Monday, December 15, 2008

Coachapalooza, signing off: let's do this, Gene Chizik

Previous, now sadly obsolete examples in the series here and here.

First, could we get him? Yes! Yes we can! Finally, I can say this without any doubt whatsoever: Auburn was and is entirely capable of hiring away Iowa St. head coach Gene Chizik!


Let there be no mistake about this: Gene Chizik is a hell of a defensive coordinator.

Even going all the way back to his first year at Central Florida, when the 1998 Knight squad held Auburn to 10 turnover-fueled points, the defenses Chizik has coordinated have been better than the ones coordinated by his predecessors or followers at the same school. In 2001, Central Florida ranked 16th in the country in total defense, and Auburn 39th; in 2002, only a season after Chizik had moved from Orlando to the Plains, it was Auburn who ranked 26th and UCF who finished 45th.

From there, Chizik only got better; you just don't call defensive plays for 26 consecutive games between 2004 and 2005 and win every single one of them by accident. It wasn't some huge leap forward either, at least in Auburn's case: Chizik's 2003 defense finished 5th in total defense, 9th in scoring. Of course, that was just the warm-up for 2004--the Tigers again finished 5th in total defense, and on top of that topped the national rankings in scoring defense. For my money, it's the best defense Tommy Tuberville ever fielded at Auburn, and Chizik's work is even more impressive when you consider what he was working with--check out the starting lineup and participation report from the 2005 Sugar Bowl. Yes, names like Carlos Rogers and Junior Rosegreen and big Tommy Jackson and the off-the-bench tag-team of Quentin Groves and Stanley McClover pop off the screen, and of course Jay Ratliff is still in the league but ... Derrick Graves? Doug Langenfeld? Montavis Pitts, fresh off his aborted rap career? Good players all, but hardly immortal, and compared to the 2004 offense and it's five first-round draft choices* ... forget it. No matter--Chizik turned them into a force.

And just in case you're wondering how much Tubby had to do with that, Chizik kept it rolling at Texas. The Longhorns went from 23rd in total defense and 19th in scoring defense in 2004 to 10th and 8th, respectively, in 2005. Chizik's arrival cut a full half-yard off the 'Horns' per-play average allowed, from 4.9 to 4.4., a stunning improvement for a team whose high-octane offense scored so quickly they spent plenty of time on the field.

The 2006 Horns regressed fairly substantially--all the way to 40th per-play, though still top-25 scoring-wise--but after the highs of Chizik's past two seasons and the departure of several key 'Horns, some regression to the mean was inevitable. The bottom line: Chizik knows his way around designing and implementing a defense.

As for other pros, well, those are more difficult to come by. Obviously, there's not much positive to say about his Iowa St. tenure, but it might not be quite as bad as some of the worst critics might think. The Cyclones haven't actually regressed statistically during his tenure, despite the 4 wins (in Dan McCarney's final year)-to-3-wins-to-2 slide in the final record. ISU finished with a net per-play average of -1.2 in 2006 and won their four games over Toledo, UNLV, I-AA Northern Iowa, and Missouri by a combined 14 points. Under Chizik, the Cyclones put up a -1.4 net per-play mark in 2007 and bumped it up to -1.2 this year. Those are more-or-less terrible numbers all the way around, but nonetheless ISU was pretty unfortunate not win at least one or two more games this season--they outgained Iowa by a substantial margin and saw the game turn on a punt return, then lost to UNLV, Kansas, Colorado, and Kansas St. by a combined 15 points. The Cyclones weren't good. But they weren't quite 2-10 bad, either. Chizik never got them moving forward, but for whatever tiny amount it's worth, it's more accurate to say they were running in place. And given that Chizik had huge personnel losses to deal with both years--only 11 returning starters in 2007, 25 lettermen (48 percent of the team, according to Steele) lost entering 2008--maybe running in place was actually an accomplishment.

