Coaches turn skeptics into believers
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- After Gene Chizik was hired as Auburn's football coach in December 2008, a Tigers fan was so upset by the news that he greeted athletics director Jay Jacobs at the airport, screaming insults at him in an episode that became a YouTube sensation.
After Chip Kelly's first game as Oregon's head coach in September 2009, a Ducks fan was so disgusted with the team's performance in its 19-8 loss at Boise State that he sent Kelly a bill for his expenses to the game. Kelly promptly sent the fan a $439 refund.
On Monday night, Chizik and Kelly will coach No. 1 Auburn and No. 2 Oregon in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium, culminating their extraordinary and unlikely paths to the apex of their profession.
"Coaches come from all walks of life," Kelly said. "It's just, do you get an opportunity to coach at a certain level? I have always felt the big time is where you are at. It doesn't matter if you are going to play in a game that everyone is going to watch or no one is going to watch; you will approach it the same way."
But in a sport in which iconic head coaches have often overshadowed even the names on their players' jerseys, Chizik and Kelly seem like unlikely participants in a national championship game. Just over two years ago, Auburn plucked Chizik from Iowa State, where he had compiled a 5-19 record in two seasons. Kelly, who had never spent a day working as a head coach, was handed the keys to Oregon's program after longtime coach Mike Bellotti retired in March 2009.
More than two years later, it seems crystal clear that what many thought they knew about Chizik -- that he wouldn't become a successful head coach -- was a dead-wrong assessment. And even though Kelly has the Ducks on the verge of winning their first national championship, we still don't know much about the man, because that's the way he wants it to be.
"I think the belief that there's a traditional road in coaching is false," said former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. "The traditional road became the traditional road because the traditional people wanted to have a monopoly on something. Both [Chizik and Kelly] are consumed by football, and both of them are great coaches."
Jacobs had a hard time convincing Auburn fans that Chizik was the right choice for the job after Tommy Tuberville was unceremoniously dumped after the 2008 season. Jacobs said he interviewed TCU's Gary Patterson, then-Louisiana Tech coach Derek Dooley, then-Buffalo coach Turner Gill and Tulsa's Todd Graham before hiring Chizik.
"When I started the process, I knew that Gene was the guy to beat," Jacobs said. "I'd worked with him, but I knew there were a lot of good guys out there, and I talked to a lot of great coaches. I trusted him. I knew him and knew how he was going to work. I knew he understood Auburn and that Auburn is a special place. Having a history and knowing what the culture is about is huge. He played in the SEC and knew how to coach in the league."
Chizik was Tuberville's defensive coordinator when the Tigers finished 13-0 in 2004. The next season, he was Texas' defensive coordinator when the Longhorns finished 13-0 and won the 2005 national championship.
Despite Chizik's strong record as a defensive coordinator -- he won the Frank Broyles Award as the country's top assistant in 2004 -- Jacobs knew he would have a hard time defending Chizik's performance as a head coach.
"His Iowa State record was what I knew was going to be tough for the Auburn people," Jacobs said. "Frankly, it was going to be tough for Gene to overcome that. We asked him, 'How are we going to explain 5-19?' He said, 'I'm a better coach having been at Iowa State for two years than I would have been if you hired me coming out of Texas.'"
Tigers center Ryan Pugh said it didn't take Chizik long to win over Auburn's locker room.
"The first meeting, he told us, 'Ya'll don't know me and I don't know ya'll. We don't trust each other,'" Pugh said. "But he told us the last time he was here we went 13-0 and ended up playing in the Sugar Bowl and should have played for a national championship. He told us we were going to get back there, and it took him two years."
The Tigers went 8-5 in Chizik's first season in 2009 and 13-0 this season.
"I don't think anybody would have had reservations about him if he'd been the defensive coordinator at Texas when he took the job, because he was the hottest coach in the country," Tigers offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said.
Kelly's rise in coaching has been even more meteoric. He worked for nearly two decades at small schools like Columbia, Johns Hopkins and New Hampshire, first as a defensive assistant and later as an offensive coordinator.
In 2007, Bellotti hired Kelly to install a spread offense at Oregon. Bellotti said he interviewed six other coaches, including some with NFL experience, but was won over by Kelly's knowledge of the spread offense and his ability to teach it to players.
"I didn't have a connection," Kelly said. "Somebody talked to him and recommended me, and he called me on the phone one day. And after he said who he was, I said: 'Seriously. Who is this?'"
In Kelly's first season with the Ducks in 2007, his offense set school records for total yards and points scored in a season, despite having to start four different quarterbacks in the final four games because of injuries. After Oregon led the Pac-10 in rushing, scoring and total offense in Kelly's second season as offensive coordinator, he was named Bellotti's eventual successor in December 2008.
Bellotti retired about three months later.
"[Kelly] didn't take the traditional path, but I don't know if there's a traditional path to becoming a head coach," Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. "Everything he's gotten, he's earned, and he deserves to be the head coach."
Neither Chizik nor Kelly fits the mold of some of the recent high-profile coaches who have guided their teams to national championships. Highly successful coaches like Alabama's Nick Saban, Florida's Urban Meyer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Texas' Mack Brown and USC's Pete Carroll were the face of their programs.
Chizik might not even be the most high-profile coach on his own staff. Malzahn is considered an offensive guru because of his high-octane spread attack, and he and Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton get much of the credit for Auburn's success.
Chizik said he installed the same plan at Auburn that he used at Iowa State. Obviously, the results have been much better.
"I just think that your first two years as a head coach, you navigate your way through head-coaching things that you aren't necessarily privileged to be able to do when you were a coordinator," Chizik said. "We have done nothing different at Auburn. We were trying to build a program that was down [at Iowa State]. We were on the right track. There is no question, I wouldn't do anything different. When we came to Auburn, we laid down the same plan, different circumstances."
Although his fast-paced offense has captivated much of college football over the past four seasons, Kelly prefers to stay out of the spotlight. He remains a very private person, and few stories about him have included details of his personal life. Kelly is unmarried and has a very tight circle of friends.
After taking the Oregon job, Kelly's parents moved from his native New Hampshire to the Oregon coast, but they have been reluctant to talk to the media about their son.
"He's just that way," said Bellotti, who now works as an ESPN analyst. "I've known him for four years and I know him but I don't know him. He's got his close friends and he's close to his family. I think it's just his nature."
When Kelly was asked by a reporter Friday why he doesn't like to talk about himself, he joked that he already knows himself.
"I never got caught up in that," Kelly said. "And I hang out with a bunch of people and it's the environment we grew up in. If somebody started talking about themselves or I had a friend talking in the third person, he may get hit."
It didn't take Bellotti long to realize that Kelly, like Chizik, is consumed by his profession.
"I think he's a fairly private person, but he's very comfortable talking about football," Bellotti said. "I don't want to label him as such, but when he worked for me it was a great thing. I think he is consumed by football. He's a football junkie."
On Monday night, Chizik and Kelly will be in college football's brightest spotlight, whether they're ready or not.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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