Gene Chizik and Lane Kiffin: What is the Difference?

Gerald BallCorrespondent IDecember 14, 2008

Lots of people who support the Lane Kiffin hire at Tennessee oppose the Gene Chizik hire at Auburn.

They include the estimable Lisa Horne, who supports the Kiffin hire but called the Chizik hire the most puzzling in the history of college football ( To them I say: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?

I know that a primary cause of the frustration and disappointment with Auburn is that they did not hire Turner Gill, and as a result will leave Randy Shannon as the only black head coach at a BCS conference school.

(I address that thorny issue here:

Excuse me, but didn't Tennessee have the same responsibility to make every effort to hire a qualified black coach? The difference between Auburn and Tennessee is that Auburn did give two black coaches, Gill and Rodney Garner, a shot.

(Auburn also gave an opportunity to any number of qualified white coaches, like TCU's Gary Patterson, who has strangely been turned down for jobs in favor of lesser candidates for years now. Patterson hasn't had anywhere near the opportunities that his successor, Dennis Franchione, has wasted.)

Tennessee threw a pile of money at Kiffin and his suspect qualifications without making any real effort at interviewing or trying to identify more qualified black OR white candidates. 

And yes, I did call Kiffin's qualifications suspect. The guy spent two years as co-coordinator for USC and a year and a half as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

In his second year, when he didn't have Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, etc. but still had a ton of five-star recruits on offense, he managed to lose two games to mediocre Pac-10 foes, including being held without a TD by 6-7 UCLA.

Now we are not supposed to hold his Raiders experience against him, as no one can possibly succeed with Al Davis, it is said.

Fine, except that Art Shell took the Raiders to the AFC title game. Jon Gruden took the Raiders to the playoffs twice. And Bill Callahan took them to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, who has ever done ANYTHING at Iowa State EVER?

Now Gene Chizik? He was coordinator of undefeated Auburn's No. 2 ranked defense in 2004 and then went on to be the coordinator of a very opportunistic Texas defense the next year.

While that Texas defense was loaded, that Chizik defense for Auburn didn't have that many big-time recruits or high draft picks. Also, Auburn's defense had a reputation for underachieving before finally taking off under Chizik.

Meanwhile, the Texas defense was long the weak link in Mack Brown's program. Brown refused to fire his coordinator for years until it was clear that unless he made the change, he himself would be fired.

So Brown hired Greg Robinson, whose defense was not great, but good enough to get Texas into the first major bowl game of Mack Brown's long career.

But Chizik in one year (it actually takes a couple of years to pick up Chizik's complicated defense) gave Brown clearly his best defense since his days at North Carolina.

And yes, upon Chizik's leaving, Texas' defense went back to being its weak link, necessitating Brown's hiring Will Muschamp, and Texas naming Muschamp "head coach in waiting" to prevent him from leaving as Chizik did. 

So, we see tangible evidence that Gene Chizik's coaching gave great benefit to Auburn and Texas, in both cases giving those programs part of the difference they needed to become champions.

(Although it is fair to point out that the development of Vince Young at Texas and the hiring of Al Borges at Auburn played other roles.)

Did Lane Kiffin provide a similar benefit to USC? Of course not.

Quite the contrary, the playcalling of Kiffin and Sarkisian and their frustrating inability to develop or properly use USC's great skill talent on offense was the weak link that held the team back.

Again, not only did they actually lose two games in 2006, but it was only Reggie Bush's singular effort that saved them against 8-4 Fresno State plus the combination of Bush and sheer luck to save them against a Notre Dame team that Ohio State rolled up 620 yards of offense on.

That was not all. USC needed a huge performance from LenDale White to overcome 6-5 Arizona State, and didn't pull away from 3-8 Arizona until halfway through the fourth quarter.

In that game, Leinart actually had to resort to scrambling to beat Arizona's well-conceived gameplan. 

So all the people who are screaming "GENE CHIZIK IS NOT WHAT AUBURN NEEDS TO COMPETE WITH NICK SABAN"...well, what of Lane Kiffin? Excuse me, but Alabama plays Tennessee every year too.

As a matter of fact, Alabama considers Tennessee their chief rival, not Auburn, and the feeling is mutual with Tennessee fans. Just as UGA is only Tennessee's secondary rival, Auburn is only Alabama's second rival.

And further, Kiffin is in the SEC division with the better, more accomplished coaches. Urban Meyer, Steve Spurrier, Mark Richt, Rich Brooks: those guys are in the SEC East.

