The Man Who Fell To Earth

Gene Chizik won a National Championship at Auburn, and was unemployed and nearly unemployable not long after. He is doing okay, all things considered.
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Originally published on November 1, 2013.

Some myths belong to everyone, and so of course there is a Finnish Icarus, another optimist cursed with fatal ambition who nearly touched the pale arctic sun. He didn't, because he couldn't, and so he fell, headlong through the clouds, down and down, a lesson from the gods writ in flame and fearful velocity. You likely already know a tale along these lines.

It ends strangely, though, differently than you might expect. Our Icarus lands not on earth or sea but into the freezing steel belly of Gary Patterson's man-making fortress, on the campus of Texas Christian University. This is a place Kobe Bryant has visited and—we can safely assume—so has/will LL Cool J. Yes, the ancient Finns predicted the wonder that is the body rejuvenator housed in TCU's athletic department. The Finns had discerned, in reindeer entrails sprawled on snow, a great and improbable renewal.

***

In reality, there was nowhere for Gene Chizik to go but down after his 2010 season as Auburn’s head football coach. How swift and how vast the descent would be, though, was less easy to predict. Chizik’s Tigers won the 2010 national title, with much help from defensive tackle Nick Fairley and quarterback Cam Newton; both were juniors, both played far better than anyone had expected in that magnificent season, and both entered the NFL Draft and became first-round picks. From there, it took about a year and a half for things to fall apart.

Last fall, Auburn lost all eight of its SEC games, including the last three by scores of 21-63, 0-38 and 0-49. The day after that 49-point shutout loss to Alabama, Chizik was fired, concluding one of the most wildly disparate ten-year major college coaching runs on record. In that span, Chizik, as a defensive coordinator, coached undefeated teams at Auburn and Texas. Then, as a head coach, he bookended a 5-19 stretch at Iowa State and a 3-9 season at Auburn with the most successful three-year run in more than 120 years of Auburn football history, and the school's second National Championship.

That rollercoaster ride is over, and Chizik is not currently working in college football. Which is how, in late September, Chizik found himself alone with me and a glass of water, 30 minutes before giving a speech to Arkansas’ largest touchdown club. This is one of the few public appearances he’s made since the firing, but he felt like he owed the event’s founder, David Bazzel. Chizik had also visited Little Rock nine years ago, that time to receive an award for the nation’s best college football assistant coach; it was another one of Bazzel’s projects. Now, he’s back, which is nice as far as favors go and all. But Chizik knows he wouldn’t be talking to me had he just done a few things differently in the last few years at Auburn.

“I think that 90 percent of everything we did was right on,” he says. There were plenty successes and “not a lot of failure but enough to have me sitting here with you today,” he said with a chuckle. “I would go back and really make sure I would never get caught in a position where I don’t have a quarterback that can, you know, grow and win and become your championship caliber quarterback.” In hindsight, then, more time should have gone into recruiting and developing successors to Newton. “We just couldn’t find a quarterback who could really compete in [the SEC]. We ended up going with a true freshman at the end of the year.”

Although his speciality is defense, Chizik knows a team ultimately goes as far as its quarterback. Every top team has a standout, he tells the Little Rock crowd: “Let me give you the case in points. We can go down the list right now. Where do you want to start? Oregon? Mariota. Wanna go to Clemson? Tajh Boyd. Want to go to Ohio State? Braxton Miller. I could go on and on.

"Want to go to A&M? Johnny Manziel.

"Want to go to Alabama? A.J. McCarron.  

“I could go down the list,” he says, jabbing the podium three times with his index finger.

“I’ve had the best quarterbacks in college football history on my teams—Daunte Culpepper, Vince Young, Jason Campbell, Colt McCoy, Cam,” Chizik later tells The Buzz 103.7 FM. While their pro careers have gone in varying directions, each of those players were extraordinarily talented and, with the exception of McCoy, future NFL first-rounders. Superstars aren’t necessary to win championships, is Chizik's point. But “you have to have a man in that position who can handle all the ups and downs and ebbs and flows that come with that position when you’re at a high profile place.” None of the Tiger quarterbacks who immediately succeeded Newton—Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier—flourished at the position. Trotter and Moseley ended up quitting the team in consecutive offseasons. Frazier later switched to wide receiver.

