Whatever happened to former Auburn coach Gene Chizik? He’s still living in Auburn, for one. He doesn’t have any regrets, per se, about how his Tigers seemingly imploded following their 2010 championship. But if he could travel back in time he would do one thing differently, he tells me for the following piece in the The Classical:
Some myths belong to everyone, and so of course there is a Finnish Icarus, another optimist cursed with fatal ambition who nearly touched the pale arctic sun. He didn’t, because he couldn’t, and so he fell, headlong through the clouds, down and down, a lesson from the gods writ in flame and fearful velocity. You likely already know a tale along these lines.
It ends strangely, though, differently than you might expect. Our Icarus lands not on earth or sea but into the freezing steel belly of Gary Patterson’s man-making fortress, on the campus of Texas Christian University. This is a place Kobe Bryant has visited and—we can safely assume—so has/will LL Cool J. Yes, the ancient Finns predicted the wonder that is the body rejuvenator housed in TCU’s athletic department. The Finns had discerned, in reindeer entrails sprawled on snow, a great and improbable renewal.
In reality, there was nowhere for Gene Chizik to go but down after his 2010 season as Auburn’s head football coach. How swift and how vast the descent would be, though, was less easy to predict. Chizik’s Tigers won the 2010 national title, with much help from defensive tackle Nick Fairley and quarterback Cam Newton; both were juniors, both played far better than anyone had expected in that magnificent season, and both entered the NFL Draft and became first-round picks. From there, it took about a year and a half for things to fall apart.
Last fall, Auburn lost all eight of its SEC games, including the last three by scores of 21-63, 0-38 and 0-49. The day after that 49-point shutout loss to Alabama, Chizik was fired, concluding one of the most wildly disparate ten-year major college coaching runs on record. In that span, Chizik, as a defensive coordinator, coached undefeated teams at Auburn and Texas. Then, as a head coach, he bookended a 5-19 stretch at Iowa State and a 3-9 season at Auburn with the most successful three-year run in more than 120 years of Auburn football history, and the school’s second National Championship.
That rollercoaster ride is over, and Chizik is not currently working in college football. Which is how, in late September, Chizik found himself alone with me and a glass of water, 30 minutes before giving a speech to Arkansas’ largest touchdown club. This is one of the few public appearances he’s made since the firing, but he felt like he owed the event’s founder, David Bazzel. Chizik had also visited Little Rock nine years ago, that time to receive an award for the nation’s best college football assistant coach; it was another one of Bazzel’s projects. Now, he’s back, which is nice as far as favors go and all. But Chizik knows he wouldn’t be talking to me had he just done a few things differently in the last few years at Auburn.
“I think that 90 percent of everything we did was right on,” he says. There were plenty successes and “not a lot of failure but enough to have me sitting here with you today,” he said with a chuckle. “I would go back and really make sure I would never get caught in a position where I don’t have a quarterback that can, you know, grow and win and become your championship caliber quarterback.” In hindsight, then, more time should have gone into recruiting and developing successors to Newton. “We just couldn’t find a quarterback who could really compete in [the SEC]. We ended up going with a true freshman at the end of the year.”
Although his speciality is defense, Chizik knows a team ultimately goes as far as its quarterback. Every top team has a standout, he tells the Little Rock crowd: “Let me give you the case in points. We can go down the list right now. Where do you want to start? Oregon? Mariota. Wanna go to Clemson? Tajh Boyd. Want to go to Ohio State? Braxton Miller. I could go on and on.
“Want to go to A&M? Johnny Manziel.
“Want to go to Alabama? A.J. McCarron.
“I could go down the list,” he says, jabbing the podium three times with his index finger.
“I’ve had the best quarterbacks in college football history on my teams—Daunte Culpepper, Vince Young, Jason Campbell, Colt McCoy, Cam,” Chizik later tells The Buzz 103.7 FM. While their pro careers have gone in varying directions, each of those players were extraordinarily talented and, with the exception of McCoy, future NFL first-rounders. Superstars aren’t necessary to win championships, is Chizik’s point. But “you have to have a man in that position who can handle all the ups and downs and ebbs and flows that come with that position when you’re at a high profile place.” None of the Tiger quarterbacks who immediately succeeded Newton—Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier—flourished at the position. Trotter and Moseley ended up quitting the team in consecutive offseasons. Frazier later switched to wide receiver.
So this is all true, as far as it goes, but quarterbacking woes don’t explain Auburn’s disintegration, or Chizik’s long tumble from zenith.
For the rest of this piece, visit The Classical where it originally published.