“A Coach’s Life” with Gene Chizik: Act 2 – Reaching the Pinnacle

By Jeff Greenberg

Football is a sport that is played by kids of all ages, from Pop Warner to the NFL. At every level, there are head coaches, coordinators and assistants. All of these coaches have career goals like you would in any other profession. For some, they like coaching right where they are, whether it be high school, college or one of the many levels in college football. There are coaches that prefer to be an assistant or a coordinator. They like the connection they have with their specific position group. Then there are coaches that know they want to be a head coach; and they want to be a head coach and reach the pinnacle of their profession. They want to be a champion.

In the first part of this series with Coach Chizik, he discussed how he got into coaching and how he worked his way up to be the defensive coordinator for the University of Texas when they won their national championship in 2005. After winning the national championship as a coordinator, Coach Chizik accepted his first head coaching job. This week in our series, “A Coach’s Life,” we bring you “Act 2: Reaching the Pinnacle.”

ACT 2: Reaching the Pinnacle:

  • Soon after winning the national championship at Texas you got your fist head coaching job. What was going through your mind at that moment when you were offered the job? – “Once again, it was just a humbling feeling to be honest. I was thinking to myself, “How is this happening to me? Why am I the lucky one?” Now, don’t get me wrong, there was a ton of hard work that got me to that point, and I never lost sight of that. A ton of ups and downs, but also a lot of learning and preparing for this moment. I had worked for a long time to put myself in this position. Even knowing that, when the moment actually came, I felt blessed and humbled to be given that opportunity. I can tell you, I thought I knew what that feeling in that moment would be like, but I didn’t. All of us, when we’re assistants, think we know what that moment will be like. But we don’t. Until you sit in that seat, you don’t know what it’s like. One thing Tony Dungy told me a long time ago was, “That seat is a lonely seat.” He was 100% accurate. But I loved every minute of it and all of those years of working to get there were worth it.”
  • What was it like to be able to tell your wife that all of the hard work and the sacrifices your family made had finally paid off in terms of getting a head coaching job? – “It was incredible and it was a moment the two of us will never forget. We had moved 5 times in 6 years at that point. What fans don’t realize is that when a coach moves, the wife is the one that takes the brunt of all of the stress and work it takes to move a family. We have to report to our new job immediately. That leaves your wife to handle everything from packing to buying and selling houses to finding new schools for your kids. A coach’s wife is the rock of every coaching family and they take on the bulk of the burden this job can levy on you at home. So to be able to tell her we reached a major goal of ours was an amazing feeling. Of course, you don’t have a lot of time to sit there and savior that moment. But I’ll never forget that feeling in that moment. It’s a special memory for me.”
  • You mentioned how an assistant doesn’t know exactly what a head coach goes through until they’re sitting in that seat. What were some of the things you encountered in that first year as a head coach that you didn’t expect? – “I didn’t realize how many decisions, that are really outside the realm of X’s and O’s. You’re making at least 30 decisions a day, both large and small. You have to decide things from when you want study hall to start to what flight and airline you want to use to travel each week. Your Sports Information Director is coming at you. Your academic folks are coming at you. Your strength and nutrition staff is coming at you. Your Director of Football Operations is coming at you. Every decision to each group is critical to the entire program. You have to decide it all and make the final call. A million decisions before you even get to the point of discussing how you want to install your offensive and defensive systems. It’s like drinking water from a firehose. And it never stops. The amount of decisions a head coach makes in areas outside of actual coaching blew my mind. That’s a perfect example of what you don’t know until you’re in that seat. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
  • In what areas as a head coach did you grow the most in that first year? – “I think I made my biggest strides that first year in just learning and knowing how I wanted to run and organize our program. I felt really good going into year two in being confident in how we were running everything within the program. I loved the culture we were building in the program. We had a huge rebuild situation handed to us when we got to Iowa State. It wasn’t going to happen overnight. We had a lot of areas we needed to improve, but none of that could happen without the right culture. So I think I grew the most in learning how to run a program and build a culture that would allow us to rebuild the right way. The record may not have reflected it at that moment, but we were heading in the right direction. At the end of the second season people within the program, including the athletic director, could see the difference we were making and that we were headed in the right direction.”
  • How difficult was it for you to make the decision to leave everything you were building at Iowa State and take the job at Auburn? – “It was difficult from the standpoint that I loved Jamie Pollard, my athletic director. He gave me the opportunity. I really loved the kids in that locker room. The kids we spent two years getting to come to Ames. Walking into that locker room to tell them I was leaving was difficult. Those guys weren’t happy. It was a tough meeting, but I wasn’t leaving town without speaking with them face-to-face. I knew it would be tough because I talked about loyalty all the time with those guys. And here I was the one that was leaving. It was also tough because I believed in the guys in that room looking at me during that meeting. I just couldn’t turn down a job like Auburn because those jobs don’t come around very often. That didn’t make that meeting any easier.”
