Chizik vs. Tuberville: A Change in Attitude

Tommy Tuberville won six consecutive games over Alabama, but Gene Chizik brought a crystal football to the Plains. (USA Today/Robert Hanashiro)
Tommy Tuberville won six consecutive games over Alabama, but Gene Chizik brought a crystal football to the Plains. (USA Today/Robert Hanashiro) /

After the debacle of the 2003 season — huge preseason hype, an 0-2 start, Jetgate, Music City Bowl appearance, 8-5 final record — there was always a sect of the Auburn fanbase and, more importantly, powers that be that would never fully support Tommy Tuberville. It didn’t matter that, in 2004, Tuberville led Auburn to an undefeated season and its first SEC title in 15 years, or that Auburn won an unprecedented six consecutive games over hated Alabama from 2002 to ’07. Stunning wins like ’01 Florida, ’02 LSU, ’02 Alabama, ’04 and ’06 LSU, ’05 Georgia, and ’06 and ’07 Florida helped Auburn regain its footing as a big-time college football power. Despite those great times, looking back on Tuberville’s Auburn program and comparing it to Gene Chizik’s, those fans and boosters that never fully supported Tuberville were in the right.

With an attention to the running game and defense, Tuberville brought back the style of football fans had been missing since the Pat Dye Era. Under Terry Bowden, Auburn had lost its way. The running game — as well as player discipline — was ignored. Bowden attempted to imitate the trendy, pass-happy offenses of Florida’s Steve Spurrier and his father, Bobby. When it all came crashing down in 1998, Auburn fans were desperate for a return to Pat Dye football. In ’98, Terry’s Tigers averaged a miniscule 94 rushing yards per game and totaled six (!) rushing touchdowns for the entire season. Focusing mostly on recruiting flashy receivers, Bowden had forgotten that a strong running game is needed to open up the passing game — especially in the SEC. With no running game whatsoever, opposing defenses were able to focus solely on the pass and shut it down. The result: Auburn averaged 15 points and 270 yards per game and Bowden was shown the door in the middle of a 3-8 season.

Auburn had plenty of good times under Tommy Tuberville, but the Tigers should have had more. (AP Photo)
Auburn had plenty of good times under Tommy Tuberville, but the Tigers should have had more. (AP Photo) /

Fans were initially skeptical of the Tuberville hire in 1999. After all, the one SEC victory Auburn managed to claim in ’98 was over Tuberville’s Ole Miss team. With a cupboard barren of talent, the 1999 season was unsurprisingly painful. Auburn finished the year 5-6, suffering consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1980 and ’81. But Tuberville turned the program around in 2000, leading the team to a 9-2 regular season and a surprising SEC West title and appearance in the SEC Championship Game. Running back Rudi Johnson rushed for more than 1,500 yards, an astonishing 130 yards per game to give Auburn fans what they had been yearning for — a strong running attack.

During Tuberville’s tenure as Auburn head coach, the team became known for its great running backs and surprising wins over top competition. Tuberville was seen as a coach that could squeeze every ounce of talent out of a two- or three-star recruit and turn them into a fine football player. And it didn’t matter if Auburn was playing a top 5 team or in a hostile road environment, the Tigers were going to be ready to play and ready to win.

Unfortunately, Tuberville became known for a couple of other things, as well: allowing his team to have huge let downs in winnable games and not giving Auburn enough credit for being able to pull top in-state recruiting talent.

For as many surprising wins he led Auburn to in his time on the Plains, Tuberville allowed the Tigers to suffer almost as many puzzling defeats. And when Auburn lost a game it should have won, it went down in flames. There were very few losses as a favorite under Tuberville, mostly, they came as crushing blowouts. Games like ’01 Alabama, ’03 USC, ’03 and ’05 Georgia Tech, ’06 Arkansas, and ’06 Georgia showed that, against inferior competition, Tuberville had a hard time getting his team ready to play. And if the Tigers got down early, they shut it down. There was no coming back. Combining those blowouts with a few closer losses to underdogs in conference play cost Auburn a chance at winning a few more SEC titles during the 2000s. Winning six consecutive games over Alabama and an SEC title in ’04 was great, but it’s tough to look back on the Tuberville era without thinking that Auburn should have won more than one conference crown.

