 10 years, including one undefeated season, and won five bowl games. He announced his resignation in December 2008, after informing his players, as the University of Alabama eclipsed Auburn’s success.

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"In 2008, (Alabama coach) Nick Saban and Alabama took the state back as Tuberville's Tigers faltered, and that was enough to make Auburn want a change in leadership," ESPN reported.

The end was clear after Auburn lost seven of its final nine games that season. Tuberville and the school’s athletic director "reached an amicable parting in talks that began Monday and ended Wednesday afternoon, according to people familiar with the discussions," the Birmingham News reported. "The talks began with Tuberville laying out his vision for the program, but, by Wednesday, Tuberville had decided a departure was best."

In backing the ad’s claim, Jones’ campaign provided testimony Tuberville gave in a 2013 deposition in a lawsuit unrelated to his coaching. Asked whether anyone in the Auburn administration had asked him to stay, Tuberville said yes but that he decided to leave anyway.

Even though Tuberville resigned, Auburn paid him a $5 million buyout.

Texas Tech: Abrupt exit for new job

After taking a year away from coaching, Tuberville joined Texas Tech University’s football program, which he led for three years before resigning in December 2012.

The Associated Press reported at that time: "Tommy Tuberville wasn't expecting a call from an old acquaintance. A few hours later, he was headed north for a new job" at the University of Cincinnati.

"Texas Tech athletics director Kirby Hocutt was stunned when Tuberville called to tell him he was leaving," the AP reported.

"The first indication I got was at 10:32 this morning when he called me," Hocutt said. "Tommy and I have talked a number of times since the conclusion of the Baylor game this year, and as recently as yesterday he looked me in the eye and gave me his commitment and dedication to Texas Tech football and leading this program forward."

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal said the hiring came together in a matter of hours" and shocked players, including Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, who tweeted: "Never felt more anger in my life."

Cincinnati: Exited under pressure

Tuberville coached at the University of Cincinnati for four years, three of them winning seasons. He resigned after the disappointing 2016 season that left the Bearcats missing out on a bowl appearance for the first time since Tuberville took the reins. Tuberville pledged to continue coaching, but did not leave for another coaching job.

Tuberville "was under intense pressure from some UC fans" because of the team’s poor performance in 2016, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. "It’s something we’ve worked on together," Cincinnati athletic director Mike Bohn said at the time. "It was very professional, very candid." Three players quoted by the newspaper said they were disappointed to hear Tuberville was leaving.

Our ruling

Jones claimed Tuberville "quit on his players" all four times that he was a college football coach, suggesting he betrayed the players. But the circumstances of his departures are not that cut and dried.

Tuberville shocked players and university administrators when he abruptly quit Mississippi and Texas Tech in order to take new coaching jobs. But he resigned from Auburn and Cincinnati after disappointing seasons that led the schools to look for new coaches. 

We rate the claim Half True.

This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here for more.

Our Sources

Facebook, Doug Jones "Remember the Quitter" ad, Oct. 1, 2020

Email, Doug Jones campaign spokesman Owen Kilmer, Oct. 5, 2020

Interview, Tommy Tuberville campaign spokesman Gary Maloney, Oct. 5, 2020

The Clarion-Ledger, Rick Cleveland column, Sept. 23, 1999

The Times (Shreveport, La.), "Emotions run high for Auburn, Ole Miss," Sept. 25, 1999

Tommy Tuberville deposition, May 10, 2013

ESPN, "Cincinnati refutes story on Tuberville exit," Dec. 12, 2012

Birmingham News, "Tommy Tuberville on Bobby Petrino, JetGate, pine box quote and leaving recruits at a restaurant," May 23, 2019

Birmingham News, "Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville resigns," updated March 28, 2019; posted Dec. 4, 2008

SB Nation, "Ole Miss reminds Tommy Tuberville about his ‘pine box’ comments before his ESPN2 trip to Oxford," Nov. 13, 2017

ESPN, "Tuberville out after 10 seasons as Auburn coach," Dec. 3, 2008

Fox Sports, "Report: Tuberville ditched recruits at dinner," Dec. 12, 2012

Associated Press, "Tuberville resigns after coaching Cincinnati for 4 seasons," Dec. 4, 2016

Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, "Tuberville leaves Texas Tech for Cincinnati," Dec. 8, 2012

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