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January 7, 2011

Chizik silences critics with fast rise at Auburn

MORE: BCS Title Game Central

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The voices in the background boom.


"We want a leader, not a loser!"

"Give us [Turner] Gill! Not Chizik!"

"5-19 is not what we need!"

"I'll take Brady Hoke! Patrick Nix! Any of them!"

It's all on video. Just search for "Chizik, boo" on YouTube. You'll find it quickly.

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs ignored the heckling as he walked off a plane and onto the tarmac in December 2008. Jacobs had just returned from talking to Gene Chizik, the then-Iowa State coach who had emerged as the front-runner to replace Tommy Tuberville as the Tigers' coach. A few days later, Jacobs hired Chizik, a move at the time that was widely panned.

Now, a bit more than two years later, Jacobs looks like a genius. Chizik has the Tigers in position to win their first national championship since 1957; they play Oregon on Monday night in the BCS national championship game.

"He's a very good operator, CEO, delegates great and lets his people coach," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "You know his mind-set is tough and physical. He has those qualities and you know his players will play off that. Tough, committed guy, with an attention to detail."

No question, though, that fans had reason to question Chizik's hire. Yes, he was familiar with Auburn, having served as defensive coordinator for Tuberville from 2002-04. Yes, Chizik had coordinated a Texas defense that won the national title in 2005 after he left Auburn. But Chizik was just 5-19 in two seasons as coach at Iowa State, and his second season in Ames was especially abysmal, featuring a 2-10 overall record and a 0-8 Big 12 mark.

Tuberville went 85-40 in 10 seasons and was fired for going 5-7 after the 2008 season -- and this was the guy Auburn hired to replace him?

"I know that we have found the right fit for Auburn," Jacobs said after making the hire. "Gene's body of work during his 23 years in this profession is remarkable. He has a strong knowledge of this athletics program, this university and the community, and he knows how to be successful in the Southeastern Conference. He is a high-energy coach that is an outstanding motivator and demands a tough, physical style of football."

At the time of the appointment, The Birmingham News polled readers on the Chizik hire, with just 15.1 percent approving of it. Even Auburn alum Charles Barkley chimed in, irked that Buffalo coach Turner Gill was bypassed for Chizik.

"Race was the No. 1 factor," Barkley said at the time. "You can say it's not about race, but you can't compare the two résumés and say [Chizik] deserved the job. Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé."

Chizik, who turned 49 on Dec. 28, never flinched in the face of the criticism and skeptics.

"We came in and we set down a path of where we wanted to go, and we've literally been consistently walking down that path," Chizik said. "It's really that simple. I don't really have the energy to pay a lot of attention to any outside distractions."

Tuberville, for one, thinks the hire made sense, despite Chizik's poor two-year run at Iowa State.

"No. 1, you need to hire someone who is familiar with the SEC," Tuberville said. "Gene had been there. ... He worked with me and was able to build a relationship with some of the people around there.

"He got to know the A.D. well. And it's about being familiar with the athletic director."

It has been a fast rise for Chizik. From 1998-2001, he was defensive coordinator at UCF. Before that, he coached at Division I-AA Stephen F. Austin (1992-97) and at Middle Tennessee (1990-91). He began his coaching career in 1986, at Seminole (Fla.) High, a suburb of St. Petersburg. He grew up in Clearwater, which is another St. Pete suburb, and later walked-on at Florida when Charlie Pell was coach.

Chizik led Auburn to an 8-5 mark last season, capped by an overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. This season has featured a breakthrough no one could have envisioned. Chizik enters Monday night's game with a 21-5 record with the Tigers.

"He is a player's coach," Auburn quarterback Cameron 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 with that, you only can -- you got to respect him."

Tuberville is the guy who hired Chizik away from UCF to run Auburn's defense. He saw something in Chizik that he liked, but he admits he had no inkling Chizik one day would be a successful head coach.

"He was running the same type of defense we were," Tuberville said. "He did a good job. He was only with me a few years before he went to Texas. He is one of those guys who have the charisma to recruit. He does a good job once he's in the house.

"But you never know how you will do going from assistant to head coach. The No. 1 thing is hiring assistants, and he has done a good job."

Chizik has a strong staff, led by standout coordinators in Gus Malzahn (offense) and Ted Roof (defense). Malzahn was hired away from Tulsa, where he had forged a reputation as an offensive guru after a fast rise up the coaching ladder. He was coach at Springdale (Ark.) High in 2005, then moved on to Arkansas, Tulsa and now Auburn. Roof has coordinated defenses at Western Carolina, Georgia Tech, Duke and Minnesota and also was Duke's head coach from 2003-07.

Chizik also has some of the nation's best recruiters, including wide receiver coach Trooper Taylor and running backs coach Curtis Luper.

"I think he's doing a good job recruiting," Tuberville said. "The thing about being a head coach is being able to hire good assistants. And it looks like he has done that. He hired Malzahn and Roof. Those are two good coordinators, and he has some recruiters on his staff, too. Malzahn has really done a good job for him."

Monday night, Chizik will have a chance to bolster his résumé again by extending the SEC's run of national championships to five in a row.

"Everything a coach does is a product of his past experiences," Chizik said. "I don't think there are any exceptions to that. I've been blessed to be in this game before [with Texas], and certainly that helps me. ... In general right now, it's all about keeping focus."

And continuing to draw applause instead of derision.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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