Tuberville’s lack of confidence in the in-state perception of the Auburn program crushed the Tigers’ recruiting efforts. He openly proclaimed that, no-matter the state of the programs, Auburn would never be able to compete with Alabama for top in-state recruits. In what was a self-fulfilling prophecy, Alabama constantly dominated Auburn in in-state recruiting, even though the Crimson Tide was in trouble with the NCAA and mired in mediocrity for most of the decade. And while Tuberville developed two- and three-star talent into bona fide All-SEC caliber talent, he missed out on top-end superstars that could have taken his teams to another level. From 2002 to his final class in ’08, Auburn averaged a No. 16 rank in final recruiting standings. While that isn’t bad, back-to-back top 5 classes under Gene Chizik prove that Tuberville should have been doing better. By the time Auburn bottomed out in 2008, not only was Tuberville missing out on plenty of top-end raw talent, the four- and five-star players he was signing were failing to qualify academically. When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama and immediately revived the Crimson Tide into a national power, it was doom for Tuberville. He had become lazy in recruiting and, outside of the six-game streak over Alabama, hadn’t done enough on the field to convince those in charge that he deserved another chance when the Tigers fell to 5-7 in ’08. (Although, it didn’t help his case that Saban and Alabama put together a 12-0 regular season that same year.) For all Tuberville had accomplished at Auburn and as high as he had raised the program, he had hit a ceiling that just wasn’t high enough.

When athletics director Jay Jacobs hired Chizik following Tuberville’s resignation/dismissal, the reaction couldn’t have been worse. Everyone remembers the disgruntled fan at the airport and the predictions by local and national media that, with Saban at Alabama, Auburn was going to enter the Dark Ages under Chizik. Chizik immediately put together a great coaching staff and, on short notice and dealing with the fallout of a coaching change, compiled a top 20 recruiting class. Again, that’s not great, but given the circumstances, it was a pleasant surprise.

The 2009 season was a mix of highs and lows that should be expected during any coach’s first season at a program. A 5-0 start surprised many, but ending the regular season with a 2-5 stretch gave Chizik’s doubters more ammunition. Even with the disappointing second half of the ’09 season, Chizik had given Auburn fans a reason to be hopeful. Despite a heartbreaking result, the Tigers, being inferior in talent, experience and, supposedly, coaching, went toe to toe with Alabama, falling 26-21 to the eventual national champion. Chizik made his players believe that they could beat the best team in the country, and they almost did.

In 2010, it became clear that Chizik was the right hire for Auburn. His recruiting class ranked in the top 5 and included junior college transfer quarterback Cam Newton. Under Tuberville, it’s highly unlikely the Tigers could have signed Newton. Tuberville wouldn’t have gone after a player that he assumed to he out of Auburn’s league. On the field, the Tigers found plenty of adversity. Auburn trailed by 10 or more points to Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. It’s a safe bet that Auburn would have lost each of those games under Tuberville, turning a 14-0 SEC and BCS championship season into a 9-4 or 8-5 Outback Bowl season. Unlike Tuberville, Chizik compiled the talent to win and mentally prepared that talent to thrive in any situation. In addition to four previously mentioned games from 2010, tight wins against Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas and LSU could have easily been losses with a team not as mentally strong as Chizik’s.

So far in 2011, Chizik continues to prove his coaching ability. In February, he continued to build for the future with another recruiting class ranked in the top 5. This Auburn team is young and inexperienced and likely looking at a rebuilding year. In tough situations like the Utah State and Mississippi State games, many other young teams would have folded under pressure and opened the season 0-2. Under Chizik that just doesn’t happen. Despite its youth, this team has loads of raw talent. And with Chizik preparing his players for anything, they stay calm under any sort of pressure. It appears that should be expected for the rest of this season and the years to come from Auburn under Chizik.

Tuberville rescued Auburn when the program was falling apart and rebuilt it into an annual contender for the SEC title. But as much good as Tuberville did for Auburn, his own perceptions of the program and inability to get his team up for any competition put a cap on what the Tigers could accomplish, and it eventually led to his own downfall. Facing a similar situation as Tuberville faced in 1999, Chizik rescued the program again in 2009. Only now, Chizik believes Auburn can compete with anyone off the field, as well as on, and his players aren’t rattled by any adversity. When Tuberville’s Tigers won the SEC in 2004, most assumed there would be more titles to come in the future. Thanks to Tuberville’s own limitations, that never panned out. After winning Auburn’s first national title since 1957, Auburn fans again expect more titles to come in the future. Under Chizik, those expectations will come to fruition. Auburn is being built into a program the likes of which Tiger fans have never seen. Even Pat Dye’s program in the 80’s will pale in comparison to what Chizik is building.

It’s too much to ask for this young team with this schedule to compete for the SEC this season, but, beginning in 2012, Auburn fans should expect their Tigers to be in the national title discussion on a yearly basis. That can all be attributed to the attitude that Chizik possesses and Tuberville lacked: with the right preparation, Auburn has the potential to be one of the absolute elite programs in the country. Under Chizik, the Tigers are well on their way.