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Beyond the Game

For Tommy Tuberville, winning at Auburn means more than just outscoring the competition.
By Jill Ewert

Photo courtesy of
Todd Van Ernst/Auburn University

Walking through the halls of the Auburn football office, you can almost feel it. there’s something different about this athletic complex—something bigger than just sports.

Make no mistake about it, these Tigers have the same on-the-field mission as every other football team in the country. They want to win. But unlike most other teams, their definition of a “win” isn’t restricted to a scoreboard. The successes of this team are found in the graduation rates of the players, in the marriages of the coaches, in the personal development of mature young men, in the integrity of the program, and for many, in the spiritual development of all involved.

Yes, God is up to something at Auburn University, and from the looks of things, this is only the beginning.

The unique program at Auburn is a direct reflection of the heart of the man in charge. Now in his seventh season with the Tigers, head coach Tommy Tuberville has established the kind of successful program that many coaches only dream about. Last season, he guided his team to a perfect 13-0 record, a victory in the Sugar Bowl, and himself received four national coach of the year awards. But getting caught up in accolades isn’t Coach Tuberville’s style.

“It’s very easy when you become successful to think, ‘This is all about me. This is all about what I’ve done,’” he says. “But there’s no reason why Tommy Tuberville, from where he came from—from where he started—should have been sitting as a 13-0 coach, national coach of the year last year. One Guy made me that, and that was God.”

Recognizing where his strength and giftedness as a coach come from has been the driving force behind the dynamic that Tuberville has created at Auburn. With the presence of a full-time team chaplain (FCA’s Chette Williams) and the addition of a chaplaincy training director (FCA’s Wes Yeary), he has established an environment where developing the total person, not just the total player, is the priority.

“We want them to mature as 18, 19, 20, 21-year-olds and learn from their time here. Not just academics and not just sports, but spiritually,” says Tuberville. “A majority of these guys understand the reasoning behind why we have a Chette Williams and a Wes Yeary. Because we feel like we give them a light— that there’s more than just football or academics. There’s more to life than all of that. And we feel like being a Christian and understanding the difference between right and wrong is a major avenue of success—of overcoming that stage of life where sometimes you tend to not do things right—to take the easy way out.

“There are a lot of things that are cultivated through a football team in college, and we feel like cultivating them through FCA and Jesus Christ is an avenue where they can grow in all areas.”

"Winning football games is great for the university and great for our football program, but Coach Tuberville is more excited about making us into great young men.”
Auburn University WR Ben Obomanu

That desire to help the players outside of football has been one that has not gone overlooked by those it influences on the greatest level. The players themselves understand that they are being invested in and looked after in a way that isn’t typical of a college football program. In fact, the spiritual environment has even been a determining factor for some when deciding to attend Auburn.

One such example is senior wide receiver and Auburn FCA President, Ben Obomanu. “When I came to Auburn, one of the greatest things was meeting [Chette Williams],” he says. “It actually let me know that they have more than just football going on here. They actually try to build young peoples’ lives into a life that will be pleasing to God—one that He would be proud of. Winning football games is great for the university and great for our football program, but Coach Tuberville is more excited about making us into great young men.”

For Tuberville, the vision of exactly how he would run his own football program began to form in his mind long before he ever earned the title “coach.” He set out early in life with one single goal: to become a head football coach at the Division I level.

But that goal was certainly not an easy one to achieve. Not the biggest or the fastest player at Southern Arkansas University, Tuberville endured four years as a walk-on with the school’s football team…just for the experience.

“I knew that if I was going to achieve my goal of becoming a head football coach at a major university, I was going to have a major drawback if I hadn’t played college football,” says Tuberville. “So I stayed out there and worked. I did everything I possibly could do to learn while I was there.

“Now, there were many times in that four years that I was playing and basically being used as a blocking dummy that I thought, ‘Why am I out here? Why am I doing this?’ But somebody was telling me, and I think it was God telling me, Listen, you can do this.’ And after I worked my way through that, it’s been easier to make sacrifices working my way up the ranks.”

At the time, Tuberville may not have been quite as aware of God’s hand in the situation as he is now. Growing up in the church, the coach was always a believer. But it wasn’t until 1983 when he truly recognized his need for a personal relationship with Christ.

“I realized that I needed somebody else on my team,” he says, “not just to help me become a better coach, or reach a goal that would make me a head football coach on this level, but to make me a better person—somebody that could help other people.”

During this time, one thing that proved to be most beneficial to Tuberville’s personal growth in the Lord was the same thing he uses with his current staff and players at Auburn: team chaplains. His first experience came at the University of Miami where Tuberville was an assistant coach, and then at Ole’ Miss, where he took over as head coach in 1995.

In his new role as a head coach at a Division I university, Tuberville took a major interest in officially bringing someone on staff to care for the spiritual needs of his athletes and coaches.That man was Wes Yeary, the same man who now serves under Tuberville at Auburn after transferring from Ole’ Miss this past summer.

