BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In Alabama, sports is not just part of the culture, but a part of its own politics.
Former Gov. Fob James was a halfback for the Auburn Tigers. State Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, was a linebacker for the Crimson Tide. Gov. George Wallace boxed in high school. Even former Gov. Robert Bentley would often tell people about how iconic Alabama football coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant was one of his patients.
Tommy Tuberville, who led the Auburn Tigers 85-40 between 1999 and 2008, hopes to join the ranks of the state’s athletes-turned-politicians as he seeks the Republican nomination for to run against Doug Jones for the state’s U.S. Senate seat Tuesday.
On the campaign trail, Tuberville says he occasionally runs into people who tell him they can’t vote for him. Even though they agree with his politics, they can’t vote for an Auburn coach.
“That’s maybe 1%,” Tuberville said.
However, Tuberville believes his message can carry across team loyalties in the state, even while 53% of people in Alabama reportedly root for the Crimson Tide while 34% cheer on the Tigers, according to a study published on AL.com by Samford University’s Center for Sports Analytics.
“People trust football coaches more than politicians,” he said. “Politicians want to be something; Coaches are something.”
Steve Flowers, a former Alabama state representative and CBS 42 political analyst, said Alabamians can often take sports seriously to the point where it can translate into political action.
“It’s happened quite often in Alabama politics that a popular head coach in a certain locale can easily win a local race or even the legislature because they live for their local team,” Flowers said.
One example is State Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, who was elected to the Alabama Legislature in 2010 after spending years coaching football at Geneva High School and the neighboring cities of Samson and Hartford. Chesteen also has name recognition through his father, J.D. Chesteen, who also coached in Geneva County for years.
“If you look at the files of different legislators, a lot of them were coaches,” Flowers said.
In fact, Flowers believes athletics has even played a crucial part in statewide politics.
“I contend Fob James won the governor’s race the first time around from Auburn people,” he said.
Admittedly, Tuberville said his career in sports may have given him more of a platform and name recognition than someone starting from square one, but what connects with people is his commitment to the people of Alabama.
“I give them three to four things that I’m passionate about,” he said. “Something usually comes up about sports, but they know when I talk about the state and country, they know what I stand for.”
Come Tuesday, Tuberville will have a lot of competition for the Republican nomination, going up against former Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rep. Bradley Byrne, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, businessman Stanley Adair, State Rep. Arnold Mooney and Ruth Page Nelson.
However, Tuberville feels his background in sports gives him an edge over the other candidates.
“In sports, you have to attain a leadership quality within your team,” Tubverille said. “Most people that get into politics that I see have never been in a leadership role in their lives.”
However, Flowers believes that in the same way athletics has given Tuberville a major platform, it can also work against him due to the fact that there are more Alabama fans than Auburn fans in the state.
“I think the only reason is even where he is because Auburn fans are behind him,” he said.
Nonetheless, Tuberville is approaching this election the same way he would approach a game.
“You go into a football game, you have no clue how your team will play, but you can also be an underdog,” he said. “I’m treating this like a game and just selling myself.”
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