Tommy Tuberville knows his snakeskins.
"These," he says, pointing to his cowboy boots propped up on his desk, "Are tree vipers. They like to eat birds. I got them when I traded Daniel Cobb and some cash to this fella down in Panama. Supposed to be the best boot maker in the Western Hemisphere. He actually goes out into the jungle and catches the damn snakes himself. True story."
As he pauses to reflect on the story, or maybe what happened to former Auburn quarterback Daniel Cobb, he lights one of his famous victory cigars with what appears to be a $100 bill.
"See this," he says, gesturing at the burning bill, "a $127 bill. No one even knows about them yet. Talked the guy at the US Mint into making them. Right now, the only place that will accept them is Walmart because, you know, Walmart will accept anything. But they'll be here soon. Just wait."
Tuberville, 56, is preparing to begin spring practice and his second season at Texas Tech University where he took over for the popular, yet, by conventional coaching standards, odd Mike Leach. Though Tuberville guided the Red Raiders to an 8-5 season and a win in the Ticket City Bowl, the 2010 season was largely viewed as a disappointment. The team he inherited returned 15 starters, including senior quarterbacks Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield, both of whom saw significant playing time in Leach's final season, yet the team finished with a worse record than in 2009.
"Mike did a great job here before we got here. He set the bar really high for us. And it's our job to set a new bar for the next guy. We're here to win championships and if we don't, they'll find someone else. It was unfortunate how things ended here for Mike, but the coaching business doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes. Chocolate covered butterfly?," he asks extending a silver box.
No stranger to controversy, Tuberville's last two coaching stops ended with outrage and fans choosing sides. His first head coaching job at Ole Miss came to a close after the final regular season game of the 1998 season when he bolted in a middle-of-the-night fashion for more money and prestige at Auburn. That departure came just days after saying the only way he'd leave Oxford was "in a pine box." Predictably, Ole Miss fans were beyond furious and would let him know about it for years to come.
At Auburn, despite enjoying one of the most successful runs in school history, including a 7-3 record against Alabama, he was never fully accepted by the people who run things at Auburn. They wanted it done their way and he wanted it done his way. Being of the stubborn stock and with the victories to support his decisions, he did it his way.
He survived a coup attempt of sorts in 2003 when Auburn's president, athletic director and a prominent booster secretly flew to gauge the interest of then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino in the Auburn head coaching job, while Tuberville was under contract. But he was eventually forced out following the 2008 season and a 5-7 record. Some Auburn fans believed their school had wronged the man who had owned Alabama, while others were convinced Tuberville had lost his magic and would soon be surpassed by the then-recently hired Nick Saban at Alabama.
"No one should feel sorry for me, did you see how much they gave me to go away? It was like 20 million in Arkansas dollars. Hell, I had so much sitting around at the house, I bought all of Mike's pirate stuff and set it up in my garage. Creeps me out. But I go in there once a week because being creeped out keeps me on edge and you gotta have that edge to be good in this game."
As he gears up for spring practice, which starts this week, Tuberville finds himself in yet another storm cloud, albeit, a small one that no one outside of Texas Tech, or perhaps even people at Texas Tech, cares about. This time, it's not standoff with a Bobby Lowder-like booster or spineless AD like David Housel, but with the hulking form of the Texas Tech Human Sciences department and professor Julian Spallholz.
Last week, at a faculty senate meeting, Spallholz was among several faculty members who questioned Texas Tech's decision to give Tuberville a $500,000 raise in the midst of budget cuts in the academic areas of the university.
"If that was me, I would have turned it down. I would have been embarrassed," Spallholz said.
"Oh, yeah, I heard about that," he says while puffing away on his cigar, then letting out a James Bond villain cackle. "Let me ask this, how much money does the Human Science department bring in? How much recognition does the Human Sciences department bring to the university? Did the Human Sciences department beat Missouri on national TV?
"Look, if these people want a street fight, I can give them a street fight. Anyone remember Arkansas in 2003? 10-3. Arkansas in 2007? 9-7. Or how about Tennessee in '08? 14-12. People literally burned their eyes out with hot pokers just so they wouldn't have to watch. Hell, inside the stadium, we had people jumping off the top row just so they never had to see Chris Todd try to throw a pass again. These Human Science people aren't equipped for swinging away at one another with a 1/8-inch piece of plywood for three hours. That's the only way I know how to fight. It's not pretty to watch, or particularly fun, but dammit, we win."
And with that, Tuberville gives a dismissive wave of the hand. Questions remain about Tuberville's commitment to the aerial assault that put the school on the college football map. In 2010, the Red Raiders rushed over 100 more times than they did in 2009 and over 200 more times than they did in 2007. Publicly, Tuberville has said his staff will remain committed to the system that best suits their personnel. But those who know Tuberville are aware of his disdain for what he calls "offensive fancypants."
But before he answers those questions in the 2011 season, he's digging in his heels against the Human Sciences department.
"We're about to give those boys a good ol' fashioned country ass-whuppin," he says with a laugh. "One gentle swat at a time."
He may be at the last stop in his coaching career, but Tommy Tuberville isn't done upsetting people or fighting. He's got a pair of snakeskins for every ass he's kicked and a new pair for every ass he's about to kick.
Also, just so we're clear, 99.9999% of this is made-up. You never know with some people.