College Football: Chizik’s hiring a surprise

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 16, 2008

By John McGrath
Tacoma News Tribune
When I grow up, I want to be Gene Chizik.
Actually, I’m seven years older than Gene Chizik, so I guess I should say: In my next life, I want to be someone like Gene Chizik.
On second thought, the point stands. I want to be Gene Chizik, the new Auburn football coach who just turned his 2-10 record at Iowa State this season into a better job, at a more established program, with a $900,000 bump in his annual income.
I want Chizik’s connections, his chutzpah, his luck and his contract. Most of all, I want the favored-customer status he’s got with that guardian angel who watches over him.
This is quite a lot to want, considering how I hadn’t given any thought to Chizik until I saw his name appear in a breaking-news scroll at the bottom of my TV screen the other day. And even then, when I saw his name, I presumed: Another fired coach. Ho-hum. ‘Tis the season of the college-coaching carousel.
Except Chizik wasn’t dumped by Iowa State. After two dismal seasons, after failing to win a game against a 2008 Big 12 Conference schedule that spared his team from having to face Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech, after his career record as a coach fell to 5-19, Chizik did something that redefines the notion of unmitigated gall.
He dumped Iowa State.
Chizik dumped it because he was craved by Auburn, where he once played linebacker and later worked as a defensive assistant. Along the way, he apparently collected a dossier of unflattering information regarding the administrators at his alma mater, who rewarded him with a $2 million-a-year deal to revive a program that hit the skids under coach Tommy Tuberville.
Tuberville’s 10-year record at Auburn ó 85-40 ó recently was determined insufficient by athletic director Jay Jacobs. The Tigers can do better, must do better. Jacobs went to work on a replacement search that included an interview with Turner Gill, architect of the University of Buffalo’s astonishing transformation from NCAA Division I obscurity to Mid-American Conference champion bound for the International Bowl.
Jacobs considered Gill’s accomplishments, and figured, nah. He’d go for gusto. He’d go with the coach whose Iowa State team opened the season with victories over South Dakota State and Kent State before slipping into a 10-game tailspin ó a losing-streak span shared by SMU, and surpassed only by the 14 straight defeats at hapless Washington.
Unlike the Huskies’ Tyrone Willingham, whose notion of radically rocking the boat was to change chewing-gum brands, Chizik made it a point to share his despair with the group. The quarterback who dropped football because he was frustrated with his playing time was chided as a quitter. A week after the Cyclones finished the season with their 10th defeat in a row, Chizik axed two assistants, and demoted his offensive and defensive coordinators.
And then, two desultory seasons into a six-year contract, he bolts for the horizons of bigger and better.
“Gene’s body of work during his 23 years in this profession,” said Auburn’s Jacobs, “is remarkable.”
What’s even more remarkable is Chizik’s ability to sustain his reputation as a defensive mastermind. Iowa State finished the season ranked No. 111 in total defense, 110th in scoring defense, 95th in rushing defense, and 115th in passing defense.
Give Chizik’s Cyclones this much: They had an impact on the Heisman Trophy race. If Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford, Texas’ Colt McCoy or Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell face the Cyclones, they complete 65 passes apiece and sustain dead-arm injuries caused by sheer fatigue.
Upon accepting the Auburn offer, Chizik astutely avoided any reference to the steaming pile of unfinished business he left at Iowa State.
“There’s one place that I’ve always wanted to return to, and that’s Auburn,” Chizik said in a statement released Sunday. “My family and I are Auburn through and through.”
With five victories in 24 games, he’s batting .208 as a head coach ó yet was rewarded with the only gig he’s ever really craved.
How cool is that? In a culture preoccupied with winning, a head coach who has lost 10 straight times ó one who blasted his quarterback and fired his assistants and demoted his coordinators before jilting the school that gave him his first shot at the big time ó hits the lucky-for-life jackpot.
He hits the jackpot because he’s got friends of distinction, willing to overlook his abysmal record since 2007 as an aberration of his 23-year body of work. He hits the jackpot because he was in the wrong place at the right time.
Gene Chiznik turns a failed audition into the opportunity of a lifetime, and all he’s required to do is to pick up the phone and say “yes.”
My hero.