By GUERRY CLEGG
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
For all of the positive bullet points on Auburn football coach Gene Chizik’s resume — and the list is lengthy and impressive — there is one line that was impossible to ignore:
Five and nineteen.
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Never mind that Chizik’s less-than-stellar head coaching record at Iowa State could be written off to contributing factors. On the surface, it was hard to justify that record as improvement over Tommy Tuberville’s mostly successful tenure at Auburn.
It certainly didn’t help that Auburn’s blood rival, Alabama, had just regained the grip it held on the state for the better part of four decades, give or take a few noteworthy blips during the Pat Dye years. As the Tuberville era at Auburn imploded, Tigers fans’ worst fears were becoming a reality. Nick Saban had the Crimson Tide rolling to a perfect regular season.
Even Chizik’s first season, a distinct turnaround from the disastrous 2008 ordeal, was overshadowed by the Tide’s charge to their 13th national championship. The uncivil segment of Bama fans — which I’d like to believe is a vocal minority — wasted no opportunity to gloat over every victory and pronounce that the cow college finally and permanently had been put back in its rightful place as Bama’s personal serf.
Yet, much has changed less than a year removed from the Crimson Tide’s perfect season, highlighted by the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram. It’s Auburn that remains undefeated and sporting the leading Heisman contender. Even Ingram hinted that he might vote for Cam Newton, which is a testament to Ingram’s character and maturity.
Make no mistake, Auburn has not caught up with Alabama in overall talent. Take any player away from Bama and the Tide still would be a national championship contender. Take Newton away from Auburn and the Tigers would be scuffling to keep their heads above water in the SEC.
But, as one of my former colleagues correctly noted, that’s irrelevant because the Tigers do have Newton. They also have a supporting cast that believes it can beat anybody.
And much of the credit for all of this should go to Chizik. What he has done in less than two years is nothing short of remarkable. It’s often said that coaches and quarterbacks get too much credit. In Auburn’s case, it’s almost impossible to give Chizik and Newton too much credit.
From Day 1, Chizik has done everything right. He assembled a strong staff of recruiters and coaches. As Saban has continued to reel in blue-chip recruits, Chizik has not been outpaced. His first full season of recruiting landed running back Michael Dyer — and nearly Marcus Lattimore.
Time will tell, but what appears to be unfolding is something unpredented: Auburn and Alabama both occupying spots among the nation’s elite on a yearly basis. Until now, it has seemed that one program’s success came at the expense of the other. If the overzealous fans on both sides could take one eye off the other, they would realize two powerhouses can reside in one state. Indeed, it hasn’t been that long that Florida State, Miami and Florida were regulars in the top 10.
Oh, but what about the NCAA investigating Newton? Maybe there’s something to it. Maybe this is another Reggie Bush scandal unfolding. Let’s hope not. Let’s hope it’s nothing more than a rogue supporter trying to manipulate a college kid and his family. That alone would be despicable. But if there’s any truth that Auburn did something scandalous, it won’t benefit Alabama.
If you’re an Alabama fan and believe you have the best coach and best tradition in college football, do you really need Auburn to stumble?
That is for contemplation after all the facts are known. For now, there’s something more enjoyable taking place: The South’s best college football rivalry may be getting better than ever.
— Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger- enquirer.com