We can't even ignore Bobby Johnson, who got Vanderbilt to their first bowl game since 1982 and has recruited or developed future NFL players like QB Jay Cutler and record-setting WR Earl Bennett.

So not only will Kiffin be facing off against Saban every year, but he will be facing the better group of coaches in the SEC East. By contrast, once you get past Saban, the group of coaches in the SEC West is not nearly as accomplished and respected.

Les Miles has won a BCS bowl and a title with an absolutely loaded team; Bobby Petrino won the Big East title and beat Wake Forest in a BCS bowl; Houston Nutt is a proven, solid coach; and that is really just about it. 

This is the best part: Chizik actually knows something about the SEC. He has spent time in the conference as a coordinator, and further recruited against SEC teams as defensive coordinator for Central Florida.

By the way: where Chizik has been a coordinator or head coach since 1998, for 10 years, Kiffin has only served in a coordinator or head coach position for four.

Basically, Chizik has been a head coach or coordinator since Kiffin was 23 years old, and spent most of that time in the area where he will be recruiting and coaching. Kiffin, meanwhile, has no concept of recruiting and coaching in the SEC.

Kiffin betrayed his ignorance in his initial press conference with two quotes. The first quote: he spoke of drawing a line around the state of Tennessee and keeping the best prospects in.

(Tennessee by far produces the least talent of all the SEC states. Try to win with Tennessee talent, and your ceiling is 6-6.)

The second quote: he casually stated that Tennessee would beat Florida next year.

(As if Florida's accomplishments, as well as those of Nick Saban and the other SEC coaches who have been unable to beat Meyer, are meaningless. Meyer, Saban, Spurrier, and everyone else in the SEC will be sure to remind Kiffin of his comments.)

So why the outrage over the Chizik hire and the praise over the Kiffin hire? Simple: USC. More to the point: the SEC/Pac-10 thing all over again.

The media regards the Pac-10 as having much better coaching, especially in terms of the passing game, Xs and Os, and gameday coaching.

The media regards the SEC has having some of the worst coaching, relying mainly on talent and weak nonconference scheduling to dominate with the running game and the defense.

The media sees the Pac-10 as the highest level of college football, the closest there is to the NFL, and USC as the best that the Pac-10 has to offer.

So basically, the media shares Kiffin's thoughts: that USC would destroy Florida or any other SEC conference or national champion just as they did Auburn and Arkansas, and the SEC's accomplishments are meaningless because they do not include a victory against USC.

As a result, the media believes that Kiffin's bringing the USC way of doing things to the SEC will only improve the coaching and level of play in the SEC.

Of course, the media felt the same way when Ed Orgeron took over the Ole Miss program. You saw the result. It took an SEC coach to actually win with Ed Orgeron's players.

And back in the 1990s, the media also insisted that FSU and the ACC had better coaches than the SEC schools that were winning on talent.

But FSU's Brad Scott failed at South Carolina, and FSU's Mark Richt, while certainly elevating UGA's level of play, is far from the best coach in the SEC.  

But Chizik, being primarily an SEC guy, is not regarded as a guy who is going to make the SEC smarter and more modern. He is not a Pac-10 guy and moreover not a USC guy. So, he is not going to be anything special, just business as usual.

This is not to say that I agree with the Chizik hire. There were better options, including at least three of the assistants at Florida (Mullen, Strong, and McCarney) plus any number of I-AA and mid-major coaches with strong southeastern ties.

But people claiming that the Chizik hire was so horrible ought to be forced to declare what they think about the Kiffin hire. Tennessee made a much worse hire (a very inexperienced and unqualified candidate with a checkered track record and no knowledge whatsoever of SEC football) than Auburn did.

The media needs to take off their USC-loving (and SEC-hating) glasses long enough to acknowledge that.

If Chizik hires a strong staff, he can actually get good central Florida and Texas talent into Auburn, something that the Tigers have little history of attracting.

Chizik actually has the potential to make Auburn better based on his past experience with lesser (Central Florida) and better (Texas) programs. Kiffin: not so much.

There is nothing in Kiffin's past that translates to success in the SEC, and particularly at the toughest recruiting sell of SEC schools that desire to compete for conference titles.

(Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Kentucky are tougher sells in recruiting, but those schools have no SEC title aspirations).

It is only people who believe that success in the SEC is no great accomplishment who believe otherwise.


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