Then again, here's your giant screaming caveat: after playing Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Texas in 2007, ISU had all three drop from their Big 12 schedule to be replaced by Baylor, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma St. The Cyclones played the easiest Big 12 schedule possible, and still went winless and outscored by an average of 20 points a game. So maybe the biggest positive from Chizik's time in Ames is that it's one fewer opportunity in a coaching career we all know isn't going to offer many. As friend-of-the-blog Derek e-mailed the other day:
Chizik will work as hard as he humanly can to make Auburn better. After a 5-19 record, he is getting a step up programwise and Jonna gets to return closer to home. If he screws it up, he will NEVER be anything more than good coordinator. Terrible at Iowa State, terrible at Auburn after Auburn goes out on a limb for him. His head coaching career is OVER, and it will be hard for him to be a coordinator somewhere good as well.
It sort of makes sense that Jacobs would wind up introducing a coach who has every bit as much at stake as he does--they will sink-or-swim together, both of them, for better, for worse, for either the defining triumph or the bitter end of their respective careers. In short: I doubt Chizik will lack for motivation in any way. How much that's worth, you decide.

One other thing that has to be mentioned, as much as it hurts my soul to do so: that Chizik was willing to come cheap is a good thing for an athletic department that's spending as much on football coaches not currently actively employed by the football program as Auburn is. Sigh.

Something that is neither pro nor con. If you're an Auburn fan looking for one more way for your heart to skip a beat, I suggest gandering at this little nugget from Chizik's Wikipedia page, no doubt left there by a Tiger fan who's maybe even a little less enthralled with Coach C than most: ranked Iowa State's 2007, 2008, and 2009 recruiting classes 60th, 62nd, and 76th, respectively. The 2009 ranking was updated on December 13, 2008, the day of his hiring by Auburn. On the other hand, McCarney's last three classes ranked 42nd, 58th, and 63rd.
On one hand: Yikes.

But there's a few points to make on the other, too. For starters, it's not entirely fair to take the ranking of the current class at face value when there's still another two months or so left in the recruiting season. For another, sure, 60th and 62nd aren't exactly mindblowing and apparently aren't even that great by most of McCarney's previous standards, but they're at least holding the line from McCarney's last class. Most importantly, though, Chizik landed in Ames without any connections to high school coaches or the Big 12 or anything that would help him recruit up there. He won't have those disadvantages at Auburn, where he's got some name-recognition, a much stronger support system, and perhaps more of a chance to take advantage of his old Texas and Florida ties. (Incidentally, this is the only way Chizik's "Auburn ties" and "SEC coaching experience" matter in the slightest. And I do mean they matter in the very slightest way possible.) Add in what I expect to be plenty of drive from a 46-year-old who knows his ass and a lot of other people's asses are on the line, and I think you could make an argument that Chizik's recruiting ability at Auburn isn't fairly represented by his time at Iowa St.

Then again, it's not like we have any reason to believe he'll recruit especially well, either. If he couldn't improve on McCarney's efforts at all, why would he improve on Tubby's in the face of rising challenges from the Tide and Dawgs? By not listing this as a "con" and simply declaring that we don't have a firm read on how he'll do long-term--and won't for a while, since this upcoming class won't be a fair measure at all, I don't think, after all the fallout--I think I'm being generous.


Obviously we're spoiled for choice here, but for me, here's your biggest one:

Iowa St., yards-per-play allowed

2002: 4.9
2003: 6.2
2004: 4.7
2005: 4.8
2006: 6.1
2007: 5.8
2008: 6.7

In the second year of running his systems and with seven returning starters, Chizik's defense was worse than any McCarney had fielded this decade. Sure, Big 12 aerial circuses and whatnot, but remember, "easiest Big 12 schedule possible" and even within the closed circle of the Big 12, the Cyclones were horrible: worst in the conference at a full 7 yards allowed per-play in Big 12 games. In total defense, ISU slipped from 65th in 2007 to--I still can't believe this--111th this year. Here, let me emphasize this last point in some italicized and bolded terms we'll all understand:

Defense-first head coach Gene Chizik's 2008 defense was worse than Auburn's 2008 offense.

