By the time it was clear that a menu for the 50 Yard Line Steakhouse in Lubbock, TX, was making its way through the fax machine at the University of Cincinnati's football offices on National Signing Day, Tommy Tuberville just laughed.
"Yeah, I laughed. You have to laugh," he shrugs.
After a three-year relationship with Texas Tech that never quite cottoned on either side, Tuberville left following the 2012 season to replace Butch Jones at Cincinnati. The Red Raiders hired 33-year-old former quarterback Kliff Kingsbury, a disciple of embattled former coach Mike Leach, Tubs' wildly popular predecessor. At his hiring press conference Kingsbury asked Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt to schedule Cincinnati, one of many overt digs at Tuberville. The menu-faxing was a response to an incident in which Tuberville allegedly excused himself from a dinner with coaches and Tech recruits and never returned, fleeing to take the UC job the next day.
"Back when I left [Lubbock] there was a lot of people that wrote stories about how I left and how I walked out on a recruiting dinner," Tuberville says. "I think at some point a lot of these reporters are going to have quit reading blogs and do their own investigating, because that’s what happened. No one called me about that. I was a little disappointed in them. I got raked over the coals for something I didn’t do. They read what somebody put on a blog."
To those who have covered him throughout a decade-plus in the SEC and beyond, this is the old Tommy Tuberville, austere and calculating. He flatly denies ever walking out on a recruit. But this is also a newer, calmer Tuberville, a man willing to work from a pool of knowledge and experience that's virtually unrivaled in the industry. And such a demeanor is forgivable if the person in question was a college football head coach in the state of Alabama for any significant amount of time.
"Every other year Paul Finebaum used me as a punching bag, and we’re good friends now," he says. "I understand the media, to a degree. Of course, we’ve kind of brought it on ourselves with all the money that’s in it, the money that we make, the money that’s in all of our sports, how things have changed. And we all look for that sense of wanting people to be interested in what we’re doing ... college football is great, but when something goes wrong, you’ve got to take the criticism."
There's some symmetry here: Tuberville is making his fourth stop as a head coach at a program on its fourth head coach since joining the Big East in 2004. Both are clearly looking for a safe harbor, and both believe they've got plenty to give an even more to prove.
"I knew I wanted to take one home run swing," Cincinnati AD Whit Babcock said. "I wanted it to be fast, and if it didn't connect I wanted to quietly move on."
So Babcock, a former baseball player at James Madison University, took his metaphorical cut immediately. After a prolonged waiting game with Jones, who flirted first with Purdue and Colorado before finally taking the Tennessee job once Louisville head coach Charlie Strong passed, Tuberville was Babcock's immediate call in early December. The two have known each other since Babcock's five-year run as an associate AD at Auburn, and stayed in touch over the years.
"It was a pretty quick conversation. I said 'Hey coach, I think the world of you, but I really only have one day to work on this. If you're not interested, I'll move on quickly.'"
Babcock's big swing connected enough for Tuberville to leave his 20-17 record and two bowl appearances in three years with Tech. His wife Suzanne is from the Cincinnati area (Guilford, IN, about 30 miles west), and according to the coach, the Bearcats offered something Lubbock didn't: a recruiting base suited to his preferences.
"It all goes back to one thing - quarterback," he says. "What kind of quarterback can you recruit? And in Texas most of the high schools were running spread [offenses], and you could either go out and find a throwing quarterback or a scrambling, running quarterback. There wasn’t many pro-style guys, and if you bring in a guy that’s never been around a pro-style offense that’s taken a snap underneath the center, I mean, it’s a huge transition. So I’ve noticed in [Ohio] that there’s a lot more pro-style offenses. There’s a lot of these spread offenses that are good, and I just had one for three years [former offensive coordinator Neil Brown is installing the Air Raid at Kentucky]. We put up a lot of points, won some games and had some excellent players. It just goes back to one thing: What type of player can you recruit?"
Tuberville denies that he even considered the tumult in the Big East and the Bearcats' cloudy conference future when he took the job, citing the Big 12's own potential dismemberment just three years ago.
"I was just at a school out in west Texas where we didn’t know day in or day out whether we were going to be in the Pac-10 or Big 12 or WAC or independent. You just didn’t know. We just found out about this time last year, hey, it’s gonna survive. You know that as a head coach you look at the opportunity to win games and what type of players you can recruit to a university, to a school, the opportunity to see maybe what kind of staff you can build. But I can’t control the conference. I couldn’t out there, couldn’t in the SEC, can't here."
That won't stop Tuberville from building the Bearcats to be ready to compete in a new conference under his watch, be it the ACC or Big 12. He acknowledges that he and his staff are recruiting with a potential conference change in mind and the subsequent level of talent such a move would require for Cincinnati to be successful.
