When Gene Chizik was hired in December of 2008, the nation laughed hysterically.
He was able to save a dying recruiting class and finish with a top-20 ranking in the recruiting ranks. He did it in style, too, rolling around Alabama in a stretch limo in a tour called the "Tiger Prowl."
The fan base was excited, but they needed Chizik to win on the football field.
In September of 2009, the Tigers took the field against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. When Chizik stepped on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, he had the weight of a 5-19 record as a head coach on his shoulders.
The Tigers faced a stiff challenge in the first half, leading just 13-10 at the break after a 50-yard field goal by Wes Byrum to end the half.
But in the second half, the Tigers exploded, outscoring the Bulldogs 24-3 and beating LTU, 37-13.
In the second game, the Tigers looked dominant early and often against Mississippi State, winning 49-24 on the Plains.
After three more wins against West Virginia, Ball State and Tennessee, folks around Auburn were all smiles.
But the Tigers couldn't escape the lack of defensive depth caused by former coach Tommy Tuberville's shortcomings in recruiting in recent years.
The Tigers were dominated by Arkansas, 44-23. They suffered a horrible upset to Kentucky at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and kept the bad play going by not even showing up in Baton Rouge, losing 31-10 to LSU.
Chizik's biggest win of the year came on Halloween, when the 24th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels came to the Plains as big favorites. Auburn crushed Ole Miss, 33-20, taking a 31-7 lead in the third quarter and never looking back.
They obviously beat Furman, because in the FBS, it should be against the NCAA rules to lose to a team with the nickname "Paladins."
They suffered a heart-breaking loss to Georgia in Athens, which set the stage for the the 74th Iron Bowl—the day Auburn football got back on its feet. The day it gained back the respect lost during the 2008 disaster. The day Gene Chizik got the respect he deserved as a head coach.
No. 2 Alabama, with an 11-0 record and the Heisman frontrunner as its running back, looked to finish 12-0 in the regular season for the second consecutive season.
Auburn, as I've been explaining, had a 7-4 record.
It seems like a total mismatch. Except...it was at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn jumped out 14-0 with big plays and a plethora of first downs.
In general championship fashion, Alabama bounced back and tied it 14-14 at halftime.
Auburn could have folded. The mighty Crimson Tide has finally awakened. But the Tigers decided not to.
Darvin Adams caught a long TD to make it 21-14 Auburn, and after several field goals by Alabama, Auburn led 21-20 in the fourth quarter.
Then, Alabama QB Greg McElroy moved Alabama down the field beautifully, and the Tide took a 26-21 lead with just over a minute left.
Auburn moved into hail mary range, but Chris Todd's prayer was not answered.
Alabama 26, Auburn 21.
When Auburn loses at Jordan-Hare, there is a deathly quiet. Especially after losing to the hated Crimson Tide.
But what instead transpired was the best fan gesture you could ever see at a sporting event in your life.
As the dejected Tigers headed back to the locker room, the crowd was on its feet. The fans were still there. They cheered, they yelled and they clapped, supporting a team that had lost to its biggest rival.
Auburn, the 10-point underdog that was expected to be splattered at its own house, put up a valiant fight against a bigger, more powerful team.
Alabama's national championship dreams almost died. But they didn't.
Auburn fans felt that despite the loss, the Tigers showed the fight that Auburn has been known for. They felt that it was a sign of winning in the future.
And they were right. Including the Outback Bowl win over Northwestern after the Iron Bowl, the Auburn University Tigers have not lost a football game since.
Chizik kept it rolling, bringing in the nation's fourth-best recruiting class that included studs like Brandon Moseley, Emory Blake and Mike Dyer.
Now, it's 2011. The Tigers have just completed a 14-0 season. Quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman. Chizik was named coach of the year by several organizations. Defensive lineman Nick Fairley won the Lombardi. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn won the Broyles Award for the nation's best assistant coach.
Yet people still aren't sure of Chizik's coaching abilities. I have no idea why.
Since the BCS title win over Oregon, the Tigers have been the hottest recruiting team in the nation. The great recruiting class hauled in by Gene Chizik has been ranked as high as No. 1 (by Scout). For the third consecutive season, Chizik had brought in a great class. Thrice now, the recruiting class has been ranked in the top 20, and twice it has been in the top five.
According to the average American college football fan, now that Cam Newton has moved on to the NFL, Auburn's football program will crawl into mediocrity, simply because Chizik rode Newton.
But that is not the case. When you tell me that Chizik is simply a one-year wonder, here are some questions that need to be considered:
1. Who hired Gus Malzahn, Trooper Taylor, Curtis Luper, Ted Roof, Jeff Grimes, etc? Gene Chizik. He hired them in December of 2008 and January of 2009. Not a single coach has left.
2. Who recruited Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, Philip Lutzenkirchen, Brandon Moseley, Emory Blake, etc? Gene Chizik.
3. Who excited the Auburn fanbase in dark times? Gene Chizik. His ability to bring former players like Bo Jackson back for games excited the fans and his creative recruiting schemes—like Tiger Prowl and Big Cat Weekend—excited the fan base. Sure, there were some minor NCAA violations that came out of Big Cat Weekend, and events like Tiger Prowl would later be banned. Which leads us to our next question...
4. Whose program has been clean as a whistle since he took over? Gene Chizik. The only trouble he has had was very minor violations coming from Big Cat Weekend, for "simulating a game day atmosphere."
Other than that, the Auburn football program has been as clean as can be. Don't try to bring up the Cam Newton saga, either, because he was not paid by Auburn. All it was was Mississippi State trying to give money to Cecil Newton, Cam's father. It didn't fall through. But hey, more people hate you when you win...ESPN.
5. Who is the best coach in America at making halftime adjustments? Gene Chizik. In 2010, Auburn trailed Alabama 24-7 and Clemson 17-3 at halftime. They also trailed by 13 to South Carolina late in the first half. No coach was better at changing the game plan at halftime and succeeding. Just watch the Iron Bowl in 2010, where Auburn came back from a 24-0 deficit in Tuscaloosa to beat the Crimson Tide, 28-27.
6. Which coach won the 2011 BCS National Championship Game? Gene Chizik. This game proved he can't just be riding Newton, because Newton didn't play well at all. However, he had players like Demond Washington, Kodi Burns, Mike Dyer and others step up. That is a testament to his coaching.
Is Auburn supposed to fade into mediocrity now? If so, somebody needs to tell Gene Chizik that.
If his career so far at Auburn is any indicator, then Auburn fans should be expecting another crystal ball sometime soon.
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