Ye gods. I have to assume Chizik knows what he's doing on defense, but the difficulty he's displaying in putting that knowledge to use as a head coach is staggering**.

OK, so a certain number of Auburn fans are trying to explain Chizik's failures as "It's Iowa St.; no one could win at Iowa St." And, well, it's not an easy job, that's for damn sure. But it's not impossible. Over McCarney's final eight seasons at ISU, he failed to win at least four games once--and unlucky or not, it took Chizik just two years to double that total. It's also not like McCarney strung together a bunch of 5-7 and 6-6 years--the 2000 Seneca Wallace team went 9-3, and as recently as 2005 the Cyclones were probably the best team in the Big 12 North. That year's squad finished 7-5 but crushed Iowa, Kansas St., Colorado, Texas A&M, and Okie St. while losing not one, not two, but three overtime games in the Big 12, all on the road, any one of which would have sent the Cyclones to the Big 12 title game. Even in the North, the Big 12's tougher than it was then or in 2000, but the point holds: you can build good teams in Ames.

Admittedly, it took McCarney a long time to build those good teams--he won a total of nine games his first four years. Maybe Chizik would have had similar success if he'd had that long to build the program. But a) it's not like he's going to be afforded anything that kind of time at Auburn, making his inability to show any kind of immediate improvement all the more troubling** b) even in today's Big 12 South, it's possible for a new coach to move his team forward from Day 1. I don't think anyone's going to argue the ISU job is that much tougher than Baylor, and when Art Briles took over the Bears job after Guy Morriss was forced out following an 0-8 2007 Big 12 season, it's not like he had that much more talent than Chizik inherited in Ames. Didn't matter--Briles went out and recruited arguably the best freshman quarterback in the country, then turned his team's net per-play around from -1.1 to +.6 in a year, all while competing in the toughest single six-team division in college football history. The bottom line: blindly tossing Chizik's head coaching record aside is folly. No amount of excuse-making should hide the fact of 5-19. 5-19. 5-19!

OK, I'll make the non-record-and-stat-related stuff quick, since it honestly doesn't matter as much. For starters, we all saw the negative reaction from the press and the Auburn family coming a mile away; that's a necessary evil if you're hiring an unknown guy with a credible record (like Briles, for instance) or someone like Leach who's liable to win the doubters over via good old-fashioned winning, but inviting it in order to hire a coach who seems as massive a risk as Chizik strikes me as foolhardy.

Secondly, I'm not inclined to give too much credence to the bitter claims of the deserted AD and players back in Ames, but I can't say that this level of anger reassures me that he was either entirely forthright with them or on especially good terms with his players.

Even more troubling, though, is that his first attempt at filling out a staff failed so utterly miserably. As you've no doubt heard, at season's end he fired two position coaches and demoted his coordinators. With his lack of offensive expertise and limited recruiting experience, Chizik is a coach who will desperately need an excellent staff to succeed at Auburn--that his only attempt on record at creating such a staff ended in disaster is just one more black mark on a resume chock-ful of them.

Final endorsement? Please believe me: I don't want to write a post like this one. I desperately, desperately wish there were a bunch of hidden reasons I could point to that would show Chizik will be a great hire, some sort of underplayed-but-definitive piece of evidence that indicates that once all the anger and disappointment are scraped away, what Auburn fans will really find are victories. I want to be the guy who "gets behind the coach."

But I can't find those reasons. That evidence isn't there. The best thing we've got is Chizik's defensive expertise, which dissolved so completely in his move to the head coach's chair at ISU his defense wound up one of the worst in the nation. All we're left with after that is wild hopes about his motivation work ethic and platitudes about his "blueprint" and "plan." Those are nice, but results speak louder. And the results say that Chizik will fail. It hurts to type that, I swear. Hurts like hell. But it's the truth.

