At Auburn, Chizik an acquired taste

Dan Wetzel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The mood was apoplectic on the Auburn message boards, even worse on talk radio. At breakfast joints on the plains the language was saltier than the hash browns. Then there were the Alabama fans who just couldn't help themselves but snicker.

Auburn had done fired Tommy Tuberville only to hire Gene Chizik?

The guy had won five times in two seasons at Iowa State. He arrived on a 10-game losing streak. As a recruiter, he'd put together two classes ranked in the 60s nationally (perfectly average in college football's 120-team top division).

One fan even went down to the airport, waited for the returning plane of school president Jay Gouge and athletic director Jay Jacobs and proceeded to heckle them for the decision.

"We want a leader, not a loser," the guy shouted. "Five and 19 is not what we need. No to Chizik. Nooooo!"

Nick Saban's Beatles hit America-style arrival in Tuscaloosa it wasn't.

The video was first posted on and even though it offered endless comedic fodder for rival fans, it was somehow kind of therapeutic for Auburn people.

Well, Saturday night, inside Neyland Stadium, a few thousand Auburn fans were still screaming about Gene Chizik, only not in any way anyone thought possible nine months ago.

The scoreboard read 26-22 for Auburn. The record said 5-0. The head coach who was almost universally bashed was standing on the team bench post game, pointing into the bleachers at the very people who had cursed his hiring. Now they were dancing the Tennessee night away.

"When we pull up to the stadium right now, [our fans are] there waiting on our football team," Chizik would say later, and, indeed, about a thousand stayed just to wait for the buses to pull away. "We've got the best fans in the country and I want them to know, that we know, they're there and we appreciate them."

Gene Chizik and the Auburn fans, consider it love at second sight – or fifth win. All that matters is Chizik has spun this entire deal around quicker than a cyclone.

He's 47, a former linebacker and he tends to lead with his prominent square jaw. That includes into verbal punches. He's not fond of talking about things he can't control and "I don't have control over outside expectations."

So while the fan base went unhinged around him, while former players were offering lukewarm support or no comments to the Birmingham News, while alumnus Charles Barkley (among others) was questioning whether race played a role in the hiring of a five-win white guy, Chizik bulled his way into his first team meeting and made one thing clear.

This was no rebuilding effort. Auburn was still Auburn and Auburn was expected to win. Like right now.

"If I'm a senior and I'm sitting here listening to a coach tell me we're going to rebuild this thing, that doesn't make me feel very good," Chizik said Saturday. "Auburn's won a lot of games over the years, way before I got there and way after I leave. Our expectations as coaches and your expectations as players should be we need to continue to win as Auburn has won. And it's just that simple."

Simple it was because that was about all Chizik said. He wouldn't get dragged into the anger over his arrival. He wouldn't acknowledge the lack of confidence in the stands. He couldn't argue well enough to make people believe he was the right guy. Only victories could do that.

He was once the Tigers' defensive coordinator. His last season, in 2004, Auburn went 13-0. He told his new team there was no reason not to continue that streak. By that logic, dating back to 2003, he's 20-0 at Auburn.

His goal was to retain the physicality on both sides of the ball that defined this program. He wanted a team those small town, no nonsense kids would be proud to call their own.

Other than the gimmick of visiting some recruits in a white limousine, he drew little attention to himself or the program last offseason.

He was the antithesis of his fellow SEC coaching arrival, Lane Kiffin, the Mouth of the South that he bested Saturday. Kiffin felt the need to engage the league's powers, draw in the media spotlight and get everyone talking about the Volunteers and the great things they were going to do.

Chizik felt the need to just do it.

"That's our motto: 'We don't talk about it,' " running back Mario Fannin said.

If you like a team who finds no irony about having a motto that is to, essentially, not talk about the motto, then you'll like Auburn.

This has always been a blue-collar program, one built on pounding defenses and powerful running attacks. It's a school in a rural part of the country that by embracing what it is and not trying to be what it isn't, has thrived despite the presence of a certain glamour program in Tuscaloosa.

At Alabama, they ring the elegant Denny Chimes. At Auburn, they chuck toilet paper into a tree.

Chizik understood what Auburn could and couldn't be. You know what, for most people, toilet-papering Toomer's is a lot more fun than listening to some bells. He isn't apologizing for it.

His most obvious success was hiring Gus Malzahn, the whiz offensive coordinator whose innovative formations and play calling has inspired an offense that was one of the nation's worst a year ago.

It was preceded though by two equally important ideas. First was letting Malzahn recommend his position coaches, assuring a staff-wide commitment to the offense, something that crushed Tuberville's move to the spread a year ago. Second, he encouraged Malzahn to embrace the running game and realize Auburn should not become some pass happy place.

The proof is in a bruising running attack that keeps finding open spaces to roam (229 yards against UT). It's the perfect example of new ideas meeting old personalities. The players were early believers, some bristling as the negative talk they knew wasn't true lingered through the summer.

Whatever everyone thought outside the program, inside of it the confidence and expectations were as sky-high as ever.

"From Day 1 he's been pounding into our heads – championship," linebacker Craig Stevens said.

Publicly Chizik isn't so direct. He's about the next practice, the next play, the next game. He isn't one of these modern control freaks though. He's so comfortable sharing the credit that Malzahn isn't just available to speak to the media, he holds his own press conferences.

That's Chizik everyone says. And maybe that's one of the reasons his initial hiring was so rejected. It's tough enough to sell a 5-19 head coach. It's worse when he isn't even talking a big game. Kiffin only won five games in a season and a half with the Oakland Raiders too, but he had most of the Tennessee fan base fired up at his introductory press conference.

Saturday night though, Chizik was jogging from one end of Kiffin's house to the other, pumping his fist toward the stands where only Tigers faithful were left roaring.

It's Gene Chizik and his new, true believers, Auburn about to be ranked 17th nationally with a bullet and the players promising even bigger, even better.

And somewhere, an airport heckler is claiming he knew it would work all along.