“A Coach’s Life” with Gene Chizik: Act 1 – The Journey

By Jeff Greenberg

Summertime is when families find time to go on vacation and spend some quality time together. The hustle and bustle of the modern world can make it hard to find that time. In the coaching world it is even more difficult for coaches and their families to find any time at all where they can be completely free from what’s going on “at work.” Coaching college football has become a year-round endeavor and the term “offseason” has almost been completely removed from a coach’s vocabulary.

One prominent coach that has found it much easier to spend time with his family over the last year and a half is Gene Chizik. For the first time, after thirty years of coaching football, Coach Chizik has been able to give the starting position to spending time with his family. He’s been able to go to his son’s football and baseball games. He’s been able to go on couples’ getaways with his wife. He even went on spring break with his daughters! What he’s been able to do is experience his family in a way he never could before as a college football coach. It’s been a life-changing experience for one of the most accomplished coaches in college football.

We sat down to talk with Coach Chizik about his coaching career, from how he got into coaching to reaching that moment when he knew it was time to call a timeout and go home. Over the next week we will publish all three parts of our series with Coach Chizik, “A Coach’s Life.” This week we bring you “Act 1: The Journey.”

ACT 1: The Journey

  • At what point in your life did you know that coaching was what you wanted to do with your life? – “Honestly, I graduated from college and came home and started teaching. Luckily, one of my former defensive coordinators from high school, Sam Roper, had just taken a head coaching position and I was lucky enough to get hired by him to coach. He brought me on board to be a linebackers’ coach and he knew me well because I had played for him. It was really going to be a great situation. Here I was, 23 years old, and ready to start learning the ropes of coaching. Graduating college and then coming back to teach and coach is what I had planned, following in my father’s footsteps. Then about a week before the season started, our defensive coordinator took another job at a different school. I asked our head coach, “Man, well what are you going to do to replace him?” He looked at me and said, “You’re it.” So, in the very first game I had ever coached, I’m sitting there calling a defense for a team that was in the largest classification in the state of Florida. I had to learn everything it took to be a coordinator. I wasn’t just figuring out how to coach a position; I had to figure out how to not only lead the players, but lead the other defensive coaches, many of which were older and more experienced than I was at the time. But I was the guy. I jumped in with both feet and went to work. It was a great learning experience.”
  • How did that experience work out for you? – “Well, I did that for two seasons and then Danny Ford, the head coach at Clemson, came down and I got a chance to meet him. He gave me my big break to go to Clemson and be a graduate assistant. That was 30 years ago in 1988. But to answer your original question of when I knew coaching was for me; I knew the first week I was on the job at Seminole. I loved it. I loved being around the kids and other coaches. I loved the strategy of it all. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I was doing(laughing), I loved it all. I loved trying to figure it all out and that’s what I did. You get dealt the cards you get and you have to play the cards your dealt. When I got to Clemson I was at the bottom of the coaching totem pole. If Danny Ford told me to go drag this dead cow off his farm, I did it. We did every odd job there was to do. As a GA your job was to be seen and not heard. You did whatever they asked you to do. I was really appreciative of the opportunity Coach Ford gave me at Clemson. I learned a ton of football in my two years there. I worked under a coach named Bill Oliver, who at the time was probably the best defensive coordinator in the country. He began my college coaching training. All of that really served as the genesis of my career and my desire to be great at coaching the sport I had always loved.”
  • How did those days coaching in high school help shape the coach you came to be later in your career? – “High school football was some of the most enjoyable years I’ve had in coaching. I think it was because it was new to me and it didn’t feel like work, which is why I knew I loved it. I loved the kids and started a power lifting team with those kids as well. I think my time there really gave me a sense of humility. When you coach in high school you wear many different hats. You do it all. We were out there lining the fields. We painted the locker room and actually built the lockers in the locker room. That’s part of being a high school coach. Then jumping into the Xs and Os and trying to figure all of that out as a new coach was a challenge. But I knew that even though I didn’t know as much as the more experienced coaches, I believed that I could get those players to play harder for me than anybody else we played against. That was what I focused on. We didn’t have all of this college talent. We played with pride and an effort that allowed them to look back and know they left it all out on the field. We had no regrets. That time taught me how to communicate and connect to players. It taught me that there is a fine line between being their coach and being their friend. I never wanted to be their friend because I knew they wouldn’t play as hard as they did unless they respected me. You have to earn that respect. It starts with trust and it starts with the culture you build. I’ve carried that philosophy with me since then at every school that I’ve coached at in my career.”
