For Gene Chizik, being the head coach at Auburn was a dream. That dream was realized in December of 2008, when Auburn parted ways with 10-year coach Tommy Tuberville. Chizik’s hiring brought on a media nightmare. He was just 5-19 at Iowa State. He was expected to do little at Auburn. In a way, he met the expectations of doom from the media. But that wasn’t before leading Auburn to the greatest season in school history.
Four years since that fateful day that Gene Chizik was hired, the situation has changed. Gene Chizik was officially let go on November 25, 2012. His final record at Auburn was 33-19.
It’s s sad way to end a tenure, for sure. Gene Chizik, for all intents and purposes, is a great guy. Nobody who’s met him will tell you anything different. He’s a Christian man, a good father and a good husband. He’s a very good role model. But despite that and a magical season two years ago, change in the program was needed.
After he was controversially hired in December of 2008, he salvaged a recruiting class that was falling apart, then made an excellent decision by hiring Tulsa offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to run an Auburn offense that averaged 17 points a game in 2008. He brought in an exciting, fresh staff featuring the likes of Tracy Rocker, Jeff Grimes, Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper.
Excitement was cranked up a little bit when Auburn put up big offensive numbers in the spring game. Given the dreadful offense fans had to deal with the year before, that was enough to breathe some life into fans.
Chizik’s first game at Auburn was very impressive. The Tigers beat a tough Louisiana Tech team (coached by the great Derek Dooley), 37-13, by putting up over 500 yards while allowing a shade over 200 to the Bulldogs. After a 49-24 win over Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State team, Auburn hosted West Virginia in one of the best nights in Jordan-Hare history. After a huge storm delayed the game by a couple of hours, the Tigers and Mountaineers put on a show. The Tigers defeated West Virginia, 41-30, in a game in which the teams combined for over 900 yards of offense. That has gone down as “The Night We Saw The Rain.”
A few weeks later, 4-0 Auburn paid a visit to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Volunteers, who were coached by an energetic young coach named Lane Kiffin. Auburn’s defense dominated most of the game. The Tigers led 23-6 in the fourth quarter. The Tigers won the game, 26-22. Afterwards, the Tigers suffered three straight losses to Arkansas, Kentucky and LSU before upsetting #24 Ole Miss, 33-20. The Tigers lost to Georgia 31-24 to enter the Iron Bowl 7-4.
The #2 Crimson Tide was 11-0 and one game away from a #1 vs. #2 showdown vs. Florida. Nick Saban’s team had one of the nation’s best defenses and a Heisman frontrunner named Mark Ingram. But Auburn played very well, jumping out to a 14-0 lead using explosive plays, lengthy drives and stingy defense. Auburn’s lead was cut to 21-20 in the fourth quarter before Greg McElroy led the Tide on a game-winning drive. Alabama scored with just a minute remaining, and Auburn’s Hail Mary fell incomplete. Alabama was victorious, 26-21, but Tiger fans gave the team a standing ovation after the game. The program was headed in the right direction.
Auburn ended the 2009 season with a wild Outback Bowl win over Northwestern. Northwestern QB Mike Kafka broke bowl records for completions, attempts and yards. He threw for 5 TDs and 5 INTs. Auburn won the game, 38-35 in overtime. The day before, Auburn signed a JUCO quarterback from Blinn named Cameron Newton.
The rest was history. Auburn’s offense produced at a historic rate. The defense was anchored by All-American Nick Fairley. The Tigers piled on thrilling wins. Throughout the season, magic continued to build up. Auburn rolled up victories over Mississippi State, Clemson, South Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas. After Auburn defeated #6 LSU at Jordan-Hare, the Tigers became #1 in the BCS standings and Cam Newton had officially become the guy to beat for the Heisman.
Auburn beat Georgia 49-31 to clinch the SEC West, and then came that fateful day in Tuscaloosa. The skies were gray. The air was chilly. Alabama entered the game ranked #11, but they had won 20 straight games at Bryant-Denny Stadium. After the Tide stormed out to a 21-0 first quarter lead, it looked like Auburn was about to fall. The Tide dominated the first half. At one point, Alabama was outgaining Auburn 341-2. But Alabama turned the ball over on multiple red zone trips, so despite going ahead 24-0, the Tide went into the locker room up just 24-7, which was not a safe lead over a team like Auburn. The Tigers dominated the second half, and a touchdown pass from Newton to Philip Lutzenkirchen with 11 minutes left lifted Auburn to a 28-27 win.
After routing South Carolina in the SEC Championship by 39 points, Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide. Auburn capped the magical season by beating Oregon on a last-second field goal, 22-19.
Auburn fans were in the stands in Glendale crying tears of joy. It was the best night in Auburn football history. The Tigers, after countless near-misses, were finally national champions. For one night, the whole college football world looked up to Auburn. Gene Chizik, likewise, was the toast of Auburn. He was a national championship-winning head coach, and he followed it with a #1 overall recruiting class.
That’s when things turned southward. After winning the title, Gene Chizik was seemingly out to prove he had more influence than people gave him credit for. He completely abandoned his style and became a meddler and a control freak. This is when he lost control of the program. This was the turning point in his career.
Fused with his lack of control, his inability to develop his recruits and recruit the right players showed itself on the field. Auburn overachieved in 2011, going 8-5 with five blowout losses and many close wins. The 2012 team went 3-9, 0-8 in the SEC, and just like that, Gene Chizik was gone.
So, was the Chizik era a success? Was it a failure? Whatever it was, it was weird. In a span of four years, Auburn went from bad to average to historically great to average to historically bad.
It’s all a matter of opinion, but if you ask me, Gene Chizik’s tenure at Auburn was a success. Despite some embarrassing losses (particularly in 2012), he brought a national title to Auburn. He had Cam Newton, sure, but he hired an offensive mastermind, inherited 24 seniors, had the nation’s best offensive line by far, had a defensive line that was very deep and talented and had a manageable schedule. It was the perfect storm.
Chizik held the team together under public scrutiny about the program and Cam Newton, even when the going got tough. Gene Chizik held the team together when they fell behind 17-0 to Clemson. He held the team together when Kentucky stormed back from a 31-14 deficit to tie the game. He held the team together when Georgia jumped out to a 21-7 first quarter lead. He held the team together when they were down 24-0 to Nick Saban.
That’s a dang good coaching job, if you ask me.
It ended very sourly, but it needed to happen. Gene had to go. The program was going nowhere, and it was all Chizik’s fault. But despite that, Auburn will always look back on him fondly as not only a national champion, but more importantly, an Auburn man.
War Eagle, Gene.