July 3, 2008
On May 21, 2008, Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville set out on a tour of the Middle East to boost morale with the fighting soldiers, but returned with his own spirits lifted.
Tuberville, along with four other head coaches; Mark Richt of Georgia, Randy Shannon of Miama (Fla.), Jack Siedlecki of Yale and Charlie Weiss of Notre Dame, began their travels at Scott Air Force Base in St. Louis where they boarded a KC-135 tanker aircraft for a 20-hour flight to the Middle East.
"Now that aircraft was built in 1963," Tuberville said. "They had to put in make-shift seats. There's no air-conditioning and very little heat so it was either too hot or too cold. There were times when we sat on the runway in the Middle East for 20 or 30 minutes and it would be 150 degrees in there."
The KC-135 is a refueler jet that can carry up to 83,000 pounds of fuel. Developed in the 1950s, the jet allows other aircrafts to refuel mid-air while making flights over the ocean.
Tuberville said despite the heat and the long ride, the crew of the aircraft made the trip worthwhile.
"The crewman who stayed on the craft with us for seven days were great," he said. "They let us watch the refueling in the back of the plane and they let us come up to the cock pit."
Twenty-six-year-old Tech Sergeant Chris Norris, a boom operator from Kansas, was one of the flight crew members who showed the football coaches how they live on what he described as "the bus." Norris' job is to refuel the other aircrafts in-flight at 300 miles per hour.
"One of the other planes was getting ready to refuel and coach Tuberville said, `that's pretty close.' I said, `It's going to get a lot closer," Norris said. "The refueling planes get within about 20 feet of the aircraft. Tuberville was asking all kinds of questions about whether we were safe. I told him that we were as safe as we were going to be."
In between fill-ups, Norris sat down with the coaches and talked about football. He was deployed during the 2007 bowl season, but hopes to be home for this year's games. He said he is a huge college football fan, but having met Tuberville, Shannon, Richt, Siedlecki and Weiss, he now has five teams to follow and root for in 2008.
Talking with the coaches Norris also found that he and the coaches shared a common bond.
"In the off season all they want to do is spend time with their families. That's all we think about too; getting back home to the family."
One of the pilots on the flight, Eric Junkins, spoke with the coaches in between his flight shifts. He said the questioning between the two parties was a two way street.
"I was more inquisitive about them and their history and they seemed more interested in us and ours," Junkins, an Atlanta, native and University of Georgia alum, said.
When the caravan finally arrived in the Middle East, they were greeted by 130 to 140-degree temperatures. Tuberville found himself missing the 100-degree two-a-day practices of August.
"It is hard to explain how hot 130 degrees is because there is no vegetation and no trees; it's all sand," the coach said. "Early in the morning it is already 90 to 95, and when the sun comes up it hits that sand and it hits you from all directions."
Everyone had to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants to protect themselves from the elements. The military also provides the troops with thousands of gallons of bottled water to keep hydrated in the desert heat.
The group moved on to the U.S.S. Nassau, operated by the Navy, and spent 28 hours with the crew. The ship holds a crew of 2,500, including 2,000 Marines. The marines had been deployed from the ship the day before, but Tuberville and the other coaches had the opportunity to observe and visit with the Navy crew members.
"They work very hard on those ships," Tuberville said. "I was really amazed at how well they work together with as many days as they spend together."
Tuberville and the rest of the college coaches returned to dry land and prepared for a flag football game between soldiers. Tuberville and Richt teamed up to coach one side and Shannon, Siedlecki and Weiss coached the other.
The soldiers had prepared for the seven-on-seven contest for two months, clearing a field in the sand and putting up lights. They also lined the field themselves and had been practicing for the one-hour game.
The coaches of the Southeastern Conference came out with the win when they kept the opposition from capitalizing on a two-point conversion. The winning team was given Under Armour shirts and everyone celebrated with a postgame barbeque.
"We were fortunate to win in the end, but it was all for fun," Tuberville said. "It was nice to let them relax and enjoy something that they don't normally get to see."
Although Tuberville coached alongside one of his conference foes, he assured that their camaraderie during the trip would not affect their rivalry come Nov. 15.
"We are still rivals and that game is still one of the biggest games of the year, excluding the Iron Bowl," Tuberville said. "I look forward to that game."
Following their friendly game, the caravan made their way home, but when they landed in Washington, D.C., at Andrews Air Force Base, they had a surprise waiting for them. President George W. Bush asked the coaches to come visit with him at the White House on Memorial Day.
"We jumped off the plane, took a shower, put on a suit and went over to the White House," Tuberville said.
The president awaited Tuberville and his traveling mates in the Oval Office after visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"He could not believe we had flown 18 hours, gotten off the plane and came straight to see him," Tuberville said. "He said, `Man I would have gone straight to bed because I have made that trip several times and I know how tough it is.'"
The head coaches chatted with the Commander-in-Chief about their visit with the troops and then they talked about football. President Bush, a Texas A&M fan, was curious to know how the coaches thought this season would play out on the gridiron.
"He asked us questions about the team and he knows a lot about the SEC," Tuberville said. "You would think that the President of the United States would not have time for college football, but it goes to show how important college football is to a lot of people, especially the President."
In turn, the coaches also had an opportunity to speak to Bush about his team and game plans for rest of his term.
"He has been a war-time president for almost all of his two terms. The more you are in a situation like that, the more negative it gets and the more people hammer you. You know, everyone is concerned about the economy, but you don't have an economy if you don't have a free country and that's what he is trying to get a hold of."
After visiting with Bush, the President held a press conference for the coaches to thank them for taking the time to visit with the men and women defending this country. From the White House, the coaches all went their separate ways and flew home for some much-needed rest.
Upon returning to their homes, both Tuberville and Richt reflected on how a trip to visit the troops would inspire their players.
"It was really good to meet so many of our troops," Richt said. "We got to see how motivated they are. We thought we went to uplift their spirits, but they uplifted our spirits. I feel good about their might and sophistication. The message they wanted us to send to our team and fans and the American people is to believe in what they are doing. What they are doing is important and it is not being done in vain."
Tuberville concluded that a trip to the Middle East would give his players some perspective about the game they play compared to the battle the soldiers wage.
"I wish I could have taken my players over there to be a part of this. I think they really would have learned, `Hey, I've got it pretty good over here.' A lot of times you think that this generation is a little bit aloof and they don't care much because they have so many material things, but I was really impressed by the attitude of all the young people over there. "
The head coach also gained a better understanding of what the President and the troops are doing for the country and the world.
"As one of the generals told me, he said, `Coach, ya'll play 12 games a-year. We play one game here, and that's it. We have no choice but to win this game and all of our troops have to understand that because it is for the betterment of not just this country, but for the world'.
They are trying to team everybody together for a common cause, for freedom. To me, they look like they are doing a great job."