  • You said you knew no matter what that above all else, you could get them to play harder than anybody else. Where inside of you did that confidence come from? – “It was the mentality I had as a player since I was 8 years old that I always carried with me in this sport. This is where my father’s influence comes into my life. That’s how I was raised. You worked hard. You played hard. You earned what you got. Nothing is ever given to you. You have to go out and earn it. So that’s the mentality I instilled in my players. We were going to do what we had to do to get the job done and have no regrets when the final whistle blew. That’s just who I am still to this day in everything I do. I still get up every morning and feel that way about whatever I’m going to do that day.”
  • You mentioned the influence your father had on you. What was the impact of your father on you and how did he shape who you became as a coach? – “He had the biggest role in shaping who I am as a coach. My father was a man’s man. He was a WWII Marine. I can’t even envision myself growing up in the era he did and doing what his generation did in WWII. I can’t even picture it. Yet, he was as humble as can be. The most honest and humble man I ever knew and a man who wouldn’t take a single dime from anybody. He lived under the mantra that you get what you earn. Now he was tough. He was playing football when he left school to volunteer and enlist in the Marines for WWII. Then he was thrown onto Okinawa. Do any research about what the battles were like in Okinawa and then come tell me if you could have done what they did and endured what they endured. I never wanted to disappoint my father. He was humble and old school; and I didn’t always agree with his perspective on things. But yet, I still wanted to be like him as a man. You know what? The older I got, the wiser my father got. When I look back I think he was right every time and I got it wrong every time. There’s a reason we call them our greatest generation.”
  • When you were coaching in high school, was the thought of coaching in college a goal of yours? – “No, not initially. But once I got into it and knew that this was my deal, I set high goals for myself. I’m the type of guy that wants to make it to the top in whatever I’m going to do. I’m going to put my head down and grind until I reach that point. Once I knew I loved coaching, I knew I wanted to take this all the way.”
  • Those Danny Ford years at Clemson were some of the peak years in Clemson’s football history. What was going through your mind as you packed up and headed to Clemson as a new GA? – “I couldn’t believe it was real. We won 21 games in my two years there and won an ACC Championship. We had first and second round draft picks everywhere you looked on our team. I remember driving there in my Ford Bronco that I had loaded to the gills. I was driving to Clemson thinking to myself, “I’m living the dream.” I was about to go work for one of the best programs in the country under one of the best coaching staffs in the country. Everybody would have killed to be in my shoes. Every meeting I walked into at that stadium I still felt like I was living the dream. The funny thing about it all is that as a GA, there really is no pressure on you. You just have to do everything they tell you to do and soak up every bit of knowledge you could. I felt like I was in graduate school for coaching. I was learning ball at the highest level and I didn’t have a concern in the world because I didn’t feel all of the pressure that comes with coaching. I still have notebooks of game plans from that time period that I still reference when I’m game planning now. I loved every minute of my time there. I was really living the dream.”