So this is all true, as far as it goes, but quarterbacking woes don't explain Auburn's disintegration, or Chizik's long tumble from zenith. That owed to more prosaic stuff, things touchdown clubs don't terribly want to hear about, much though they may delight in talking about them.

Months after the national title, four Auburn players were arrested and charged with armed robbery. Chizik took over more of the playcalling duties from Gus Malzahn, the genius offensive coordinator he’d hired in December 2008; this was one reason Malzahn, three years later, took a pay cut to become head coach at Arkansas State, according to al.com. (Malzahn, and there's surely some other myth that tells this story, is now Auburn's head coach.) It went on like this.

Some players stopped going to class or attending workouts. Chizik hired a private security firm to help enforce an 11pm weeknight curfew. But the plan appeared to backfire when older players living off campus came to resent the measure “because a representative of the security firm was supposed to see them enter their apartments before the curfew or knock and make sure they were in their rooms,” Kevin Scarbinsky wrote for al.com. “On one occasion, a player who’d arrived home before the security guard reacted to the guard’s knock for bed check by firing a shoe at the wall and warning the guard not to knock on his door again.” Then, this past spring, a new report emerged alleging Auburn had, among other things, paid players and changed grades for nine players to make them eligible for the 2010 title game.

A few of the players interviewed for that story have since claimed they were misquoted, and an internal investigation into Auburn’s program found no evidence of wrongdoing, but there’s no denying all this smoke—along with last year’s record—damaged Chizik’s image. If it was the losing that got him fired, the rest seems to have a lot to do with why the coach of the 2010 National Champions is not currently coaching anywhere.

“In my eyes, I don’t have a reputation to rebuild, because I never lost mine,” he says. “The people in the business know me. The people in my circle of coaches know who I am and what I’m about. I have not changed. I will not change.”

“Out of all the perceptions of Auburn and things of that nature, absolutely none of those things have ever materialized to be true," he went on, looking directly into my eyes. "I’ve done it right. I recruited right. I broke no rules with the NCAA. I came into this with nothing but integrity. I have no regrets and no apologies for anything that I’ve done, any way that I’ve done it.” He has to say this. He also probably has to believe it.

***

Perhaps, Chizik fights no demons. But surely, at some level, he has wrestled with a paradox at the heart of the big time college football coach’s life: the inverse proportionality of families’ time. Most head coaches have a wife and, perhaps, children. But in order to succeed, they must also carve out significant time for at least two other “families”—their players/assistants and the fan base, which range from super-boosters to touchdown clubs like the one in Arkansas to drive-by diehards at the supermarket. Every minute that coach spends on the phone talking to a recruit’s mother about how close-knit his team is, is invariably a minute spent away from his wife and children. Every hour the coach pumps into glad-handing boosters and giving speeches to local fan clubs is an hour that coach won’t spend playing catch with his own son. “You really never come up for air,” Chizik says.

Stress abounds in other ways. From 1996 to 2012, Chizik, his wife and three children moved homes a dozen times. “My husband has actually received death threats and, on occasion, we have had our property vandalized,” Jonna Chizik told startmarriageright.com. “Because of what their daddy does for a living, our children have been harassed, embarrassed, and have had grown adults subject them to other outrageous behavior.” 

It’s little wonder, then, that Chizik has relished his unexpected break from coaching. The firing, along with the accompanying $7.5 million buyout, has given him a chance to “detox” from the grind and be with his real family more. The Chiziks still live in Auburn—he promised his kids when they arrived in 2009 they would stay there through high school—and says it hasn’t been awkward. “The people of the community have been very warm and very appreciative of what we were able to accomplish in my time at Auburn.” In this extended and very well-compensated vacation period, Chizik is enjoying something like a normal life. He takes weekend trips with his family; they've flown abroad and to a Red Sox game in Boston. He has received a few coaching offers, he tells me, but isn’t in a hurry to leave his current lifestyle. "I could probably do this again for two, three years. I could probably do this for the rest of my life if I wanted to.”

