Tigers looking to make a statement after 5-7 season, leadership change
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — It’s been nearly nine months since Gene Chizik was hired as Auburn’s head coach. That time has been filled with a seemingly endless parade of practices, preparation and platitudes, none of which has given a clue as to how the Tigers will fare in their season opener tonight against Louisiana Tech.
Even Chizik admits its hard not to second-guess himself on the eve of the season.
“Really, you’re always thinking along those lines,” he said. “I don’t think that ever leaves you. ‘Did we do enough? Did we do too much?’ It’s really human nature to look back and say those things, but I think we’ve been very thorough. We’ve just got to go out and play now.”
Chizik finally takes the field as the Tigers’ 26th head coach tonight at Jordan-Hare Stadium, hoping to get his tenure off to a good start. Auburn head coaches have a 16-8-1 record in their debuts, with four of the last five — Tommy Tuberville, Terry Bowden, Pat Dye and Ralph “Shug” Jordan — notching wins.
Beating an upstart Louisiana Tech won’t define Chizik’s Auburn career, but a victory would certainly calm the nerves of fans who are still skittish about the coach’s 5-19 record in two seasons at Iowa State.
“I don’t think it’s going to make or break the season with a fast start but it certainly makes things a little bit easier because you can go back and say, ‘This is what we’ve been saying,’ and you can see the results have been favorable,” Chizik said.
“When you can do that early, it can help propel yourself into the next game,” he said. “If you can’t, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of all the world, but you have to go back to work and gain the confidence of your team. So I think it’s an important deal.”
History does not shine favorably on first-year head coaches in the SEC. Of the 32 new coaches hired since 1992, when the league split into its current two-division format, only 16 have finished .500 or better, with the average win total being 5.9 games.
Even Auburn’s most successful coaches didn’t fare too well during their first season. Tuberville and Dye both went 5-6, while Jordan was 5-5. Only Bowden bucked the trend, finishing a perfect 11-0, although the Tigers were banned from postseason play that year.
But Bowden is the exception to the rule. Of the 17 SEC coaches since 1992 who inherited sub-.500 teams, only eight led their first-year squad to a record better than .500. Of that group, only three won eight or more games: Houston Nutt at Arkansas in 1998 and Ole Miss last year, and Nick Saban at LSU in 2000.
That could mean an uphill climb for Chizik, who inherited an Auburn group that slumped to a 5-7 record last season.
“We’ve done this long enough to know that there are a lot of growing pains that go with young teams and there will be growing pains that go with a new staff,” Chizik said. “For us, we have a good head on our shoulders about how to manage our football team.”
Louisiana Tech, despite being 13 1/2-point underdogs, could make things difficult. The Bulldogs — led by up-and-coming coach Derek Dooley — are no pushover, returning 17 starters from a team that went 8-5 last season and won the school’s first bowl game in 32 years.
“It’s kind of scary,” Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman said. “You can’t underestimate them because they have a great football team. … You can’t roll your helmets out and beat them just because you’re Auburn.”
That attitude permeates the Auburn locker room. Despite an offseason filled with optimism, the Tigers have no delusions about their place in the SEC right now.
“Let’s be honest, last year we were a 5-7 ballclub,” tight end Tommy Trott said. “Besides a whole lot of summer preparation, we haven’t proven anything different on the field. There’s no game that we should go out there and should win this year. So we’ve got to go out there, and we’ve got to fight, we’ve got to battle.”