Chizik Constantly Earning his Stripes
By BJ Bennett
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As Gene Chizik prepares to take on the likes of Alabama and LSU in his fourth season at Auburn, he does so with an under-appreciated resume on his desk.
It's been an uphill fight for Gene Chizik since he was introduced as the head football coach at Auburn, and to a certain extent, understandably so. Two years after arch rival Alabama brought in Nick Saban to lead their program, the Tigers turned to the former assistant Chizik. Despite the familiarity, the faithful greeted the new hire with arms crossed and an angry scowl. Some fans booed Chizik upon his flight's arrival into to town. His 5-19 record in two years as the head coach at Iowa State, most deemed, was hardly the right springboard into SEC prominence.
Despite his struggles in his first head coaching job, administrators saw promise in Chizik's sterling work as an assistant. Auburn went 30-9 in his three seasons as defensive coordinator (2002-2004) and led the nation in scoring defense in Chizik's final year. That fall, with the Tigers going 13-0, he was presented with the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. Chizik then moved on to Texas where he helped the Longhorns win the 2005 BCS National Championship.
"I know that we have found the right fit for Auburn," the school's athletic director Jay Jacobs said, amidst much criticism, upon the hiring. "Gene's body of work during his 23 years in this profession is remarkable. He has a strong knowledge of this athletics program, this university and the community, and he knows how to be successful in the Southeastern Conference. He is a high-energy coach that is an outstanding motivator and demands a tough, physical style of football."
Three full seasons later, the program's first national championship since 1957 in hand, Chizik still has his critics. Auburn was recently picked to finish 4th in the SEC West at league media days, a seemingly-fitting segway for some to critique and question Chizik's job security and stature.
The most common argument for detractors is the idea that Chizik's success should be attributed completely to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and 2011 number one NFL Draft pick Cameron Newton. Scoring 51 total touchdowns, Newton's impact on that title team cannot be overstated. The big picture, however, overwhelmingly suggests that Chizik isn't the only head coach to have benefited from such a star. Seven of the last eight national champions had a Heisman Trophy finalist on their roster; eight of the last nine title game losers had a Heisman Trophy finalist on their team. The new winningest coach in major college football history, Bobby Bowden, had separate Heisman Trophy winners lead him to both of his championship game triumphs. Winning with great players is no novel concept.
Newton's name will long be a storied one in college football, but that doesn't mean Chizik's should be completely wiped out. He identified a player who proved to be the ideal fit for Gus Malzahn's offensive scheme, brought him to campus, and made history.
In his two years without number two, Chizik has gone 8-5 both times. Last season was a rebuilding year on the Plains and, at times, it showed. Of Auburn's five losses, all of them were by at least 14 points. The Tigers were not competitive in no-shows against Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. Season highlights instead came in wins over South Carolina, Florida and Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. After a young football team slowly gained some traction a year ago, expectations are tentatively up a notch in 2012.
"December 31st, I thought it was a big moment for us. You might ask, well the year before you played in the national championship, now you're in the Chick-fil-A Bowl? But it was a very big moment for us because that night there were a lot of young players that stepped up to the plate and we beat a very good team in Virginia," Chizik explained at SEC Media Days. "I think that gave us some momentum as we propelled ourselves through the off-season. I don't think there's any question that it put some of our young guys on the map in terms of confidence. Since then, it's really been a good thing watching our guys grow. I think a year ago today, as I stood up here, I think we're in a much stronger position as a football team than we were a year ago. I really believe that."
As Chizik prepares to take on the likes of Alabama and LSU in his fourth season at Auburn, he does so with a relatively-unheralded and underappreciated resume on his desk. Chizik has the highest winning percentage (75%) of any coach in school history since the late 1800s. Like it or not, since the time the Wright brothers started dabbling in aviation, Chzik has won football games at a rate higher than anyone else. He and Saban are the only coaches ever to lead a team to 14 wins in a single season. He and Les Miles are the only current coaches in the SEC to have won at least eight games in each of their years in the league. Chizik has accomplished all of this, mind you, in an era where his division has been touted by some as the most difficult the game has ever seen.
In review, Chizik has been apart of three undefeated teams, two as a defensive coordinator and one as a head coach. He is the only coach in the conference to have been named the national head coach and assistant coach of the year during his career.
This season will be an important one for Chizik and the Tigers as Auburn looks to gain leverage in the constant power struggle that is the mighty SEC West. Now two years removed from Newton's notoriety, the college football public is waiting to see if Chizik can prove himself once again. It's a sentiment of constant evaluation and having to earn the benefit of the doubt the coaching veteran knows all too well.