Auburn made one of the more puzzling hires in recent memory in 2009 when they hired Gene Chizik to replace Tommy Tuberville as their school's head football coach.
Chizik became one of the hottest young coaches in all of college football after serving as co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach on Texas’ 2005 National Title team.
It was a 20-year journey for Chizik that began with him serving as defensive coordinator at Seminole County High School in Pinellas County, Florida in 1986. The coach had paid his dues, climbed his way up the massive coaching ladder and now it seemed that Gene Chizik would finally be given the opportunity to become head coach at a major Division I college football program.
That opportunity finally came full circle on Nov. 27, 2006 when Gene Chizik was introduced as the new head football coach of the Iowa State Cyclones. Chizik was tasked with taking over an Iowa State team that had limped to a 4-8 finish in 2006 and was desperately seeking to breathe new life into their program.
When Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard was asked about Gene Chizik by the media he simply told reporters “he's the real deal.”
Chizik showed Cyclone fans a glimpse of the potential Pollard described on Sept. 15, 2007 when he notched his first career win at the school with a 15-13 victory against in-state rival Iowa.
Unfortunately for Gene Chizik and the Iowa State faithful that early September afternoon would prove to be the high point of his two-year coaching tenure at the school. Chizik would lose 17 of his next 21 games at the school and finish his time at Iowa State with a dismal career record of 5-19.
Only two years removed from being one of the brightest up-and-coming coaches in college football, Gene Chizik was now on the hot seat at Iowa State and was starting to look like a lot more hype rather than “the real deal.”
While all of this was transpiring in Aimes, Iowa there was also plenty of uncertainty in Auburn, Alabama.
Longtime Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville resigned from Auburn after a disappointing 5-7 season and tremendous pressure from alumni and boosters.
One of the early front-runners to succeed Tuberville at Auburn was Buffalo head coach Turner Gill. Gill was receiving major attention across the college landscape after he guided longtime lightweight Buffalo to a Mid-American Conference Championship in 2008. The consensus thinking was that Turner Gill was ready to take the next step in his coaching career and when it was reported that Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs asked permission to speak with Gill it seemed only logical that Auburn may have found its next head coach in the former Nebraska quarterback.
Jay Jacobs threw Auburn fans the ultimate curveball though when he introduced Gene Chizik as Auburn’s new head coach on Dec. 15, 2008.
Jacobs professed his confidence in Chizik at a press conference introducing the new coach.
"I'm confident that Gene can build upon the foundation that has been established and make this a program that competes for championships on a consistent basis."
Many fans didn’t have the same confidence in Gene Chizik that Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs had though. Charles Barkley in particular who is one of the school's most famous alums cried foul at the decision to hire Chizik and commented that he felt there were ulterior motives for passing on Turner Gill.
"I think race was the No. 1 factor," said Barkley, who played basketball for three seasons at Auburn during the early 1980s. "You can say it's not about race, but you can't compare the two résumés and say [Chizik] deserved the job. Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé."
Despite the chilly reception Chizik received from Auburn fans, the coach hit the ground running and immediately hit the recruiting trail in an attempt to lure some top talent back to Auburn.
One of Chizik’s first stops on the recruiting trail was Little Rock Christian High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Chizik along with many other top coaches were descending on the Arkansas High School to watch running back Michael Dyer. Dyer a 5'8", 201 lb. highly touted back already had scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Oregon. Despite the strong competition, Gene Chizik along with newly hired offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn sold Dyer on what they were trying to build at Auburn.
While Dyer was the crown jewel of Chizik’s 2010 class as far as prep talent was concerned, the coach would ultimately strike gold in the junior college ranks were he found quarterback Cameron Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
Chizik’s first season on the plains resulted in an 8-5 record and an Outback Bowl victory over Northwestern. Offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn’s impact was felt immediately as the Tigers offense finished 16th best in the country, which was a strong improvement from the ill-fated Tony Franklin debacle the year before. Ultimately though, Chizik and the Tigers were unable to knock off league giants such as Alabama, LSU and Georgia.
Auburn went into the 2010 season ranked 22nd in the Associated Press Preseason Poll and despite excitement about the team and new quarterback Cam Newton amongst fans and alumni, the Tigers' hated rival from Tuscaloosa was stealing all the headlines nationally. It didn’t take long for people to see though that Guz Malzahn had found the ideal quarterback for his offense in Newton. Slowly but surely Chizik’s group ascended up the polls along with the Heisman candidacy of Cameron Newton.
By the time No. 2 Auburn took the field in their SEC Championship matchup against South Carolina it seemed like ancient history when athletic director Jay Jacobs was booed as he introduced the Tiger fanbase to Chizik.
The rest as you now know is history and the coach who began his coaching career at Seminole County High School enjoyed his storybook ending hoisting the crystal ball and winning a National Championship for his dream school.
Any questions about Chizik’s resume or lack thereof have dissipated and the man that was initially so maligned is now the toast of the town on Toomer’s Corner.
Last night Chizik proudly held college football’s ultimate prize and had a message for the Auburn faithful.
"Fifty-three years, baby!" coach Gene Chizik said to the cheering crowd. "This is for you. War Eagle!"