"We want to recruit against everybody in the country," he says. "You don’t want to just go out and say, 'well, this guy’s available and no one else is recruiting him, we gotta take him.' We’re not gonna do that. We’re gonna compete against everybody in this state and all the Big Ten teams and ACC and SEC. You’re not gonna beat ‘em every time, but they can’t take ‘em all."
It's that philosophy that has already caused a stir in Ohio. Upon Tuberville's arrival, controversy arose from allegations that the new Cincinnati staff wouldn't honor the commitments of any recruits in the 2013 class that had been landed by Jones' staff. Specifically, quarterback Kyle Kempt of powerhouse Massillon Washington. As detailed by Friday Night Ohio, head coach Jason Hall stated that Kempt assumed he'd follow Jones to Tennessee, having actually committed to UC over the Volunteers earlier in the season. When Tennessee offered another quarterback, Hall alleges that Kempt wasn't allowed to "fall back" on his commitment to Cincinnati, and because of that, Tuberville's staff would not be welcomed at Washington High School.
Hall did not respond to multiple interview requests. Tuberville cited NCAA recruiting guidelines in not commenting specifically about Kempt and Washington High.
Of the 15 players committed under Jones, four signed with Cincinnati. Kempt ultimately signed with Oregon State, but some believe that regardless of the specific timeline of events, Tuberville has damage to undo.
"He burned a lot of bridges quickly," said Josh Helmholdt, Rivals' midwest recruiting analyst. "The toughest part of recruiting isn't so much the end but the beginning, the initial building of relationships. It's about getting respect from the high school programs and starting the process off right. When a new head coach comes in, in some ways that program speaks for itself, and they're able to build upon that with the area high school coaches. There was a strong foundation laid by Kelly and Jones, and now he's going to have to play catch-up to get to where they used to be."
Babcock said that the situation was "blown out of proportion" and praised Tuberville for landing what he deemed a successful class on a short turnaround.
"We've got to recruit Ohio in order to be successful, and we're confident with this staff that we can do that. [Tuberville's] track record in recruiting and big games speaks for itself," said Babcock.
Helmholdt said that he'll have a better feel for the situation when Rivals holds one of its camps for recruits on April 20 in nearby Lakota West High School. Cincinnati plans on an aggressive push both nationally and statewide and has a staff filled with historically successful recruiters, namely offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, most recently of Florida State, and associate head coach Robert Prunty, a member of Tuberville's Tech staff who was named the 2013 Big East recruiter of the year by Scout.com.
The calmer Tuberville seems unfazed by the early controversy and speaks of the state of Ohio's talent with such excitement and awe you'd swear he didn't just come from a coaching job in Texas.
On paper, Cincinnati is as much as a football school as anywhere else. The Bearcats became an anomalous success as Big East football began to erode and also the single hottest coaching spot in the country. Cincy's last three coaches built a largely unnoticed juggernaut, boasting two BCS bowls and at least a share of the conference title and 10 wins in four of the last five seasons. If anything, the Bearcats hired too well for a program surrounded by growing uncertainty in its conference, and its trio of former MAC head coaches parlayed stints in the Queen City into bigger jobs: Mark Dantonio to Michigan State, Brian Kelly to Notre Dame and Jones to Tennessee.
Meanwhile, UC has watched conference rivals Louisville, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Syracuse and Rutgers depart for thriving conferences. And over the next two seasons, seven former Conference USA programs will join the former Big East, stripped of its name and minus its basketball-only schools. The remaining group will split a paltry TV deal of C-USA merit with ESPN.
Basically, the neighborhood Cincinnati moved away from caught back up with it. The school has an extensive P.R. presentation designed to show its merit compared to existing ACC schools. In it UC touts a cumulative BCS ranking of No. 16 over the last six seasons, a number stronger than BCS programs like Arkansas, Clemson and Michigan.
Babcock sat in the unenviable position of looking for a proven winner to follow three hugely successful hires while also potentially being the last team off of the sinking Big East ship.
"I don't know what the future holds," Babcock said. "So my only goal was to hire the best football coach I can possibly get at that moment."
That coach is far from immune to controversy, or at least what could be considered bold decisions and unapologetic opinions. For his part, Babcock said that Tech was one of multiple schools Cincinnati had been in talks with for future non-conference series, but he won't fan any of those flames now.
"We had a lot of lines out in the water, and Tech had come back to the table shortly before [the hire]. But once we hired Coach Tuberville I thought that it wasn't something I wanted to do now, that it was better to have a fresh start for all involved."