Tuberville tackles tough time

AUBURN, Ala. -- At Byron's Smokehouse, the barbecue haven near campus, a group of veteran Auburn faithful who came in for lunch sat at tables adjacent to the one occupied by Tiger coach Tommy Tuberville.

"Well, Coach," Dewey Northcutt said, "got the hay in the barn?"

"Got it stacked," Tuberville said. "Just got to get it in the barn. Got one or two bales that I got to get heavy string around so it don't get loose."

Tuberville got it into the barn, flinging in a couple of highly-sought bales at the last minute. Given the off-field controversy that has swirled around Auburn for the last 10 weeks, it's a wonder that Tuberville signed anyone who can lace on shoulder pads.

First came the very public battle he waged and won to save his job in late November, a battle that set in motion the demise of university president Dr. William Walker. Second came the blow from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which put Auburn on one-year probation. Rival coaches went to town on that news.

The parents of Auburn's most heralded recruit, offensive lineman Leon Hart of South Carolina, called the new university president, Dr. Ed Richardson, for reassurance.

The most notable last-minute commitment to Auburn, defensive back Tony Bell of Alabaster (Ala.) High, had committed to Georgia. Bell is the only highly-rated player in Alabama to sign with the Tigers. Of Auburn's 26 signees, seven are local.

"If it goes like I hope it does, we'll sign seven," Tuberville said Tuesday. "Our goal every year is to try to get as close to 10 as we possibly can. It depends on the talent in the state."

Auburn's history is rich with in-state heroes. The school's two Heisman Trophy winners, Pat Sullivan (1971) and Bo Jackson (1985), come from the Birmingham area. But Auburn's history is also filled with out-of-state heroes. In the last 15 seasons, Auburn has had seven All-Americans. Only three came from Alabama.

By comparison, over the same period of time, Alabama has had eight All-Americans, seven of them homegrown.

"For us to win, we've got to start in Alabama," Tuberville said. "Our second state is Georgia." The Auburn campus, in east-central Alabama, is about 30 minutes from the state line. "We have great athletes in the state of Georgia that are as close to us as they are to Athens," Tuberville said. "We're going to go to Florida because of my contacts there, and speed." Tuberville coached as an assistant at Miami for eight seasons under Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson.

In an era when just about any team is on national television just about every week, Tuberville added, state borders aren't as important. High school coaches in Alabama agree, even as they wish that the in-state schools would stay home to recruit.

"It used to be that if they were the best in the state, they went to Auburn or Alabama," said Mountain Brook (Ala.) High coach Joey Jones, who played at Alabama for Bear Bryant and Ray Perkins. "Last year, four of the top five went out of state. They were four of the best kids in the state for a long time." Jones' quarterback, Tribble Reese, signed Wednesday with Clemson.

Mobile UMS-Wright Prep coach Terry Curtis, who has won three state championships, said, "You're not getting that, 'I love Auburn and that's where I always wanted to be.' All the kids now think, 'I want to play football and get to The League.' Kids look at two things: how quick they can play and facilities. If you can show them that, they don't care about anything else."

Tuberville understands that everything that happens at Auburn will be compared to Alabama. But he stressed that the schools and the staffs aren't the same.

"We do a thorough job of evaluating players. I'm sure they do, too," he said. "Different offenses, different philosophies, different needs."

If nothing else, Tuberville can point to his Iron Bowl record: three wins, two losses. That will stand as his best evidence that his system works, at least until next November.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.