Gene Chizik: Is the Jury Still Out?

Lee FetnerContributor IJanuary 27, 2011

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Head coach Gene Chizik of the Auburn Tigers poses with the Coaches trophys during a press conference for the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at the JW Marriott Camelback Inn on January 11, 2011 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It was the worst of times for the Auburn program. The team’s 5-6 record kept them from postseason play and their once beloved coach Tommy Tuberville was out of a job.

Archrival ’Bama was experiencing a rebirth under Nick Saban, and their 36-0 victory was the most lopsided Iron Bowl score since the early 1960s.

For the first time in over a decade, Auburn was in search of a head coach, and with their regression coming on the heels of Alabama’s resurgence, many believed this to be the most important hire in Auburn’s history.

Some felt Auburn should pursue a proven winner such as Gary Patterson, Mike Leach or Butch Davis. Others championed Turner Gill, not just for his coaching abilities, but for the historical significance in Gill being African-American.

And of course, there were those who felt Tuberville should have never been fired in the first place.

The name Gene Chizik was nowhere on the periphery, but had he been mentioned, no one would have agreed that Auburn should hire him. But that’s exactly what they did.

Chizik’s arrival created enough controversy to make any public relations director flush with anxiety. Chizik’s disastrous 5-19 record with Iowa State was heavily scrutinized, and his hiring over Gill led to charges of racism.

Auburn fans were understandably troubled by this, but what angered them the most was that the administration had simply hired who they believed was a bad coach.

Chizik’s brilliant performance as a defensive coordinator carried no weight; his pedigree was judged solely by a losing record in the Big 12 North, and that hardly inspired confidence.

Alabama fans had visions of Bear Bryant/Doug Barfield Part Deux, and with National Signing Day just two months away, few believed any blue-chip recruits would have anything to do with the university.

There were no surprises or preconceived notions when Chizik arrived on The Plains. He knew leaders in the African-American community resented him, and he knew the Auburn fans hated him. He knew the media doubted his abilities, and he knew the ‘Bama fans were laughing at him.

To his credit, with so much turmoil and negativity surrounding his hire, Chizik appeared poised and completely unaffected. With the weight of the world on his shoulders and many hoping he would fail, Chizik did the only thing he knew to dohe went to work.

His first move as head coach was to hire Tulsa offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Less than a year later, one of the worst offenses in the country had become one of the best. He then hired a staff of all-star assistants like Curtis Luper and Trooper Taylor, and they hit the recruiting trail.

The days of Auburn coaches making their annual January pilgrimage to Arkansas for a weekend of duck hunting were over; Chizik was in charge now, and signing blue chip athletes was every bit as important as winning football games.

And while the Crimson Tide were preparing for their title game showdown with the Texas Longhorns, Chizik was recruiting a certain quarterback who would lead Auburn to its first national championship in 53 years.

There have been 25 head coaches in Auburn’s 118-year history, and only two of them have won a national championship. One is Ralph (Shug) Jordan, their beloved patriarch for whom the stadium is named, and the other is Chizik.

But though Auburn fans adore Chizik for delivering what they dreamed of for over five decades, many believe he has yet to come full circle. Most pundits credit Auburn’s title run as the product of Malzahn‘s scheme, a senior-laden offensive line (none of which were recruited by Chizik) and the spectacular play of Cam Newton.

Chizik, being a defensive-minded coach, has made it quite clear he does not interfere with Malzahn’s running of the offense. One could assume that Chizik’s laissez-faire approach has allowed Malzahn to succeed, but what happens when he leaves Auburn for a head coaching position?

If and when that happens, will Chizik change to more of a hands-on approach, or will he be so lucky that his replacement garners the same amount of confidence in him as Malzahn?

If Malzahn stays or an equally talented coordinator takes his place, Auburn fans can no doubt live with Chizik turning the offense loose. However, having to stomach the lackluster play of his defense the last two years they cannot.

Nick Fairley notwithstanding, his unit has been very much pedestrian the past two years, and one is left to wonder if he takes that same hands-off approach with his defensive coordinator Ted Roof.

If in fact that is the case, what exactly does Chizik do, and why is Roof still in Auburn? If he is hands-on and that’s the best he can do, then he should thank his lucky stars that Malzahn is there to bail him out. Either way it is a tense situation for Chizik, and with eight new defensive starters for 2011, it’s likely things could only get worse.

There will be a host of challenges awaiting Chizik’s Auburn Tigers when the 2011 football season kicks off. Along with the eight defensive starters, he replaces both a punter and a kicker, and Malzahn’s offense will see seven newcomers (including four linemen and a quarterback).

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama returns seven starters on offense, 10 on defense and Saban remains the head coach.

If the defense falters, more calls will be made for Roof‘s head, and Chizik could be forced to fire him (or make excuses for why he won‘t). Such are the challenges of a head football coach in the SEC, but few doubt Chizik is up to the task.

Challenges are nothing new to him. Two years ago, he was at the depths of the coaching world, and now he is a national champion. But with each success comes a different set of challenges, and the one he faces now is proving his success at Auburn is sustainable.