The Winning Gene: Gene Chizik's Journey from Failure to Champion
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On Friday, Auburn head coach Gene Chizik was awarded a five-year contract extension and a yearly raise of over a million dollars, making his annual salary $3.5 million, making him college football's ninth-highest paid coach.
This is well-deserved for the often-criticized Chizik. His journey to become one of college football's elite coaches, however, hasn't exactly been as smooth as the likes of Nick Saban, Chip Kelly and Chris Peterson.
Gene Chizik's college football journey, like any coach, had humble beginnings. Chizik was a graduate assistant with the Clemson Tigers in 1988 and 1989. Afterward, he was hired by the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders as the defensive ends coach. Considering he played linebacker at Florida, it's apparent by now he's a defensive-minded guy.
In 1992, he left Middle Tennessee for Stephen F. Austin, where he would coach the linebackers for four seasons. From 1996-1997, he served as defensive coordinator for the Aggies before leaving to take the defensive coordinator job with Central Florida, where he would eventually meet his wife.
He got his first big gig in 2002, when he was hired by Auburn to be the defensive coordinator. His defenses were very successful, especially in 2004, when his defense gave up 11 points per game and the Tigers went 13-0.
Following the 2004 season, he was hired by the Texas Longhorns at the same position. In his first season there, the Longhorns went 13-0 and won the national title against USC in one of the greatest national title games of all time. After 2006, Chizik became a head coach for the first time, being hired by Big 12 bottom feeder Iowa State, the only FBS program that has never won an outright conference championship of any kind.
His two years in Ames, Iowa were a train wreck. His Cyclones went 5-19 in two seasons, playing poorly on both sides of the ball. Chizik, once a hot coaching commodity, had failed in his big chance to be a head coach in college football.
Or had he? While his time in Ames was horrid, his timing couldn't have been better.
In 2008 the Auburn Tigers, a preseason top 10 team, went 5-7, their first losing season in almost a decade. Tommy Tuberville, then the head coach at Auburn, had an 80-33 record at Auburn going into the season. He has been there for a decade and successfully led the undefeated 2004 squad. None could question his love for Auburn either. However, recruiting and personnel mistakes in the later years of his time at Auburn doomed him, as his team ran out of depth, talent and leadership in 2008. After a 36-0 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Tuberville resigned.
Auburn, the 13th-winningest program in college football, was without a coach. Prime candidates to replace Tuberville were TCU's Gary Patterson, Texas Tech's Mike Leach and Buffalo's Turner Gill, who had led the Bulls to their first bowl game.
However, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, then relatively new to the position, made arguably the most questionable and controversial hiring in the history of college football...by hiring Gene Chizik from Iowa State.
The nation scratched its head. Many Auburn fans were wondering why Jacobs made this move. Sure, Chizik was the defensive coordinator at Auburn from 2002-2004, but he also had failed as a head coach, going 5-19 at Iowa State.
People in Ames were angry. While Chizik had failed his first two years, things were finally looking up, and then Chizik left. But you just can't turn down Auburn to stay with Iowa State. That would be like throwing away caviar to eat Frosted Flakes.
Still, the hire was confusing for many and made many people in the Auburn Family angry. After the hiring was announced, Jay Jacobs was booed by an angry fan at the Opelika airport. A few days later, Chizik received a warm greeting from Auburn fans at the airport, but many Alabama fans showed up as well to applaud Jay Jacobs for making the hire that would "ruin Auburn football forever."
How did you feel about Chizik when he was hired, and how do you feel now?
Nobody gave Chizik a chance to be successful. I mean, if he went 5-19 at Iowa State in the weak Big 12 North, how would he handle the SEC? Why not get Gary Patterson or Turner Gill (who was hired by Kansas)?
On Bleacher Report alone, the hiring was bashed. Here is an article about how Chizik would fail. And here. Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel wrote a piece when Chizik was hired by Auburn that stated that Chizik "has no chance to succeed at Auburn." Before the season, ESPN.com posted an article giving 50 predictions for college football. One prediction said that after Auburn starts 0-3, Chizik is fired and Gus Malzahn becomes the interim coach.
Speaking of Gus Malzahn, this is where Chizik's perception on the Plains begins to change. He puts together a great staff consisting of guys like offensive genius Gus Malzahn, energetic receivers coach Trooper Taylor, defensive-minded Ted Roof (formerly Duke's head coach), recruiting magician and running backs coach Curtis Luper, former Auburn legend Tracy Rocker and tough-minded offensive line coach Jeff Grimes.
