AUBURN, Ala. -- The airport heckler, once the face of disillusioned Auburn’s fans in the immediate aftermath of Gene Chizik’s hiring two years ago, is now but a humorous footnote, immortalized on YouTube for eternity as a reminder not to jump to conclusions.
A little over two years since a fan was so upset about news of Chizik’s hiring that he felt prompted to boo Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs on the airport tarmac, Jacobs has his vindication.
Auburn is the BCS champion -- its first national championship since 1957 -- just like Chizik said it would be when he was first hired.
“Our goal is to win championships and to produce some great men out of this university,” Chizik said shortly after being named coach. “Jay, you have the right guy.”
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But how did it happen so quickly? How did the coach that went 5-19 in two forgettable years at Iowa State turn the lagging Tigers, who went 5-7 the year before his arrival, to national champions in two years? There are several key moments.
It started with his staff. Given a sizable budget to put together the young, aggressive group that would hit the recruiting trail with gusto, Chizik assembled an ideal roster of assistants. He got lively recruiters such as Trooper Taylor, Curtis Luper and Tommy Thigpen. He brought an Auburn legend, Tracy Rocker, back to his roots.
But most importantly, he brought in Gus Malzahn, whose first foray into coaching in the SEC didn’t go as planned. Dismissed as a high school coach with a gimmicky offense, Malzahn lasted only a year at Arkansas before bolting for Tulsa, where he had free rein to run his offense.
Chizik didn’t know Malzahn, but had seen enough of Tulsa to make him priority No. 1 on his coaching staff. The rest is history. Auburn, which ranked 104th nationally in total offense during Tommy Tuberville’s final season in 2008, shot up to 16th the following year and seventh this year.
Defensively, Chizik hired Ted Roof, a veteran coach who specializes in aggressive defenses that forces turnovers. Although Roof has drawn his fair share of criticism over two years, with the unenviable task of having to defend teams doing everything they can to outscore Malzahn’s offense, he proved more than capable in the BCS title game, when Auburn held Oregon 30 points below its season average and held the Ducks’ vaunted running game to 75 yards.
But Chizik’s success is more than just because of coaching. He and his staff revitalized Auburn’s recruiting with bold initiatives.
Chizik sent his coaches to high schools en masse in limousines during the evaluation period his first spring. The Tiger Prowl was scoffed at as gimmicky at first but garnered the school national attention at a down time on the college football calendar. Soon, other schools followed suit, to the point that the NCAA changed its rules to prevent such showmanship.
Coupled with the Big Cat Weekend, an on-campus event that got the school a number of secondary violations but also a handful of top-level recruits, Auburn ended up with a consensus top-five recruiting class in 2010.
But this year’s success has more to do with how Chizik connected with Tuberville’s holdovers. There were 22 seniors who finished the season on the team, a large group that experienced Auburn’s bitter 5-7 season just two years earlier.
Chizik credits them for accepting him.
“You come to a university and you expect things to be one way, then all of a sudden halfway through your tenure everything changes,” he said. “These new guys come in and they say, ‘Hey, look, this is what we’re going to do. We’re changing everything that you thought. We’re changing the way you think. We are changing everything about what you do, and you need to be all in.’
“So that’s hard. And I have got a high level of respect for our guys that have been able to adapt and adjust to something totally new, something totally unexpected. I mean, we started two years ago. I told them, I said, ‘I don’t expect you to trust me and I don’t want you to trust me until I have earned it; I certainly don’t trust you until you’ve earned my trust.’ ”
Chizik added key cogs along the way from the junior college ranks. He persuaded defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a Tuberville commitment, to stick with the Tigers in 2009 and added quarterback Cam Newton before last season. Both emerged as dominant players who were crucial to the Tigers’ championship run.
However, Chizik’s best job might have been when allegations of impropriety during Newton’s recruitment hit their apex in November.
Amid a media maelstrom, Chizik didn’t let it become a distraction, something his players appreciate.
“He is a player’s coach,” Newton said. “I mean, he really is. He takes pride in making his players very appreciative of playing for him. Ever since I have known him, he’s a humble guy, a family-oriented guy. And you’ve got to respect that.”
At this point, the airport heckler might be inclined to agree.