A couple weeks back, Hobbes stopped by and left a comment that 1) quoted the following passage--
When Chizik told the players he inherited that he wasn't going to come down to their level, his legacy of all-hat-no-cattle sound bites was in motion. Few of those players had ever been part of anything as wretched as the two seasons Chizik presided over. He'd have been fortunate to have them bring him up to their level. And when he made the players spend 20 minutes of the first spring practice of 2007 precisely lining up their helmets, you wondered if a real life Captain Queeg hadn't taken over the ISU football program.--from that widely read no-punches-pulled takedown of Chizik at the Iowa St. Rivals site 2) finished by saying "Nothing Chizik says or does re: spring sounds any different from what he did at ISU."
This was a bone-chilling comment to read, in part because at this point it really is awful hard to tell what changes Chizik's made to his personal approach from his arrival in Ames to his arrival on the Plains ... and in part because I realized I couldn't place the "Captain Queeg" reference and was in danger of having my English Geeks of America membership revoked. Turns out Captain Queeg is the obsessive, paranoiac captain of the U.S.S. Caine in The Caine Mutiny. From the Wikipedia article:
Another episode which highlights Queeg's behaviors occurs when a quart of strawberries vanish from the wardroom icebox. Remembering how he helped solve a mystery involving a similar theft when he was an ensign earlier in his career, Queeg attempts to recreate his former accomplishment by insisting the strawberries were pilfered by a crewmember with a duplicate key. Queeg orders every key on the ship collected, and a thorough search made. During the search, the captain is confronted with evidence that the messboys ate the strawberries. Queeg loses all enthusiasm for the search, though he orders it to continue, and it is continued in a desultory way amid public mocking of the captain.Now, let me preface the rest of this post with the following: Gene Chizik has done precious little--if anything--wrong since being hired as the Auburn head coach. His assembled staff is light-years better than most Auburn fans expected and just about as good as we could have possibly imagined. He's evinced a genuine sense of affection for and gratitude towards Auburn, both the school and the community. His Signing Day haul was genuinely inspiring given the many, many factors working against him. More than anything, he's instilled a sense of confidence and hope around the program I for one hadn't expected to feel for a much, much longer period of time.
But there are still, of course, a ton of "buts," and one of the them was how violently disliked Chizik seemed to be at ISU. It's one thing for a coach leaving for a bigger and better job--especially after leaving the previous one in worse shape than he found it--to come in for some bitterness and sniping, but the abuse heaped on Chizik by both the ISU media and his former players went far past hurt feelings. His critics there didn't just see him as a poor coach and a turncoat--they just didn't like the guy. Their complaints were personal as well as business. And that's troubling--it's not been my experience that football teams play their hardest for head coaches they don't respect.
The reports coming out of Auburn's spring practice don't completely explain how Chizik came to be so unpopular in Ames ... but they do maybe give us a starting point. Most players aren't going to take naturally to a rigid dress code, to rules about how neat a locker has to be, to an atmosphere revolving around the word "strict." Chizik has talked about how he wants his players to take a professional approach about playing for Auburn ... but don't we all want to have a little fun at our jobs? Don't we all want our bosses to treat us like responsible adults? I'm not saying Chizik's rules are aimed at squashing fun like some kind of Footloose-style dance ban or should make our players feel like children, but they don't exactly encourage the players to feel comfortable or at ease, either.
Certainly, the feedback to this point has been nothing but positive, and as long as Auburn wins, it'll stay that way. But players are always unhappy when their efforts in practice don't pay off in victories. If the extra effort to keep one's locker clean and check your cleats at the door and remember not to wear your lucky chain doesn't pay off, well, I'm guessing those are going to be the first things players question when they wonder why they're doing what they're doing. Really: what does not wearing an earring in the locker room have to do with winning football games? Win, and of course it has everything to do with winning. Lose, and that Caine Mutiny analogy starts hitting a lot closer to home.
Beyond that, what does it say about Chizik himself that he's worried about this level of detail? I understand the argument that you have to take care of the little things before you can worry about the big things, but there's also a point at which the little things are so little they're not worth worrying about, a point where you're so detail-oriented all you see are details. That story about Chizik spending 20 minutes of his first practice focusing on how the Cyclone's helmets should be lined up could be exaggerated or apocryphal ... but does it doesn't exactly clash with what we've seen from Chizik in Auburn, does it? If Chizik feels such an overwhelming need to be in control that he can't bring himself to tell reporters the scoring system for his team's scrimmages, much less let reporters watch said scrimmage, it's not so hard to see him taking up precious practice time slide-ruling those helmets into place, right?
And so I wonder. When things go wrong this season, and next--and things will go wrong, from time to time--how is Chizik going to respond? Is he going to continue to let the offensive and defensive coordinators do their jobs rather than jerking his knee and taking responsibility himself? Is he going to make adjustments that will help the team, or will he just demand that lockers be even neater, sideburns be even more neatly trimmed, helmets be even straighter? You can't be a good captain if you're wasting your time looking for a quart of strawberries, so to speak.
With all of that said: I don't think all this is going to be a big issue. I think Chizik has learned from at least some of his mistakes in Ames. I think Malzahn and Roof and Taylor and Luper and Rocker are smart enough to help keep the train on the tracks. I think the team is simply too talented to slip into 3-9, 2-10 despair. I don't think Chizik really is Captain Queeg.
But until the games start for real, can I help but wonder? Not yet, anyway.