Behind closed doors
Franklin County Times
Did the Auburn people who planned Jetgate in 2003 really have the right idea, after all?
In light of what has been going around the country lately, Auburn's idea to handle matters in the shadows of night may not have been such a bone-headed idea. Of course, there was only one problem: They got caught red-handed.
Now, colleges across the country are paying for the high crimes of a former Auburn president, athletics director and current member of the board of trustees. Millions of dollars worth of goodwill and public relations are going down the drain and football programs are made to be a laughingstock.
Since that November day in 2003, when it was publicly revealed that Auburn officials had flown to Louisville to hire Bobby Petrino (yep, the same vagabond who just landed in Arkansas), athletic department officials across the country have been playing the fool.
Last year, it was Mal Moore who looked utterly clueless as he stumbled through the coaching process, finally – after 38 days – cashing his lottery ticket when Nick Saban said yes.
This year, Arkansas and Michigan were in a virtual dead heat for winner of the annual Dunce Cap Award. Michigan is now the only school standing.
It's hard to recover when coach after coach turns down your school, as was the case with Arkansas. Desperate times force desperate moves, such as raiding the Atlanta Falcons with three games remaining in the season.
And when the guy at Rutgers says he wants to stay in New Jersey instead of coaching at The Big House in Ann Arbor, you've got serious problems. So what do you do? Easy. You go from Plan B or C back to Plan A. You get on the horn with your first choice, Les Miles, and when word leaks out (as it always does), you come up with some ridiculous lie about only consulting with him – as a Michigan alum – in reference to the coaching search.
Because there was such a radioactive reaction after Jetgate, with so many self-righteous administrators coming down on Auburn, every school now wants to at least give the appearance of being above board, particularly with reporters and internet sleuths following university planes around (this is how Auburn got busted on Jetgate). No one wants to be accused of having "unethical contact" with another coach. By the way, Michigan did have permission to talk to Miles (although most people assumed the statute of limitations ran out after he signed an extension with LSU).
So the movement is much slower and the school officials
seem much more concerned about appearances than making smart decisions.
What Auburn officials did in 2003 was what had always been done. People being sneaky and unethical, meeting behind the scenes under the shadows of night. Everyone had plausible deniability and when the head coach was ultimately fired, you had your guy waiting in the wings. It wasn't as much of a politically correct three-ring circus and slapstick comedy act as it is today.
Ironically, Tommy Tuberville had serious contact with Auburn officials way
in advance of Terry Bowden's firing. In fact, he had been on their radar screen for well over a year. However, he was still able to feign shock and dismay when it came out that Auburn was lurking behind his back to bring Petrino to the Plains.
Timing was all that stood between it being pulled off to perfection. Had Louisville's season ended on the previous Saturday instead of playing the week after the Iron Bowl, Tuberville would have been fired and it's unlikely there would have been much controversy. Don't forget his 2003 team had been picked by at least one magazine to win the national title and at the moment the school officials met with Petrino, Auburn was only 6-5.
Instead, the story came out three days after the Iron Bowl (which Auburn won) and before Petrino's game, and Tuberville became the hero while the school president, the athletics director and the key trustees were all disgraced.
Of course, there's more to this sordid story.
You have sleazebag agents in the mix, floating bogus stories to anyone who will broadcast them (there's usually a willing taker), which makes one school panic (see North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, Auburn and LSU), immediately raising the ante for their current coach so he won't leave.
On one hand, it would be easy to blame athletics directors for being so ill-prepared. A top AD once told me he always had a list of candidates in his desk drawer in case something went haywire with his current coach. However, in the old days, that certain AD could probably call the coach or the agent and find out whether they would actually accept a job. Nowadays, nobody wants to be caught dead in that situation.
So interestingly, four years after Jetgate, Auburn has the same head coach it intended to fire – which has turned out to be a very good thing for the school – while so many other schools and coaching reputations have suffered mightily.
Pretty amazing the way things turned out.
Paul Finebaum is a guest columnist for The Franklin County Times. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.