“That was an exciting start because it was all new,” says Yeary, whose responsibility at Ole’ Miss included not only serving as football chaplain, but also establishing the entire campus ministry. “I got to spend those first few months just building relationships and seeing what God opened to start that ministry. But Coach Tuberville was the key to opening so many doors there, because as he did, other coaches responded, as well.”

Todd Van Ernst/Auburn Univ.

FCA's Chette Williams prayes with junior linebacker Kevis Burnam.

What Tuberville started in Mississippi with Yeary, he continued when he arrived at Auburn in 1999, this time with a chaplain named Chette Williams. “When [Coach Tuberville] came here from Ole’ Miss, one of the first things he wanted to do was establish that program that he’d had with Wes here at Auburn,” says Williams.“So he called me and said, ‘I have a defensive coordinator and an offensive coordinator, and I’m looking for a spiritual coordinator.’”

What he got was not only a spiritual coordinator, but a man who would prove to be invaluable to helping the Auburn Tigers achieve one of college football’s most coveted prizes: the undefeated season. And it was the guidance and leadership of Williams to which Tuberville attributes the positive team atmosphere that allowed such success.

“[Chette] was the most important man in our building,” says Tuberville. “We had a team that was 13-0, and you’d think that the ego of the team would be phenomenal. But it was just the opposite. They loved each other. And Chette made the difference.”

When talking about both Williams and Yeary, Tuberville simply can’t withhold his compliments. He attributes much of his personal and professional success to their friendship and spiritual guidance. But it isn’t just a one-way street. Both chaplains say they have benefited from Tuberville’s spiritual wisdom, as well.

“You talk about us serving him in our roles as spiritual coordinators, but he’s helped me tremendously in my relationship with the Lord,” says Williams. “He’s lifted me up when I’ve been down.”

“He truly models Christ in his demeanor,” adds Yeary. “For me, it’s an example of what Christ is doing in his life.”

Yet with all of the spirituality surrounding Tuberville and the Auburn program, one thing that the coach is careful not to do is to force his faith on anyone. But as the head coach, and as a Christian, teaching from the Bible is simply Tuberville’s way of running his program.

“We don’t push it on anybody. We don’t push any type of religion,” he says. “We basically teach from the Bible, and we give them the opportunity to read the Bible and, through Wes and Chette, explain that they have a need for that.”

Adds Obomanu, “Coach Tuberville does a lot of things that aren’t mandatory, but so many of our teammates will participate in things like going to church on Sunday as a team and prayer meetings on Friday nights before games. These are things that Coach doesn’t force upon us, but because they allow us to do so many things, it really shows that they want us to have that strong spiritual background so that we can make it through any kind of situation that we might face.”

What makes this program seem even more unnatural in the world of college athletics is Tuberville’s desire to share this kind of off-the-field success with his competitors.

“I think that what Wes and Chette have done over the last 10 years has caught on to some degree, and we’d like to see it grow,” says Tuberville. “I’ll be the first to tell you that coaches are selfish. We don’t share offensive plays very often if

something works. We’re stingy about that. Same thing with defensive blitzes. But we’ve talked about this—about the need for this program at other places.”

And that is the hope, and the reason for Yeary’s FCA transfer. In his new role at Auburn, Yeary will eventually begin training potential chaplains to take on the role at universities across the country based on the system that Tuberville has created at Auburn.

Says Yeary, “God’s given him a Kingdom vision—that it’s bigger than Auburn. Because of the change he’s seen in young men’s lives, he knows the impact it could make across the country.”

For now, the positive impact of Coach Tommy Tuberville, his staff and players will continue filtering through the changed lives of those inside the program. Where it will go in the future, only the Lord knows. But one thing’s for certain, God’s up to something at Auburn, and this is only the beginning.

Ministry Partners

Photo courtesy of Dave Mercado

L to R: Wes Yeary, Coach Tuberville, Chette Williams

FCA’s Chette Williams and Wes Yeary both feel blessed to be in positions to make such a difference in the lives of athletes and coaches as part of the chaplain program at Auburn.

“The humbling part is that I get to see God’s hand at work every day,” says Yeary. “Sometimes at night I’m so humbled that I get down on my knees just to say, ‘Wow, God. That You would allow us to be part of something that You’re doing in people’s lives.’ It brings tears to your eyes.”

Adds Williams, “The blessing that we have as chaplains so often is to be used by God in a way that is unique and different from many other ministries. To be a chaplain, you don’t demand respect from players and coaches, you earn that respect. And then you earn the right to be heard. And because of that, players and coaches trust you. They come in and share things with you that they won’t share with others. The crises are different every day, but the blessing is that there’s somebody there for them.”

But it isn’t only the Auburn players and coaches who benefit from the presence of chaplains. With the addition of Yeary to the staff this season, both men are gaining much in the form of a new ministry partnership.

“Just teaming up with Wes is a huge blessing to me because of the man of God that he is,” says Williams. “You know, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’* And I think Wes is really sharpening me, and I hope that we’re sharpening each other.”

*Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)

Copyright 2007 Sharing the Victory Magazine

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