How Bryan Harsin's Auburn football saga compares to 'JetGate,' Tommy Tuberville | Toppmeyer

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Auburn football players rallied around their coach after the university failed in its attempt to orchestrate his ouster.

No, I’m not referencing Auburn’s current situation with second-year coach Bryan Harsin.

Attempted overthrows occur regularly enough at Auburn that specificity is needed. In this case, I’m referring to Auburn’s failed quest to fire Tommy Tuberville in 2003.

University officials flew on a private plane that November to rendezvous with Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, two days before the Iron Bowl. Auburn’s brass had cooked up a plan to oust Tuberville in favor of Petrino, who was Tuberville’s former offensive coordinator. Trustee and booster Bobby Lowder provided the plane that shuttled the Auburn contingent.

Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville during the loss to Arkansas in Auburn, Ala. on Saturday October 11, 2008.(Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)
Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville during the loss to Arkansas in Auburn, Ala. on Saturday October 11, 2008.(Montgomery Advertiser, Mickey Welsh)

When reports of the secret meetup with Petrino surfaced the following week, Auburn fans rallied behind Tuberville. Instead of firing Tuberville in 2003, Auburn awarded him a contract extension less than three weeks after his Tigers won the Iron Bowl.

William Walker, the Auburn president who led the brigade to meet with Petrino, resigned that winter after Alabama’s then-governor Bob Riley labeled Walker’s clandestine trip to Louisville an embarrassment for AU.

The failed coup, which became known as “JetGate,” galvanized Auburn’s players.

“When he was going through that, we were hurting, because Coach Tub is a people person,” Junior Rosegreen, who was an Auburn defensive back, told USA TODAY in 2004, “and he's the people's coach. … They didn't have nothing on him.”

The final sentence of Rosegreen’s quote applies to Harsin’s present situation.

Auburn investigated Harsin but announced Friday it was retaining him after not unearthing cause to fire him.

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Despite Harsin’s saga featuring some similarities to Auburn’s failed 2003 overthrow of Tuberville, Harsin’s future is unlikely to mimic Tuberville’s after “JetGate.”

How Bryan Harsin’s 2022 team differs from Tommy Tuberville’s 2004 Tigers

Auburn entered 2004 with momentum.

The Tigers won back-to-back games to finish the 2003 season at 8-5 overall. Several standout players returned the following season.

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The AP ranked Auburn No. 17 in its 2004 preseason poll. The Tigers shattered those expectations by going undefeated. They finished ranked No. 2 nationally after not earning selection to the BCS National Championship. Tuberville remained Auburn’s coach through the 2008 season, when he resigned after going 5-7 in his 10th season.

By contrast, Auburn and momentum currently don't reside in the same zip code.

The Tigers almost certainly won’t be ranked by the AP in the preseason, after concluding 2021 on a five-game losing streak to finish at 6-7 overall.

Auburn’s quarterback in 2004, Jason Campbell, earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors. A part-time starter in 2001 and ’02, Campbell had fully assumed the starting job in ’03, and he flourished as a senior.

Comparatively, Auburn will enter this spring with a deep quarterback competition – the Tigers have five quarterbacks on scholarship – but no returning starter.

A slew of talented skill position players supplemented Campbell in ’04, led by running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown and wide receiver Courtney Taylor.

This Auburn team returns talented running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter, but the wide receiver position is mostly a blank slate, and the offensive line is a work in progress.

Auburn led the nation in scoring defense in 2004 – a feat it’s unlikely to repeat this season, considering it must replace several top performers, including linebackers Zakoby McClain and Chandler Wooten and defensive backs Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday.

Failed coup fueled Auburn in 2004

Although Auburn’s administration tried to backstab Tuberville, player support was never a problem.

"I always respected him. I respect him even more now for staying with us, even though they plotted to get him out of here," Taylor told the AP in 2004. "It takes a bigger man to stay here and face everything that went on down here during that time. I love the man."

Harsin would do well to shore up his rapport with players this season.

Multiple since-departed players from Auburn's 2021 team took to social media in recent weeks to criticize Harsin’s leadership style. Other players offered support for their embattled coach.

Perhaps Harsin surviving Auburn’s inquiry will become a rallying point for those who remain in Harsin’s program. An us-against-the-world collective mentality can be a powerful motivator.

But when you couple Auburn’s roster flaws with a schedule that ranks among the nation’s toughest, Harsin is more likely to speed along toward Tuberville’s 2008 fate than repeat the heroics of the 2004 season.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: How Bryan Harsin saga at Auburn football compares to Tommy Tuberville