  • Who gave you your greatest coaching advice, and what was that advice? – “Man, that’s hard to break down into one piece of advice. I’ll tell you this. When I was at Texas, I used to try and sit next to Darryl Royal on plane rides to away games. I just wanted to pick his brain on anything that had to do with coaching. One thing that he told me that has always resonated with me was, “Gene, when I was a head coach I learned that you never underestimate the value of an assistant coach. For example, my defensive coordinator. I know to this day that I could never have done what I did in coaching without him.” I wasn’t a head coach then and didn’t exactly understand that assistant-to-head-coach dynamic from that perspective. Man, was he right. When I became an assistant coach to Larry Fedora, after having been a head coach, I knew that’s what I wanted to be for him. I wanted to bring to Larry the sense that, “I’ve got this. Let me take this off of your plate.” I had been in Larry’s shoes and knew the importance of an assistant to a head coach. The other coach who told me this same thing was Frank Broyles. I got to know him and spend some time with him after winning his award. He said, “Gene, the reason I came up with this award was because the assistants do so much and the value of what they do is so high, but it’s never recognized. The head coach gets the recognition. So the power and the value of your assistants is the most important thing a head coach needs to remember to be successful at this job.”
  • When you’re looking at your journey through your different stops in college coaching, where or when do you think you grew the most as a coach? – “It was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my six years at Stephen F. Austin. That was where I felt like I was in a football coaching lab. I had a head coach in John Pearce who was phenomenal. He just let us coach. He was really smart, but he was an offensive guy. He just let the guys on the defense coach and do what they knew how to do. We took over after a 1-10 season. It was a train wreck of a situation. We went 3-8 in our first year and the next year we went 8-3. Then we had a subpar year before winning 11 or 12 games and reached the semi-finals the following year. I came in there as an assistant and left there as a coordinator. I really developed my game as a coordinator there. I went everywhere in the country to learn whatever I could learn to get better. When NFL guys came through our program I had my list of questions ready to ask them. During my six years there I just spent every waking moment trying to learn more and grow as a coach. You could try things at that level and fall down, but you survived as a coach because it didn’t come with the pressure of an FBS job. You had a chance to redeem yourself, learn and be better the next time. Those years were huge for my career because they helped shape who I became as a coordinator.”
  • When you went to Central Florida you used to go shadow Tony Dungy and his staff at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and study what they did. What led you to do that? – “It was a unique situation that all started with Rod Marinelli. Rod had come to Stephen F. Austin while I was there to scout one of our players that they were considering taking in the NFL Draft. I used to pick his brain then on defensive line play when he came to campus. So when I got the job at Central Florida, I approached them and asked if they minded if I observe practice, watch film and basically take anything they would give me. Little did they know that every time they turned around, I would be standing there(laughing). That’s how I got to know Monte Kiffin and Rod. I soaked up everything I could. I watched hours of film and watched how they practiced. I can’t count how many times I drove back and forth on that highway between Orlando and Tampa during my four years at UCF. Coach Dungy and his staff could not have been more welcoming to me. My experiences with those guys influenced how I treat the younger guys in this profession now. I know how much it meant to have those guys open their door to me and I want to do the same for the guys coming up now in the coaching profession.”
  • You wanted to be the best in your profession. In 2005, you found yourself standing on the podium in Pasadena as a national champion. You guys were the best team in college football. What did it feel like, personally, to stand up there as a national champion? – “It was surreal. I remember vividly my wife and me on the bus driving away from the stadium in Pasadena. We had just won the national championship and capped off an undefeated season. I just remember sitting on that bus and I was absolutely exhausted. I remember looking behind us and seeing that rose on the stadium lit up. I just thought to myself, “Man, how blessed am I?” I kept telling myself to try and savor the moment because they are so hard to come by in this profession. We were heading to the hotel and I knew there would be a big celebration and parties and commotion. At that moment I really needed to just be alone for a while. I needed to just take a breath and reflect back on the journey and how I got there. I was a high school football coach and now I just won a national championship at the highest level of college football. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t emotional. The whole night was emotional. I went back to the hotel room and our kids were young so they were all asleep. After collecting my thoughts, I went downstairs and stayed up until the sun came up. I had some buddies in town and I spent that time with them just enjoying the moment and appreciating the journey. At the end of the day, it was really just a humbling experience and it’s hard to define it all with words.”

That concludes Act 1 of “A Coach’s Life” with Gene Chizik. Look for Act 2 on Wednesday on www.undertheheadset.com.

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