AUBURN, Ala. — The Auburn football team that walks out on the practice field for a month’s worth of spring drills five days from now will be unrecognizable to most.
Thirty-three players who were a part of the Tigers’ national championship victory over Oregon two months ago are no longer on the roster, including 16 starters and both kickers.
Most of them graduated. Three left early for NFL opportunities. And five were dismissed after popping up in the police blotter, most recently four players -- Mike McNeil, Shaun Kitchens, Antonio Goodwin and Dakota Mosley -- who admitted to involvement in an armed robbery.
Here’s where coach Gene Chizik really makes his money.
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It’s an odd thing to say. He was hired to make Auburn a national player again, doing so in less time than expected with last year’s national title, the school’s first since 1957. But championships are rare, a perfect marriage of talent, timing and luck.
Coaching is part of it, but you also need the players, most of whom former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville recruited. You need things to come together at the right time, such as Cam Newton winning the Heisman Trophy and Nick Fairley emerging as Tracy Rocker Part II. And you need a few bounces to go your way, such as an overthrown pass by Clemson in overtime or a Mark Ingram fumble that hugged the sideline before going through the end zone for a touchback.
But coaches don’t stick around because of how many crystal footballs they hoist. They do because they build and maintain programs that, despite some fluctuation, don’t bottom out, especially after success breeds the burden of expectation.
Mark Richt, whose first eight years as Georgia’s coach match up with anybody’s in SEC history, didn’t begin to hear rumblings about his job until the Bulldogs started struggling to make a bowl game.
Tuberville’s perfect season didn’t last forever.
Even Mack Brown at Texas, who made the BCS title game 14 months ago and put together a solid decade of dominance, isn’t immune to criticism. One 5-7 season was all it took.
I’m not saying that will happen here. Chizik has put together strong recruiting classes the past two years and, despite a lack of seniority on next year’s team, appears to be set up well for the future.
But it’s an unforgiving business, where fans have short memories, which is why Chizik, for all he has accomplished in two years on the Plains, will be judged on how he moves the program forward in the wake of the championship.
In terms of crisis management, you can give him passing marks so far. Chizik handled the Newton saga with aplomb, guiding the Tigers through a minefield of accusations, hearsay and innuendo without letting the distraction become too great for the team.
The latest problems on the Plains -- the legal ones -- are more troubling. To his credit, Chizik didn’t hem or haw as some coaches do, not waiting for the courts to act before dismissing the four players arrested on charges of robbery, burglary and theft of property last week. Guns, forced entry and a confession made the decision a no-brainer.
But from an image standpoint, especially on the heels of Eric Smith’s dismissal earlier this month following his second arrest, the damage was done. One stupid act by a few players isn’t an indictment of an entire program, but headlines across the country still contained the words “Auburn” and “armed” and “arrest,” the kind of publicity no school wants.
So Chizik must rebuild this spring -- Auburn’s on-the-field product and its reputation.
It’s not clear which one is easier.