Auburn coach Gene Chizik fielded a steady barrage of questions about an NCAA investigation and a reportedly testy exchange with the governing body’s enforcement director.
Repeating as national champions? Not surprisingly, that topic didn’t come up at the Southeastern Conference media days on Thursday.
Most of the key players from the Tigers’ national championship run are gone, most notably quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. The NCAA investigation into Newton’s recruitment still shadows the program and Chizik, and that was clearly evident when it was the subject of nine of the 21 questions he fielded from the podium.
Chizik was confident, if not entirely accurate, in his portrayal of the situation.
”The NCAA on more than one occasion said that Auburn has done nothing wrong in the recruitment of Cam Newton,” he said. ”Nothing’s changed. I can’t control everybody’s microphone, can’t control every opinion. I don’t try to. But I feel very good when my head hits the pillow at night.”
The NCAA reinstated Newton after Auburn briefly suspended him before the SEC championship game, saying that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that either he or the school knew of father Cecil Newton’s efforts to sell his son’s services to Mississippi State.
NCAA President Mark Emmert has since explained it as a judgment call by the reinstatement – not the enforcement – staff while acknowledging that some found the decision ”morally objectionable.”
”There was no evidence that money had changed hands and there was no evidence that Auburn University had anything to do with it,” Emmert said in February.
The NCAA has said those comments only dealt with the reinstatement decision and that a school is notified when an investigation is closed.
NCAA enforcement director Julie Roe Lach emphasized that point again after Chizik questioned her in a room full of coaches and administrators at the SEC meetings in June, according to The New York Times, which quoted four basketball caches who were present.
Chizik said Thursday that the exchange was ”not confrontational at all.”
”I was simply asking Julie, who is the top enforcement official, to clarify some process,” he said. ”I was just very appreciative that she was willing to give me some clear answers.
”I was just looking for clarification of the process, which she was happy to do,” Chizik added.
Auburn has not received an official letter of inquiry.
That hasn’t stopped the matter from remaining a hot topic, but Chizik said Auburn’s recruits don’t ask about it ”very much at all.”
And the coach did get to talk some football at media day.
The Tigers have to replace eight starters on both offense and defense, along with both kickers. That includes the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 NFL draft pick Newton and Fairley, who won the Lombardi Award and was also a first-round pick.
”Players leave, but tradition doesn’t,” tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said. ”I don’t think there’s ever going to be another Cameron Newton in college football. He did some things that were just freakish.”
The closest player Auburn has to a returning star is running back Michael Dyer, the offensive MVP of the national championship game. The Tigers will be relying heavily on players from two straight consensus top-5 recruiting classes.
Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and freshman Kiehl Frazier will battle for the starting quarterback job in preseason camp. Only one quarterback question was asked in his media day session or an earlier meeting with beat writers.
”Everybody’s going to ask about the quarterback, and rightly so,” Chizik said. ”The reality is battles going on everywhere, and a lot of young guys are going to be in the battles.”
The Tigers have only two scholarship tailbacks returning, Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Freshman Mike Blakely, a Florida signee, has transferred to Auburn but tweeted Wednesday that the NCAA had denied his appeal to be eligible this season. Chizik said Auburn is still ”working through the process” but declined to elaborate.
Lutzenkirchen said he’s OK with the low expectations facing the Tigers.
”Like last year, everybody’s pretty much underrating us and not really giving us a chance,” he said. ”That’s the way I’d rather it be. I’d rather prove everybody wrong than prove everybody right. That gives us more motivation.”