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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Auburn Football: A Portrait of Dysfunction In Higher Education

Our crack Legal Schnauzer sports staff has been following the ongoing saga of Coach Tommy Tuberville and the Auburn football program, and we find it an intriguing story for several reasons.

Back in my sportswriter days, I covered Auburn for three years in the mid to late 1980s. Pat Dye was the coach then, the Tigers regularly went to big-time bowls, and I spent quite a bit of time in the "Loveliest Village on the Plains."

The Tuberville story grabbed our attention because it is both instructive and amusing.

It's instructive because it shows just how dysfunctional higher education can be. That's a subject I know something about, having recently been unlawfully terminated after working for 19 years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

How goofy is the Tuberville story? Consider this: Tuberville arguably is the most successful coach in school history. Over 10 years, he had an 85-40 record, regularly had the Tigers in major bowl games, and beat archrival Alabama six consecutive times. Unlike a number of his predecessors, he evidently did it in an honest fashion; Auburn never stepped in NCAA doo-doo during his tenure.

You might think that Auburn would give Tuberville a lifetime contract and erect statutes of him all over campus. But what did the Aubies do? They panicked when Tuberville went 5-7 in 2008, while Alabama was going 12-1, and figured that one down year was enough to merit a coaching change.

So Tuberville wound up "resigning," Auburn paid him a $5.1 million buyout (even though it wasn't owed if he truly resigned), and went searching for a new coach. And who did the Aubies come up with? A fellow named Gene Chizik, who had a 5-19 record in two seasons as Iowa State's head coach. He is expected to be formally announced as Auburn's new coach today.

Now to be fair, Chizik has been highly successful as a defensive coordinator at Central Florida, Auburn, and Texas. But as a head coach? Well, the folks in Iowa aren't exactly sorry to see him go.

Take a few higher-ups with doctoral degrees, mix in a harried athletic director and two or three power-mad trustees, and these are the kinds of decisions you get. Paul Davis, a columnist for the Opelika-Auburn News, captured the Auburn nuttiness nicely.

It's nice to know that UAB is not the only massively dysfunctional institution in Alabama.

Why is the Tuberville story amusing? Well, that came when a reporter interviewed Olive Tuberville, the former coach's mother. She cut through all the BS from Auburn administrators and let the truth out of the bag: "He didn't resign," she said of her son. "He was fired."

Then as mothers are wont to do, Olive Tuberville became protective. "He's at an age (54) where something could happen to him. Heart problems are all through my family. I didn't want him getting stressed out."

This was touching, for obvious reasons. But I couldn't help but find some (dark) humor in it, particularly compared to my unceremonious parting with UAB.

Tuberville got a $5.1 million buyout, so unless he's a complete dunderhead with money, he won't have to work again the rest of his life. Technically, Auburn didn't do Tuberville wrong. The university decided to break the contract and was willing to pay the piper to do it.

Auburn acted in a stupid fashion, but it did not cheat Tuberville.

Also, Tuberville did contribute somewhat to his own demise. He made the decision last December to hire new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and go to a "spread" offense, a move that backfired and resulted in Franklin's exit at midseason.

Me? I got fired, literally, for doing my job. I haven't received the first penny of a buyout or severance. And while Auburn folks have publicly praised Tuberville, UAB went out of its way to trash me, issuing a false statement saying I was fired due to job performance.

Gosh, if Tommy Tuberville was feeling stress, it's a wonder I can function at all.

Olive Tuberville, though, brings up a serious issue regarding turmoil in the workplace. What impact does it have on a person's health, particularly when the turmoil is manufactured and not based on legitimate work issues?

I just turned 52, close to Tommy Tuberville's age. As far as I know, my health is good. Like all families, mine has some health issues in our history. But in general, the Shulers of southwest Missouri have been a pretty hearty bunch.

But how many of my forebears have been under the kind of postmodern, sociopath-induced stress I've faced the past eight years, particularly the past six months. Could the political games that UAB is playing cause me, or someone close to me, to have a heart attack or a stroke? Would anybody at UAB care if that were the outcome of their charade?

And what about mental health? What if I, or someone close to me, were to snap and do something rash. I don't sense that happening with me, but who knows how bad things might get. And what about the people who depend on me? There are one or two of those who are more than a little fed up with the crap we've taken for close to a decade now.

I've been fortunate to be surrounded by good-natured, good-hearted people my whole life. But even the best of people have a breaking point, I suspect. What if one of us finally cracks and strikes back in an unfortunate way?

I wonder if certain folks at UAB--and certain lawyers, judges, and politicos--have thought about that.

As Olive Tuberville might say, maybe they should.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You forget that it no longer amounts to anything to avoid getting into trouble with the NCAA. The notion that the NCAA has academic interests at heart is one of the major myths today. The NCAA is very much like the green curtain in the Wizard of Oz. It just helps the business of big time athletics hide the fact that they run the show.
Jim Gundlach