I'm not guaranteeing failure, of course. I think there are two things in play which would totally buck the trend suggested by Chizik's previous results. He'll have to do the following:

1. Recruit like absolutely nobody's business. There's enough leeway in the Iowa St. results to think that if Chizik makes the right hires on staff and busts his ass and inspires much more confidence in person than his 5-19 record would suggest and somehow scrapes up some early momentum this fall, he could make some genuine headway here. If there's not much reason for confidence at the moment, there's not honestly much reason to assume that Chizik won't be able to recruit well. We'll see if he can salvage anything over the next two months--hopefully that'll tell us something.

2. Put together a knockout staff.
Again, Chizik's record-to-date here is hardly inspiring (and though I'll get into my reactions to the press conference tomorrow, consider me less than hopeful we'll be able to hire a splashy offensive coordinator to run a 200-year-old offense) and there are, unfortunately, reasons to think the Georgia assistants we've all been eyeing aren't going to bail on Athens. But who knows? Maybe armed with Auburn's resources and the experience from his baptism-by-fire in Ames, he'll be able to pick out some diamonds-in-the-rough that either weren't available to him or who he wasn't aware of at ISU, particularly a snazzy OC to bring in the wide receiving playmakers we so desperately need and a defensive staff who are able to implement his Tampa-2 schemes in a timely and effective manner

What are the odds of both those things happening? Not good, as I think the rest of this post makes clear. But I've been wrong before, Lord knows. And I don't know, when it comes to Auburn football, if I've ever hoped to be wrong the way I'm hoping now.

Prove me wrong, Gene Chizik. Please.

*I'm counting McNeill. That he didn't go in the first round was just stupid.

**I know the party line today was that Chizik mortgaged the present for the future at ISU by relying heavily on freshmen, but there are tons of teams out there just as crippled from a personnel standpoint, and most of them didn't finish 111th in total defense while being coached by a defensive-minded head coach. Sorry. I'm unconvinced.


easyedwin said...

Good post. If all the naysayers would calm down we might see some light around Auburn. PRODUCE SOME FREAKIN' POINTS !!!! We starving for points up in here.

Mr. Shuler Goes to Washington said...

Gene Chizik, you have been weighed, measured, and found wanting.

PowerOfDixieland said...

One more pro:

Based on his picture and how he looks, I'm pretty sure he could easily take any other SEC coach in a cage match. Dude looks jacked.

Mr. Shuler Goes to Washington said...


My dad could beat up your dad. Besides, we all know that Rich Brooks would stomp a mud hole in any other SEC coach, and the time he wasted doing it would amount to "bullshit." And I am most certainly not a Wildcat fan, but the truth is the truth.

Harrison said...

One more pro (and one that i have a sneaking suspiscion played a big role) is that he has experienced the kind of good-ol-boy on-a-whim administration and BOT that has a stranglehold on our school. i wouldn't be surprised if chizik is the only canidate that really wanted the job, after the other interviewees considered the kind of bullcrap Tubby put up with the last decade.

Sullivan013 said...

OK, I searched and searched for a silver lining in all of this, and I think I have finally found it.

The only redeeming factor in hiring Chizik at this point in time is that when he fails to compete in the SEC I won't feel as devastated when he is fired then when Tuberville left.

Like Coach Barfield before him, I'll be willing to let him go without feeling like I was kicked in the gut over the unfair firing of someone I admired.

Do I wish him well? Sure, in that I wish the Auburn team to do well. Do I want him to lose? No, but only because I don't want the team to lose. Other than that, I don't care one way or the other. Any other goodwill will have to be earned. It won't be given without evidence of some achievement.

For those who wish to share warmth and closeness with him, I say light his head on fire and shove him in a closet.