Commentary

Tigers' haphazard search leads to Chizik

Originally Published: December 14, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Auburn got rid of Tommy Tuberville, a coach who won 85 games in 10 seasons and once beat rival Alabama six consecutive times.

The Tigers hired Gene Chizik, a coach who went 5-19 in his two seasons as head coach at Iowa State, and ended the 2008 season with a 10-game losing streak.

When Tuberville was ousted, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs hoped the masses were naive enough to believe Tuberville quit on his own.

Given what transpired during Auburn's 10-day search for Tuberville's successor, Tigers fans can only hope Jacobs was caught completely off guard by the former coach's resignation. If not, Jacobs might have just presided over the most haphazard search in recent college football history.

If the Tigers weren't going to keep Tuberville, they needed a coach who would unite their divided fan base. They needed a coach who was charismatic enough and confident enough to stare into the eyes of Alabama coach Nick Saban and not blink.

More than anything else, the Tigers needed to do something to sway some of the momentum away from Tuscaloosa.

Instead, Auburn hired a coach who seemed to be a dead man walking at Iowa State. In recent weeks, Chizik demoted both his coordinators and fired two assistant coaches. That's not a sign of stability.

Chizik was hired as Auburn's coach Saturday because he was an outstanding defensive coordinator during his three seasons there. Just as importantly, Chizik was well-liked by Auburn's influential boosters and former coach Pat Dye.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
AP Photo/Steve PopeGene Chizik comes to Auburn on a 10-game losing streak.
Chizik is remembered fondly at Auburn because he coached the country's top scoring defense in 2004, when Tuberville led the Tigers to a 13-0 record. Chizik left shortly thereafter for Texas, where he helped the Longhorns win the 2005 national championship as their co-defensive coordinator. Over the span of more than two seasons, Chizik coached for teams that won 29 consecutive games.

But as Iowa State's head coach the past two seasons, he led the Cyclones to only five wins.

After a 3-9 record in Chizik's first season in 2007, the Cyclones were supposed to be much improved this year. Iowa State beat South Dakota State and Kent State to start the season. The Cyclones didn't win again, finishing 0-8 against Big 12 foes (and they didn't even play league powers Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech).

How Jacobs settled on Chizik is perplexing. Jacobs talked to nearly anyone who was interested in coaching at Auburn. He interviewed at least eight candidates: Ball State's Brady Hoke, Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley, Buffalo's Turner Gill, TCU's Gary Patterson, Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, Tulsa's Todd Graham, Georgia assistant Rodney Garner and Miami offensive coordinator Patrick Nix.

All of the aforementioned head coaches were more qualified than Chizik -- at least their teams won during the final three months of the regular season.

Auburn also reached out to several more high-profile coaches, including Mississippi's Houston Nutt and Arkansas' Bobby Petrino. Nutt negotiated a contract extension with the Rebels, and even Petrino wasn't ready to leave the Hogs for an SEC West foe after only one season.

[+] EnlargeJay Jacobs
AP Photo/Dave MartinJay Jacobs talked to a handful of coaches with winning records but settled on Chizik.
The rest of Auburn's A list included two highly regarded coordinators: Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Texas' Will Muschamp. Both assistants have already been designated as coach-in-waiting at their respective schools. Muschamp wasn't willing to leave one of the best jobs in the country for Auburn, and FSU wouldn't budge on a $5 million buyout for Fisher.

Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who led the Red Raiders to their best season in school history, was never considered for the Auburn job. And Leach might have been willing to crawl from Lubbock to Auburn. But at least one powerful Auburn booster feared the quirky Leach was too much like former Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was fired midway through the 2008 season.

Auburn didn't want the Big 12 coach whose team went 11-1 playing in college football's toughest division.

Auburn wanted the Big 12 coach whose team went 2-10 playing in the league's lesser division.

In all fairness, two seasons at Iowa State aren't a fair measure of Chizik's abilities as a head coach. The Cyclones have traditionally been one of college football's worst programs. They had 13 non-winning seasons in the 16-year period before Dan McCarney arrived. McCarney took Iowa State to five bowl games in six seasons but was fired after a 4-8 finish in 2006.

Things only got worse after Chizik was hired.

Defense is supposed to be Chizik's specialty, but the Cyclones were rather defenseless this season. Iowa State ranked 95th nationally against the run, 117th in pass efficiency defense and 111th in total defense, and was tied for 110th in scoring defense.

Defense wasn't Auburn's deficiency this season. The Tigers finished 27th in the country in total defense and 15th in scoring defense. Jacobs might have been better off promoting defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who earned the reputation of a defensive guru long before he arrived at Auburn.

Auburn needed to think outside the box in making this hire. Jacobs certainly did that, hiring a coach with a losing record from Iowa State.

Now the Cyclones are looking for a new coach.

There's a better coach out there than the one they just lost.

Call Tommy Tuberville.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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