One person Chizik hadn’t yet seen in the community is his very busy successor. Malzahn, whom Chizik describes, coachily, is “knee-deep in the bunker” and at work on leading the Tigers to their biggest turnaround in program history. Still, they have talked a few times on the phone. "Our relationship in the three years we had together was more than phenomenal,” he adds. "I've told Gus in multiple conversations that I'm here for you in anyway I can help you. Gus and I will always be great friends.”

It’s unclear what the future holds for Chizik. He enjoys the work he started this summer as a college football radio analyst. “God’s got my back, he’s got a plan for me," he says. "Whatever that is, I don’t know. I’m taking it day by day and really trying to enjoy this time.” Some coaches in Chizik’s predicament stick with an analyst job for many years before jumping back into the game. Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden resigned midway through the 1998 season, then spent a full decade doing color commentary on television and writing columns for the likes of ABC and Yahoo. Terry’s older brother Tommy Bowden coached at Clemson for a decade before resigning midway through the 2008 season; he has since done a lot of faith-based motivational speaking while appearing as an analyst for ESPN and Fox Sports. He told Lifeway.com he hoped his media gig helped his speaking career: “Hopefully, what will come from this is more opportunities for faith-based speaking,” he said, adding he believes God provided him a platform for evangelism. “Hopefully by being on some of these TV shows and sports shows it will give me opportunities… of advancing His Kingdom and expanding His Will.”

The speaking circuit isn’t as lucrative as head coaching at a major school, but apparently it does provide some padding. Per the rates listed at premierespeakers.com, Tommy Bowden charges $5,000 for a motivational keynote speech. He wants expenses paid, but is fine with flying coach. Terry Bowden, meanwhile, requires first class. Their legendary father, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, also demands that those hiring him provide first class seating as well as expenses for himself and another person. Chizik isn’t listed on premierespeakers.com and doesn’t appear to be making much money off the few speeches he’s given. David Bazzel, founder of the Little Rock Touchdown Club, said Chizik declined any fee for his LRTC speech, which ordinarily would have been $4,000 to $6,000. He only asked for travel expense reimbursement.

It’s a stretch to say Chizik has never felt better, but for a few hours back in August, he got awfully close. It happened during two-a-days on the campus of Texas Christian University. Chizik, an admirer of TCU head coach Gary Patterson’s work, had chosen to take a business trip with SiriusXM Radio to scout Patterson’s program. While on a morning tour of TCU’s athletic complex, Chizik was led into a training room and shown a cryosauna, “a kind of body rejuvenation apparatus” that held promise of wondrous things—better metabolism, better circulation and long-term recovery from injury. This was what had lured Kobe into the device when he was in town. No one knows how well it works, really, but the promise is alluring enough to get optimists into it.

This despite the fact that cryosauna treatment entails stripping down to one’s underwear, putting on gloves and socks, and getting indescribably cold. “And you go in here, and [the temperature] goes to, I want to say, 450 degrees below zero. And you stay in there two and a half to three minutes—however long you can take it.” The more Chizik heard, the more he became intrigued.

The former University of Florida linebacker’s body has been through the wars, and the lingering pain of three back surgeries will never let him forget it. The man aches. But here was hope for some temporary amnesia. The TCU trainer asked Chizik if he wanted to give the cryosauna a shot.  “At that point I couldn’t get out of it, so I was like ‘O.K., I’ll try it.’” Chizik was lowered into a space so tight he describes it as a “vertical coffin.” Non-toxic nitrogen was blown on him, working magic on his skin cells. “It gets you cold quick.”

Soon, the hurt was gone. He left, he said, feeling like a new man.  


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