AUBURN, Ala. — The news that Auburn had hired Gene Chizik as its new head coach last December prompted an unprecedented reaction from the Tigers faithful.
Fans flooded Internet message boards with concerns about Chizik’s qualifications, his 5-19 record at Iowa State serving as a giant red flag. Irate callers phoned in to radio stations across Alabama.
One bombastic Auburn fan went so far as to greet athletics director Jay Jacobs at the Robert G. Pitts Airport in Opelika, booing him as he deplaned, his arms extended to signal two giant thumbs down.
Eight months later, it all seems so comical.
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Initial shock from Auburn nation turned to reluctant acceptance, then unabashed support of Chizik, who has earned mostly kudos this offseason by putting together a talented coaching staff, targeting big-name recruits on the recruiting trail and, perhaps most importantly, not yet having the opportunity to lose a game.
“The people that are going to be negative, I can’t control,” Chizik said at the time of his hire. “That’s out there for everybody to mull over themselves. But, at the end of the day, when you win, I think all of that goes away.”
That could be a tall task. Auburn didn’t do much winning last year, stumbling to a 5-7 record that was Tommy Tuberville’s worst since his first season on the Plains. Tuberville’s surprising resignation after 10 years and 85 victories triggered an overhaul of the Auburn football program, a rebuilding that started with Chizik’s hire.
“Seven losses? That’s a lifetime learning experience for me,” said All-SEC defensive end Antonio Coleman, who gave Auburn a boost by returning for his senior season. “Playing any sport, I had never lost seven games. … The next thing you get no respect from anybody. We have a chip on our shoulder and a lot of work to do.”
Auburn, which the media chose to win the SEC West a year ago, was picked to finish fifth in a highly-competitive Western Division that includes preseason No. 5 Alabama, No. 9 LSU and No. 10 Mississippi.
“Of course we look at it,” running back Ben Tate said of the predictions. “We know. We’re using that as motivation. When you’re picked high, you still want to come out and work because you have that bull’s-eye on you. Being picked so low, that’s motivation. We want to finish at the top.”
This figures to be a more harmonious group than last year, when preseason fights and coaching feuds led to one of the most dysfunctional Auburn seasons in recent memory.
“Last year, I would say we were divided,” Tate said. “It’s natural when things go badly for people to get violent and start pointing fingers at one another.”
“We were still a young team,” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “We were looking for leaders. People were coming at the other players and people were not accepting that. …
“Last year was kind of a battlefield in that no one wanted to listen because, ‘Who are you?’ This year we’ve got, ‘OK, that’s Antonio Coleman. He’s a guy that’s proved something here so I can follow him. Maybe I can be better than him.’ That’s what we’ve got going with this team.”
Making the on-field product better won’t be easy. Auburn is working with extremely low numbers, with 78 scholarship players on the roster, well below the NCAA maximum of 85. The Tigers are thin beyond the first-team units on both sides of the ball and might have to rely on freshmen to contribute immediately, a by-product of the usual attrition associated with a coaching change and proof that Tuberville’s final few signing classes were below par.
“We’ve got a lot of great, quality athletes here; we just don’t have a lot of them,” Jacobs said this summer. “Our troops are depleted, and it’s going to take a couple years. But Gene and his staff, they’re putting a foundation back in this program. They know what great looks like, and that’s what they’re building here.”
Chizik frequently speaks about returning Auburn to its roots — a hard-nosed defense complemented by a physical, smashmouth offense — citing the Tigers’ perfect 2004 season as the model. That was Chizik’s final year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, before he left for a similar position at Texas and eventually Iowa State.
Despite the overtly negative public reaction immediately following Chizik’s hire, Auburn’s players have been on board from the outset.
“Like I’ve said before, if you have one Auburn man that’s leaving, why not have another one to come in and coach,” Coleman said. “I just think it was a blessing to have an Auburn man through and through come back and coach again.”