Across the nation, however, none of these hirings changed anybody's opinion of Chizik. America looked at Chizik through the eyes of Jay Jacobs' heckler: "5-19! 5-19 is not what we need! We need a leader, not a loser!"
Never before has a college football hiring been lambasted this much. On the popular Fox Sports South show SEC Gridiron Live, one analyst picked Louisiana Tech over Auburn in the season opener. Of course, studio analysts' predictions don't determine games—or else Notre Dame would be national champions more often than not.
Auburn's first game with Chizik was at home against Louisiana Tech, where the Tigers were just 13-point favorites over Derek Dooley's Bulldogs. Auburn fell behind 7-3 and led just 13-10 at halftime. In the second half, Gus Malzahn's offense got hot and the defense shut the Bulldogs down. The Tigers won in a rout, 37-13. The Gene Chizik era was off to a good start.
In the next game against Mississippi State and fellow rookie coach Dan Mullen, Auburn's offense rolled early and never looked back, as the Tigers beat the Starkville Dogs 49-24.
Gene Chizik had won his first two games as Auburn head coach, but his first true test came in week three at home against West Virginia, who beat Auburn 34-17 the previous year. A huge rain delay pushed kickoff back an hour, but the fans in the stands, especially the student section, had fun in the rain. All the delay did was make the crowd even more eager for a win. After falling behind 14-0 in the opening moments and trailing by 11 after the first quarter, Auburn rallied to win 41-30 in a nationally televised contest.
Chizik's first road game at Auburn came in week five, when his surprising 4-0 Tigers went to Knoxville to face Tennessee, who was in year one with superstar head coach Lane Kiffin. Auburn was clearly better, as they led 23-6 in the fourth quarter in route to a 26-22 win. Auburn was 5-0, earned a top 25 ranking and left the country questioning how Auburn was winning with Gene "5-19" Chizik as head coach.
The end of the season wasn't as fun for Auburn fans. The team went 2-4 in the next six games, losing to Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU and Georgia. In the Iron Bowl at home against second-ranked Alabama, Auburn wasn't supposed to have a chance. A win would give Alabama a 12-0 regular season. They had the Heisman Trophy front-runner in RB Mark Ingram. Auburn shut down Ingram and led 14-0 early, and the Tigers led for the whole game....well, almost. Alabama ate up over seven minutes on their game-winning drive to take their first lead, 26-21. Auburn's Hail Mary failed.
The Tigers had lost to the hated Crimson Tide and head coach Nick Saban, but instead of shocked silence, something strange happened that night. The crowd didn't hurry to leave the stadium. As the Tigers left the field in sadness, the crowd rose to its feet and gave the team a standing ovation. Even in defeat, the fans were proud.
And in almost storybook fashion, the Tigers haven't lost since.
After a wild win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, Chizik's staff brought in a stellar recruiting class that ranked fourth in the nation. The class included stud RB Mike Dyer, but it was a JUCO recruit that Auburn was—and is—very happy they landed.
He was ranked as the top JUCO prospect in the country, and with a vacancy at QB, Chizik and company signed him. He won the starting job after spring practice after leaving a great impression on coaches. His name is Cameron Jerrell Newton.
Newton and star defensive tackle Nick Fairley led Auburn to a 14-0 season and a national championship—the football program's first title in 53 years. Newton won the Heisman, Fairley won the Lombardi, Malzahn won assistant of the year and the focus of this article, Gene Chizik, was chosen by a majority of organizations as college football's coach of the year.
Auburn reeled in another top five class, including future star Kiehl Frazier. Since Chizik brought his staff in, only one coach, Tracy Rocker, has left (to take a job with the NFL's Tennessee Titans).
Gene Chizik came to Auburn with a 5-19 record. He was given no chance to succeed. At Auburn, Gene Chizik is 22-5, the second-highest winning percentage through two years in Auburn history. He has two bowl wins, an SEC title and a national title. He's coached a Heisman winner and a Lombardi winner. He plans on releasing a book soon.
The other coaching candidates back in 2009 haven't fared too well. Gary Patterson has had great success at TCU, but Mike Leach was fired by Texas Tech in 2009 after he allegedly locked a player with a concussion in a dark building. Turner Gill remained at Buffalo in 2009, but he was hired by Kansas. In his first season, the Jayhawks went 3-9.
"We want a leader, not a loser!" Luckily for Auburn, that exactly what they got. They got a leader, not a loser.
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