Auburn's 'best fit' defense of Chizik looks lame

Dan Wetzel

Auburn's best defense against charges of racism in hiring a football coach is its administration's track record of color-blind incompetence.

Tommy Tuberville is extremely white and extremely successful, but the school inexplicably paid $5.1 million to buy him out and replace him with Gene Chizik. At Iowa State, Chizik went 5-19, making him on paper one of the worst SEC hires in years.

If you think that was smart, not even one of Auburn's famous "directed-reading" classes can save you.

The program has spun into controversy, ranging from fans depressed about the prospects of future losses to alums outraged at possible discrimination.

In the process of hiring Chizik, Auburn snubbed two prime African-American candidates.

One was Turner Gill, the University at Buffalo's miracle-working head coach. In 2006, he took over a fledgling, hopeless program that had won 10 games over the previous seven seasons. This year, his third, Buffalo captured the Mid-American Conference championship.

The other, although lacking Gill's experience, was Rodney Garner, a Leeds, Ala., native, former star player and assistant coach at Auburn. He's currently the highly regarded assistant head coach at Georgia where he's considered a master recruiter.

Neither stood a chance to Chizik, a coach on a 10-game losing streak.

"I think race was the No. 1 factor," Auburn alum Charles Barkley told ESPN. "You can say it's not about race, but you can't compare the two résumés [Gill and Chizik] and say [Chizik] deserved the job. Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé."

Auburn cared nothing about résumés. At Monday's introductory news conference Chizik repeatedly said he was the right guy because during his three years as an Auburn assistant he came to "understand" the people and the expectations of the program.

So Gill couldn't understand such deep concepts as Auburn wants to beat Alabama and win a national title (although they'll settle for the SEC)? This isn't a secret code.

Athletic director Jay Jacobs didn't offer a thoughtful, sensitive explanation. He just claimed Chizik was the "best fit" because he had a "blueprint" for success.

The definition of "fit" is a convenient, undefined term. Fit for whom? Fit for what?

Citing a "blueprint" is to say Chizik's ability to bloviate a plan counted more than Garner's and Gill's track record of whether their blueprint did or did not work.

It's all the same nebulous criteria that allows the justification of a hire and completely frustrates African-American candidates.

There are four black head coaches in major college football, including one at a BCS conference, Miami's Randy Shannon. There's no perfect number. Every school should hire regardless of race. This isn't a racial or social obligation. But what does someone like Gill need to do to become the best candidate, to be the so-called "best fit"? How do you convince one of these old boy search committees?

Barkley said he talked with Gill and Gill was concerned he'd never be a serious candidate because his wife is white. Barkley, and a number of Gill's peers in the coaching community, agreed, but encouraged him anyway. Apparently such marriages are still uncomfortable to university presidents, major boosters and assorted Klan members.

"He was concerned about having a white wife," Barkley said. "It's just very disappointing to me."

Chizik certainly did nothing at Iowa State to make anyone think he's a promising head coach, let alone capable of going head-to-head with Nick Saban. If Auburn was so intent on helping rival Alabama dominate, it could've just donated to the "Crimson Tradition" fund and spared a lot of hurt feelings.

"I just thought Turner Gill would be the perfect choice for two reasons: He's a terrific coach and we needed to make a splash," Barkley said. "I thought we had to do something spectacular to bring attention to the program. Clearly, if we'd hired a black coach, it would have created a buzz."

Just hiring Gill, regardless of his race, would've been big. The guy should be the hottest coach in the country. He was a skilled, smart quarterback at Nebraska who wasn't just a 1983 Heisman finalist but the winner of all the school's leadership and character awards.

Gill was later an assistant at Nebraska, where he helped recruit and coach three national championship teams. He was so good with quarterbacks that no less than Eric Crouch won the Heisman.

Yet, the only head job he could get was Buffalo, a fledgling program with no history and few resources. It was arguably the worst job in Division I. It's now conference champs.

That wasn't good enough for Auburn. Or Tennessee. Or Washington. Or Mississippi State. Or Clemson. Or Kansas State.

Or even Gill's own Nebraska, which last year chose LSU assistant Bo Pelini over him. Pelini may prove to be a great hire, but his résumé wasn't as strong as Gill's. While both were former NU assistants, Pelini wasn't an alumnus or a former star. He lacked the name recognition and head coaching experience of Gill.

Yet Pelini was determined to be the proverbial "best fit." How could anyone be a better fit at Nebraska than the great Turner Gill?

It was a puzzling snub, Nebraska's defense being that Gill hadn't turned the corner at UB. He has now, but the Nebraska decision haunts him because according to the Birmingham News, Auburn is whispering that if Gill was so great, why didn't his alma mater hire him?

And so the circle goes.

Just throwing out the blanket charge of racism is too easy in explaining the paucity of black coaches. Yet year after year too many of these schools justify any candidate but the black guy, moving the goal posts on them in the selection process.

When considering Chizik against Gill an "understanding" of the school counted more than head coaching success. When considering Chizik against Garner head coaching "experience" meant more than an understanding of the school.

Understand this, a proud program looks pathetic. Best fit, indeed.