Defection of James Willis Highlights Three Levels of Auburn Fandom

Kevin StricklandCorrespondent IJune 9, 2016

In early December, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs unleashed a maelstrom when he selected former Auburn defensive coordinator and then Iowa State head coach Gene Chizik to succeed Tommy Tuberville as head of the Auburn football program.

Jacobs promised a spare-no-expense nationwide search for the best and brightest coach available. In Chizik he selected a coach in the midst of a 10-game losing streak who had a dismal 5-19 record in his two years as head coach of the ISU Cyclones.

Fan and alumni reaction was, at best, outraged. National media heaped universal scorn on the program.

After the initial shock subsided, the Auburn family split into three relatively distinct camps, each with a different perspective on the hire and what it portends for Auburn.

That familial split was highlighted this week in the reaction to news that Auburn linebacker coach James Willis, the lone holdover from Tommy Tuberville’s coaching staff, was leaving the Tigers to take a similar position with the rival Alabama Crimson Tide.

In responding to the news, each group displayed the distinct traits that separate them.

Let’s call the first group of Auburn fans Chizikites. They represent one extreme.

Chizikites buy into the new Auburn coach hook, line, and sinker. For every negative about his coaching record or performance, they have a ready answer.

Chizikites are convinced that he is the coach for the job, that he’s breaking ground no other coach could break, he’s making inroads no other coach could pave, and he’s working harder than any other coach could work.

Most Chizikites are dismissive and highly critical of Tuberville and his coaching staff, despite a solid 10-year record at the school.

Chizik is Auburn’s newest savior. Tuberville and his crew are rubbish. Good riddance. 

Chizik’s coaching hires are among the most brilliant of all time. He has assembled a staff that none can rival, one that is the envy of college football nationwide.

Chizikites greet his every move with rejoicing and celebration. If a recruit commits, it is because Chizik wowed him with his magnificence. If one departs the fold, it is someone else’s fault. Never Chizik.

They are quick to paint anyone who isn’t as enthusiastic about Chizik as being against Auburn. In doing so, Chizikites generally fail to separate the man from the program.

When Willis defected to the rival Tide, Chizikites rallied to the defense of their anointed leader.

Willis leaving is a blessing in disguise. It will allow Chizik to hire an even better coach in his place. Chizik didn’t want him anyway because he didn’t fit into the overall plan. 

Chizikites, although vocal, make up a small portion of the Auburn fanbase.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Anti-Chizikites. As expected, the Anti crowd views the hiring of Chizik as nothing short of a disaster. They express grave concern that he will drag the program down to depths from which it may take years to recover.

According to the Antis, Chizik’s failures as a head coach at ISU clearly point out that while he may be a fantastic defensive coordinator, he does not have the credentials to manage a program. 

Antis scrutinize his every move, looking for flaws or indications that he might already be failing.

Most Antis refuse to recognize positive accomplishments, such as the hiring of what is, on paper, a competent and qualified staff.  They often point to recruiting decommits, typical in a transitional period, as evidence of his incompetence. 

Antis do not hope that Chizik fails, but most anticipate he will eventually do so. Antis agree that if failure is the ultimate outcome, it will hopefully come quickly so Auburn can move ahead with the search for his replacement with as little damage to the program as possible.

Antis view the defection of Willis to Alabama as an epic failure on the part of Chizik. He took several weeks to decide to re-hire Willis, and then Chizik disrespected Willis by hiring other coaches to perform similar duties at substantially higher pay. This alone is ample evidence of Chizik’s inability to comprehend the big picture.

Antis are known to carry torches and pitchforks.

As with Chizikites, the number of Antis is relatively small but vocal.

The vast majority of Auburn fans fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

A month removed from the initial shock of the hire, most of the Auburn family has settled into wait and see mode.  Let’s call them the Rationals.

Rationals are encouraged by the hires that Chizik made, particularly his effort to bring in coaches with a reputation for aggressive recruiting.

They are encouraged to see Chizik working hard on the recruiting trail, even if early results are mixed.

Rationals are excited to hear him saying the right things at the right times, to hear him profess his devotion to the program they love, and to watch him put that devotion into motion.

Most look at the upcoming season with a mixture of caution and optimism.

Rationals recognize the gnawing concern presented by Chizik’s undeniable 5-19 Iowa State catastrophe, but hope that he learned from the experience. They also acknowledge the extenuating circumstances that may have led to the overall result.

Most Rational Auburn fans look at the 5-7 collapse of 2008 and realize that with a made extra point here or a third-down stop there, the team could just as easily been 9-3 and come closer to living up to preseason expectations.

It’s not as if Chizik is walking into a nuclear wasteland and will be tasked with rebuilding from the ground up. Rational Auburn fans hope he can rectify some of the glaring problems that plagued the 2008 squad both from a coaching and execution standpoint. They anticipate immediate improvement. 

His task is a course correction, not an entirely new navigational chart. His mission should be to bring the team and coaching staff to the same page and right the ship before it truly lurches into uncharted waters.

When Willis opted to depart the Tigers, Rational Auburn fans reacted with disappointment and frustration.

There was some irritation that Willis chose the Tigers' biggest rival as his new destination, and there were questions as to what led Willis to make the decision.

Overall, however, the Rationals didn’t see the defection of Willis as either a confirmation or condemnation of Chizik. It was one man’s decision, and their primary concern was how it affected Auburn in the immediate issue of recruiting.

To most Rationals, the departure of Willis wasn’t the best news of the day, but it fell short of reaching the apocalyptic threshold.  It was a bump in the road, albeit a painful one.

If you listen to talk radio or read most Internet message boards, the vitriolic roaring from Chizikites and Antis would have you believe that the Chizik hire and his subsequent recruiting and hiring decisions had split the Auburn fanbase into two warring factions.

Not true.

In reality Rationals far outnumber both of the two more strident camps combined. Chizik may not be their coach, but he is Auburn’s coach, and as such they support him until and unless he proves unable to be the man Auburn needs for now and for the future. They're just not nearly as vocal about it.

For the time being the Rationals reserve judgment, hoping for and expecting the best.

Kevin Strickland is the lead columnist for, a website devoted to college sports discussion in general and Auburn sports in particular. He has covered college and professional sports for 15 years. 


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