Since Gene Chizik's controversial hiring in December, Tiger fans have intently watched his progress, looking for signs that the malaise that plagued the program in the second half of 2008 will evaporate under his leadership.
We’ve seen him assemble a staff, meet with the media, recruit, make personnel decisions, deal with staff issues, handle disciplinary matters, and manage practices.
What we haven't seen is how that will all translate to the field.
In five short days, Chizik will finally get the chance to show what his Auburn team can do where it counts. Everything he’s done since arriving in Auburn in December built toward this moment.
In the end, Chizik will be judged on how well his team performs, in terms of intangibles like effort and intensity, yes, but primarily on wins and losses.
It really doesn’t matter how well he dresses. It makes no difference what kind of press conference he runs. Whether he’s a great disciplinarian or passes out ice cream cones for drug and gun possession is of little consequence. It won’t matter whether he recruits in a limo or on a four-wheeler.
He can be an Armani suit-wearing, GQ cover model who makes the press swoon, is considered a father figure by his players, and recruits in a Lear jet.
He can be a petulant mini-tyrant who snaps at the media, wears a rumpled jumpsuit, and drives around in a 1940 Ford.
Few will care if the job gets done.
All that matters is whether Gene Chizik can win at Auburn.
Since arriving in Auburn, Chizik has done many things right. Most of his decisions, to this point, seem considered and deliberate.
With kickoff just days away, here are the good, the bad, and the ugly from Chizik’s first nine months.
Chizik’s staff was decisive in naming a starting quarterback and established a clear hierarchy.
When former Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin toyed with the media a year ago, refusing to name a starter and then unveiling his co-starter surprise on the Jumbotron before the first game, even the most unaware observer knew there were major issues.
Franklin’s refusal to name a clear starter stunted the development of both quarterbacks. Chizik not only named a starter, but he also named his backup. There are no questions, and the rest of the team knows where to look for a leader.
The starter is Chris Todd. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Yes, his shoulder has supposedly been healed by surgery. Yes, he’s supposed to have a solid grasp of the game. But Todd looked abysmal far more often than he looked competent a year ago.
His fundamentals were poor. His speed is timed on a calendar. You can’t pin that all on a shoulder injury.
Todd unseated both Kodi Burns, once thought to be the heir apparent, and Neil Caudle despite both quarterbacks having all spring and summer to work on their game. It only took Todd nine practices to do so. Burns has been taken out of the quarterback rotation altogether.
Where Auburn once thought it had six quarterbacks, the truth is the team may have none.
Chizik has not brought Auburn negative press with his public comments as Lane Kiffin did at Tennessee. He’s remained low-key and largely out of the public eye.
Chizik never really says much of anything when he does speak. His public comments are typically cliché-riddled and provide little insight. His performance at SEC media days was universally panned as boring.
Too often Chizik professes not to know about specific situations about which he should have knowledge, particularly injury progress and player status. He occasionally provides vague answers that either contradict what players and assistant coaches have already said or simply don’t address the issue at hand.
He would be better served to simply refuse to discuss certain situations than to make coy or misleading comments. Those only open the door to speculation.
Chizik’s coaching staff made news with out of the box thinking in terms of recruiting. The limousine tour, initially panned, received grudging praise when it did bring positive attention to the school. The "Big Cat" weekend drew more attention to Auburn and helped bring a bevy of sought after recruits to campus.
Despite the initial splash, Auburn’s recruiting efforts have yet to land a true difference maker—the kind of recruit who can start a snowball effect. In the aftermath of the recruiting events there was rampant speculation that one or more of the bigger targets would commit and help bring momentum. That never materialized.
Recruiting is no longer a February enterprise. Most major schools already have the vast majority of their recruiting classes committed and are waiting on a few of the bigger names to round out the class and give them an added boost at the finish line. Auburn currently has 14 commits on the Rivals board.
Six SEC programs—LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina—rank ahead of the Tigers. Those six have an average of 16.5 commits. If recruiting ended today, Auburn would be outside the top 25, its worst finish in more than a decade, and trailing every primary rival.
If none of the major targets remaining on the Tiger board come through, the picture could be even bleaker.
When running back Eric Smith was involved in a parking lot altercation and charged with assault, Chizik apparently took proactive steps. Smith was not at practice, and it is not known when, or if, he will be back with the team.
This punitive action directly contrasted events at Auburn’s chief rival Alabama, where coach Nick Saban praised Courtney Upshaw as a “fine young man” and allowed him to remain at practice after he assaulted a female acquaintance.
In the long term, the willingness to do what’s right for the player and the team far outweighs the all-consuming desire to win at any cost. In the end, turning out quality individuals with a respect for the rules of society is a far greater calling than winning a football game.
Auburn players rarely make the news for off-field incidents. In the 10 years of previous coach Tommy Tuberville’s tenure, you could count the number of incidents like this on one hand.
It’s troubling for Smith to be in that situation and put his career at risk.
Chizik, although he clearly addressed the situation and has held Smith out of practice, allowed the rumor mill to percolate because he did not adequately explain his method of handling Smith’s arrest, including when or if he would be back with the team.
Information on Smith’s arrest leaked out slowly and led to much rampant (and much incorrect) speculation.
Chizik hired a quality staff, arguably as good as any in the SEC.
No one on the staff has ever worked together, so there’s no way to tell how well the individual ingredients will mesh. It’s clichéd, but also true, that a staff is only as good as the man in charge, and even the most ardent Auburn fan must admit there are reservations about Chizik’s capabilities as a head coach.
No matter how good the new staff is, it doesn’t have a full hand. Published reports indicate as few as 75 scholarship players on the roster. The linebacking corps is so thin that walk-ons could man backup roles and see significant playing time. Even the best coaches have to have competent bodies.
Auburn starts its schedule with four straight home games, and all four are winnable. A 4-0 start could do wonders for the team psyche.
All four games are also losable. Louisiana Tech is a capable team coached by Derek Dooley, promoted by some Auburn fans as a replacement for Tuberville.
There’s no way to speculate what kind of product Mississippi State will put on the field, but the Bulldogs haven’t been an easy mark for the Tigers in recent seasons. West Virginia is missing Pat White, but the Noel Devine who carved up the Auburn defense last season remains. Ball State went bowling a year ago and shouldn’t be overlooked. Auburn can’t overlook anyone at this point.
The Tigers must get off to a good start. If Auburn doesn’t start at least 3-1, the wheels could come off quickly. Three of the next four games are on the road. Chizik has never coached a road team to a victory.
Picking up his first career road win in Knoxville, Baton Rouge, or Fayetteville is a tall order. Throw in a home game against Kentucky between trips to Arkansas and Louisiana, and you’re looking at a four-game stretch that is truly make or break.
Auburn can’t afford to be 2-2 heading into a two-game road swing.
Kickoff is just five days away. In a few weeks we’ll have a much better idea if Chizik’s Auburn tenure will be good, bad, or ugly.