In the end, not even the 2010 BCS title could save Gene Chizik’s job at Auburn.
The fourth-year head coach of the Tigers was informed Sunday morning after a 49-0 loss to rival Alabama that he would not be returning as the program’s head coach. Looking back across a dreadful 3-9 season, one in which Auburn was outscored 87-0 in its final two conference games against its biggest rivals, the writing was on the wall for quite some time.
Chizik finishes with a 33-19 record (15-17 in SEC play) at Auburn.
“This season demonstrated that we need a different direction to get where we want to go,” Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said in a statement. “After suffering some tough losses in a transition year in 2011, we had hoped our team would show improvement this season. Unfortunately, it has not. The competition in our league is fierce and is currently at an all-time high, and we cannot risk falling further behind by waiting another year and hoping for improvement.
“That is why after careful consideration and a thorough evaluation of our football program, I have recommended that Coach Gene Chizik not be retained.”
In his wake, Chizik leaves behind a championship trophy and a program mired in NCAA controversy. Two years removed from an NCAA investigation that dominated the college sports landscape, the program is once again under scrutiny focused on two Tigers assistants — Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper — for myriad potential violations, according to a Yahoo! Sports report last week.
Winning cures everything, though, at least in the minds of the fans and administrators. It was Chizik’s saving grace in 2010.
After an 8-5 inaugural season, the commitment of talented JUCO quarterback Cam Newton, a future Heisman winner and No. 1 NFL Draft pick, led to an unforeseen run through an SEC schedule and the BCS title game against Oregon. Despite the NCAA’s investigation of Newton’s recruitment — his father reportedly shopped his son for financial gain — Chizik was lauded as a hero. He had delivered the school’s first national title in 53 years. The NCAA reported no violations stemming from the Newton investigation, and Auburn kept its cherished trophy.
But times changed quickly.
Chizik was handed an extension immediately following the championship run, cashing in to become one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the country. His $3.5 million annual contract is expected to cost the athletic department up to $7.2 million in buyout compensation. In total, the Auburn staff’s collective buyout comes out to just over $11 million.
That’s serious money, even for a tradition-heavy SEC program.
The regret for that financial expenditure must have seeped in once Newton moved onto the NFL and Malzahn took the head coaching position at Arkansas State. At the end of the day, Chizik’s career record without Malzahn stands at just 8-28. That doesn’t sound like a championship-caliber coach, but such is the roller-coaster ride Tiger fans have ridden since Chizik’s hire in December of 2008.
“When expectations are not met, I understand changes must be made,” Chizik said in a statement.
Chizik becomes the third-consecutive Auburn coach to post an undefeated season and still eventually be fired by the school. So did Jacobs pull the plug too quickly? Probably not. Besides the NCAA mess the program is reportedly dealing with, Saturday’s blowout loss to Alabama made Auburn the first team in the FBS era to ever finish both unbeaten and winless in conference play over a three-year span. Downward trends are not often welcomed in the cutthroat SEC.
The video of Chizik first getting off the plane after being announced as Auburn’s head coach — the one with select fans vehemently screaming, “We want a leader not a loser.” — was chastised and laughed at during the team’s 2010 run, but it now seems a little more fitting after one of the worst seasons in school history.
Chizik, a former Auburn defensive coordinator, was just 5-19 as a head coach before accepting the Tigers’ position. He had never beaten a ranked opponent.
His hire was scrutinized across the country, most notably by NBA Hall of Famer and Auburn alum Charles Barkley. Many fans and pundits wanted then-Buffalo head coach Turner Gill. Chizik is now just 38-38 in his career; Gill didn’t last long at Kansas.
Funny how four short years can feel like ancient history.
It seems Auburn has gone through a full cycle of emotions and experiences since that December day.
Looking back, it appears Chizik was a product of the times: Falling into just the right situation at just the right time with just the right staff and just the right player. Some will call him a championship-winning coach. Others will look at the NCAA investigations that marred his time on The Plains. Is he the best coach to be fired four years into his tenure or the worst coach to win a BCS championship? The truth is, like most things, likely resides somewhere in the middle, clouded by trophies, NCAA rules and the highs and lows that come from finishing both first and last.
Gene Chizik’s roller coaster will cost Auburn a fortune, but, at the end of the day, the coaching change will be worth the price of admission. The only remaining question: Will Auburn find the best man for the job this time around?