Tigers aim to return pride to program
AUBURN, Ala. -- When defensive coordinator Gene Chizik left Auburn for Texas in 2004, the Tigers were coming off a perfect 13-0 season.
Future NFL quarterback Jason Campbell directed the Auburn offense, along with current NFL running backs Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams.
With future NFL cornerback Carlos Rogers starring in the secondary, the Tigers led the country in scoring defense in 2004, allowing only 11.3 points per game.
Five years later, Chizik is working as Auburn's coach. He was hired in December to replace Tommy Tuberville, who parted ways with the school after winning 85 games in 10 seasons. The Tigers went 5-7 in 2008, including a 36-0 defeat against Alabama, the worst loss to their bitter rival since 1962.
It didn't take Chizik long to realize why the Tigers struggled so badly last season.
"We've got some deficiencies right now and we've got to overcome that," Chizik said. "I think there's a difference from 2004. Depth is an issue at this point, and I think that's glaring. I left here in 2004, and compared to now, it's a different-looking team physically. We've got to ramp it up, and I think we can do that."
Chizik, who worked as the Tigers' defensive coordinator during 2002-04, was a surprising choice to replace Tuberville. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs interviewed more successful head coaches, such as Buffalo's Turner Gill and TCU's Gary Patterson, but then offered the job to Chizik, who was 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State.
"I think when Jay was trying to find a guy for this job, he was looking at the big picture," Chizik said. "The advantage for me was that I knew Jay. He knew what kind of person I was then and what kind of person I am now. From the outside, you see a guy who won five games at Iowa State. But Jay was on the inside. He knew me from my time here and knew what kind of person I am, what kind of coach I am and what kind of recruiter I am. I didn't have to sell him anything because he already knew it."
But Chizik's hiring was a tough sell to many Auburn alumni, who questioned why their alma mater would hire a candidate with a questionable head-coaching track record. Shortly after Chizik's hiring, former Auburn basketball star Charles Barkley told ESPN.com, "Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé."
Chizik said the criticism never affected him.
"I don't really pay a lot of attention to all of that," Chizik said. "If you pay a lot of attention to outside perception, you can be [on] an emotional roller coaster. I'm just a very focused guy and keep my blinders on. Of course, you hear things, but that's just part of my world."
Chizik, who won the 2004 Frank Broyles Award as the country's top assistant coach, also helped Texas win the 2005 national championship when he worked as its defensive coordinator. At one point, his teams at Auburn and Texas won 29 consecutive games.
From the outside, you see a guy who won five games at Iowa State. But Jay was on the inside.” -- Gene Chizik on his hiring by AD Jay Jacobs
Chizik believes he also was close to turning around Iowa State. He inherited a Cyclones team that went 4-8 in 2006, after going 7-5 in consecutive seasons under coach Dan McCarney in 2004 and '05. Iowa State went 3-9 in Chizik's first season in 2007. Last year, the Cyclones opened the season with victories over Football Championship Subdivision opponent South Dakota State and Kent State, but then lost their last 10 games to finish 2-10.
"I have no question in my mind that we were definitely on the right track," Chizik said. "Last year, we played with a brand-new quarterback and 11 true freshmen. We were starting a bunch of them. That's hard to do in that league. There's no question we were going to win a lot of games in Years 3 and 4, which was our plan all along. We did it right from the time we walked in the door to the time we left. There's no doubt that place is better off now than from when we inherited it."
According to Chizik, he faces a similar rebuilding job at Auburn. The Tigers' talent level slipped in Tuberville's last few seasons, and the team seemed to lack much direction last year. Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was hired to install a spread offense, was fired after only six games in 2008. Franklin was Tuberville's fifth offensive coordinator in 10 seasons. When Franklin was fired, the Tigers ranked 104th nationally in total offense.
"I was embarrassed," Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman said. "I can't speak for the whole team, but I was embarrassed and upset. A 5-7 record isn't a good record for Auburn. It wasn't good."
Fixing Auburn's anemic offense will be one of Chizik's biggest challenges. He hired Tulsa offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who helped the Golden Hurricane lead the country in total offense with 569.8 yards per game in 2008. Tulsa ranked fifth in rushing (268 yards per game) and ninth in passing (302).
While Malzahn's system has been described as a spread offense, Chizik said it's far from it. He said the Tigers will return to their roots with a physical, downhill running game.
"I think that's kind of been the misnomer about his offense," Chizik said. "You can categorize it however you want. But one of the first things out of Gus' mouth each day is the need for physicality. People can categorize the spread however they want, but at the end of the day, it's going to be 'Tailback U.' with a great vertical passing game."
Malzahn won't name a starting quarterback until preseason camp late this summer. Juniors Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle competed for the job during spring practice, and redshirt freshman Barrett Trotter was in the mix until suffering a knee injury. Senior Chris Todd returns from offseason shoulder surgery this summer.
"A lot of people characterize what we do as a spread offense because we've been so efficient throwing the ball," Malzahn said. "But everything we do starts with the run. If we run the ball, we can create one-on-one matchups for our skill guys. We've really worked hard this spring establishing our identity, which is going to be a physical, run-oriented offense."
Senior Ben Tate, who ran for 664 yards and three touchdowns last season, and junior Mario Fannin emerged as big-play threats this spring. Fannin might be used in an H-back position, which would allow him to catch the ball as much as he runs it.
"Mario's position is a hybrid position," Malzahn said. "We're going to ask him to catch the ball, run the ball and move around a lot. You're going to see him in motion and moving around a lot to get matched up on lesser guys. We're going to be hanging our hats on that position and asking him to do a lot."
Auburn fans are used to winning. They'll be asking a lot from Chizik from the start.
In a state in which football has always seemed to matter more than most other places, the Tigers aren't used to losing.
"This place is very unique," Chizik said. "It has unique traditions and a unique fan base. You can only understand it if you've been here and lived through it with them. I was here for three years and went through the good, the bad, the ugly and the great. I saw the pendulum swing."
Chizik hopes the pendulum starts swinging the Tigers' way again this coming season.
"Auburn football is down a little bit right now, and we have to get it back to where it was and to where people are proud of it again," Chizik said. "We're going to do that."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.