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In Defense of Auburn & Gene Chizik (With Apologies to Tubs, Turner Gill and Charles Barkley)

Posted: Jan 27, 2009

Let's just start this TF Dispatch with the moment of controversy courtesy of Auburn's own bombthrower, Charles Barkley:

It would be stating the obvious to say that Auburn's Gene Chizik was not starting his new job on a good note.  The hue and cry was deafening.  Whenever race is involved, people feel the need to comment, and everyone did from the NY Times, Sports Illustrated and the AP to local Alabama sportswriters like Paul Finebaum, Kevin Scarbinsky, Josh Moon, and Joe Medley. Rightly or wrongly, the Chizik hire gave the sports media and beyond a chance to comment on the lack of black head coaches in college football.

In the nation's mind, it became Gene Chizik versus Turner Gill, an African-American who is the head coach at Buffalo and got a long look by Auburn.  According to many of these voices at the time, Chizik was a hack choice of Auburn racists who could not look past skin color to hire the obviously better Turner Gill.

(The Chizik hiring controversy also gave us some hilarious moments like Tim Brando's appearance on Paul Finebaum's radio show where he berated an Auburn fan and other conspiracy theory blogs about Auburn's supposed deep, dark underbelly - read here and here.)

Things quieted down a little after Barkley was arrested under suspicion of a DUI.  This led to these same national voices, such as Peter Vecsey, that were likely with Barkley on Auburn's racism to now turn their ink barrels against him.

Through it all, there was one voice of reason in the wilderness, Ron Cooper, an African-American who was a head coach at Louisville from 1995-1997 and is now LSU's D-backs coach.  This article gives Cooper's opinion of the whole Turner Gill/Gene Chizik/Charles Barkley mess.  Says Cooper:

What worked in the NFL [i.e. the Rooney Rule] is the money is not alumni, fan-based driven. The money is owner driven. The owners are making the decisions, and nobody tells the owners what to do. ... So the bottom-line thing is to win.

I know Charles [Barkley] said what he did, and Charles may be right with what he said, but that wasn't the right one for [Turner Gill]. Buffalo to Auburn? That isn't a fight you want. That isn't a fight [Gill] needs right now.

Only Cooper was willing to make the point that college head coaching jobs are not interchangeable.  Each program has its own sensibility.  Turner Gill is a Texan who played and coached at Nebraska and then Buffalo.  He has never recruited the areas that you need to do to be successful at Auburn. 

(Georgia's Rodney Garner, an Auburn alum who is African-American who also interviewed alongside Chizik, echoed Cooper's views saying that “the process played out, and I think in the end, they hired who they thought was the best fit. Charles is entitled to his opinion, but the only people who know are the ones who make the decisions.”)

[Editor's note: we recently found another great piece of writing by national sports journalist Jason Whitlock, another African-American, that further explains the importance of "fit" in college jobs and why Gill wasn't right fit at Auburn.)

Patrick Snow has posted a fantastic opus about college football recruiting in the Swampland region.  Recruiting is where success starts and ends in the Footprint.  This is largely the reason Gene Chizik was chosen over Turner Gill.  Chizik recruited well at Auburn and Texas as their respective DCs, and the word on his Iowa State recruiting was strong.

Let's get back to Tommy Tuberville for a minute because this whole discussion never starts unless there is an opening for Chizik to fill.

In 2008, Auburn had a rough season.  It started when Nick Saban's rebuilding job in Alabama kicked into high gear in only his second season.  Auburn's arch rival quickly left them in the dust with an undefeated regular season capped off with a huge Iron Bowl win.

The ever-embattled Tommy Tuberville could not survive this kind of year.

Hold on!  What?  How could Tubs not survive?  Hadn't he earned a right to come back for another year to show that he could go toe to toe with Saban?

Nope.  Here's why:

Tubs killed his own chances years ago by keeping a vendetta against key Auburn boosters who looked at replacing him a few years into his coaching tenure at Auburn.  At this point, Tubs was 32-24 - a 57% winning percentage with no SEC Championships.

After Tubs survived the infamous Jetgate incident, he went 13-0 in 2004.  This led to some very good years for Tubs at Auburn.  Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to save him from his 2008 collapse.  We can recount the reasons, but Paul Finebaum does it best with a passage from this article written a month before Tubs was replaced by Chizik:

The problem is that Tuberville's base was never really that strong in the first place. In 2003, Auburn officials had a justifiable reason to seriously evaluate Tuberville's job standing. The program was slipping and sliding all over the place. It was a close call. Very close. Still, school officials should have put him on notice that he had a year to straighten up the mess, but they overreacted and the infamous Jetgate incident occurred.

Suddenly, fans flocked toward Tuberville out of sympathy.

After the perfect season in 2004, all was forgotten. But on the other side, it was not forgiven. Now, with real and nearly absolute power, Tubs decided to do his Vladimir Putin imitation and crack down on the vanquished opposition.

In the months following Jetgate, Tuberville not only stayed mad, he got even, helping to push out William Walker, the president who helped engineer the coup, and David Housel, the athletic director. He cut off and isolated trustees who had dared to go against him, barely giving them the time of day.

Friends of Tuberville advised him he was making a grave mistake. His flippant reaction: Well, this is a family newspaper so one has to imagine.

So today, as this season has quickly been flushed down the drain, Tuberville is a man alone on an island. He has no real support in the places that really matter. His relationship with Jay Jacobs, the marionette/athletic director put in office by the Board of Trustees, is said to be glacial.

Considering the information above, is it any wonder Tuberville got the axe when his grip on the Auburn program began to slip?

Now that things have died down, it seems that Gene Chizik's hire can be more fairly evaluated.  Let's take a look at what Chizik has done.

1.  Chizik has hired a strong staff of assistant coaches who are very good recruiters from Ted Roof to Tracy Rocker to Trooper Taylor.  Former Chizik critic Kevin Scarbinsky points out that Chizik has hired quite a few African-Americans on his staff.  (Auburn did have a setback when James Willis chose to leave Chizik's staff and go to Alabama.)

2.  Chizik also hired Gus Malzahn as his OC.  Malzahn was embroiled in an Arkansas controversy recently when the high school team he coached went en mass to Fayetteville with Malzahn included late in Houston Nutt's tenure.  Malzahn and his players fled after a year, but Malzahn landed on his feet at Tulsa directing one of the best offenses of 2008.  Malzahn might be a crown jewel since he knows the spread offense which will retain the value of Tuberville's spread recruits.

3.  Chizik has Auburn competitive in recruiting already landing prospects like Tyrik Rollison, Jamar Travis, and Nosa Eguae.

So, in the end, Chizik has so far proven that he's not a stillborn hire.  If anything, Chizik has proven to be exactly what Auburn wants - Tommy Tuberville without the chip on his shoulder towards key Auburn boosters and with a strong recruiting mentality including a spread OC like Malzahn who will be given a real chance to succeed unlike Tony Franklin under Tuberville last year.

Auburn sees itself as a perennial contender for the SEC West along with Alabama and LSU.  Despite early criticism, there's little reason to believe that Chizik can't deliver on these expectations.

Whether or not Chizik succeeds will come down to him, his staff, and his players.  Even former critics like Paul Finebaum are willing to give this Chizik-led Auburn squad a chance.  This at least shows that there may well be brighter days ahead for both Auburn and Gene Chizik.

OC Gus Malzahn with Gene Chizik

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