  • When you arrived at Auburn, you assembled a “Dream Team” type of staff there. What was that like and how did you do it? – “It was awesome. A lot of them I didn’t previously know in terms of a personal relationship. I knew who they were but hadn’t worked with all of them. Those guys are still some of the best assistants in the game today and are doing great things at the schools they’re at now. I was fortunate at that time that when I called to offer those guys a job, they said yes. We all knew what kind of opportunity we had in front of us.”
  • When did you know that you had something special in that team during your second season at Auburn? – “After the Clemson game. We were down 17-0 at Clemson. We came back to beat them in overtime. I sat there, like everybody else that night, and watched Cam Newton come in and take that game over. I came in the staff meeting that next Monday and said, “Guys, Cam Newton can take us all the way to a national championship.” He was that good. What people don’t realize about that team is that we had the best offensive player in the country in Cam, and the best defensive player in the country in Nick Fairley. Other than that, we had a collection of good college football players. We didn’t have a bunch of NFL guys on our roster. That’s what was so special about that team is that they really embodied the term “team.” They won because everybody did their job. They all had a hand in winning the national championship.”
  • You talked about the feeling you had as an assistant when you won the national championship at Texas. Now you’re the head coach and they’re handing you the national championship trophy on that podium. Describe that feeling. – “I can’t. I really can’t. I do remember looking around and seeing a sea of Auburn fans still in the stadium. The Oregon fans were gone and it was just us and those Auburn fans celebrating this together. I thought about how many years they had waited for this moment. The Auburn fan base is so passionate and for years they had to watch Alabama have this moment. Now that moment had come for them. I just felt so awesome for them thinking about the fact that our fans could finally say, “We won it all.” I’m talking modern-day football now. I was extremely emotional for the fans and the players. They had all been through so much. We had about 30 seniors that had been through so much during their time at Auburn. I loved that moment for all of them. They got to walk out of there with a ring and as I said earlier, those are extremely hard to come by in college football.”
  • You reached the pinnacle of your profession at that moment. You were the national champions and you, personally, won just about every coach-of-the-year award there was to win. Two short years later, you and Auburn parted ways. What were you thinking on your drive home from that office for the last time? – “It was extremely difficult. I had been blessed to have a lot of success in my coaching career and in 2012 it all came crashing down in one season. It was hard for me to reconcile the fact that I was the winningest coach in my first three seasons in the history of that incredible program. We had won the national championship. The fourth season was a bad year with a lot of circumstances involved in that result. It was hard for me to reconcile that I wasn’t going to be given the chance to fix it, particularly when I felt like nobody knew better than I did what exactly it was going to take to fix it. But I know this is the nature of this business. But you know what? On that drive home, as you asked, my mind was on my family. How was I going to protect my family? They were getting absolutely crushed by all of this stuff. Our kids at school and even my wife around town. It was toxic. You as a coach are prepared to take the heat. You understand it. Your kids and your wife don’t understand it. They’re not ready or trained for that. I had actually gone to the middle school and sat down with the administration there. I told them, “I expect you to protect, not just my kids, but all of the kids of my coaches while they’re at this school.” Bullying any of these kids because of how our season went was not going to be tolerated. The leaders and teachers at the school did a phenomenal job doing just that. But that’s what people don’t understand about this profession. And it’s just gotten worse and worse because in the era of social media, every single person has a voice. And those voices become very loud and very toxic. I know there are those that will say that’s why they pay us the salaries that they do. I would love for somebody to ever say that to me personally because at that point, money has nothing to do with how your family is treated when you lose. There’s no amount of money that covers the pain and torment people can put your family through. At that point I wasn’t thinking about my next job. I was ready to go into protection mode for that next year. I knew that we needed a year of healing and I wanted to be there for my family in that healing. We needed that time to detox from the toxic environment we were surrounded by there at the end of our tenure. So that’s what was going through my mind on that drive home. I wanted to protect my family and the families of the guys on my staff.”
  • You just said that you wanted to be the healing source for your family. But you’re human and you had to live through that experience as well. Who was that source of healing for you? – “You know what? My best friends were there for me. Some of them are ministers who weren’t in the football world. They were great guides through this process. Other friends were there for me and just didn’t waiver in their support for me. I’m blessed to call them friends. You learn a lot about people in these situations. What you find is that there are people that you thought were in your corner, but when things start going south they scatter like roaches. It’s not the easiest thing to realize when you see people who you thought had your back abandon you and your family. But what it did was reveal and remind me who my real friends were and they’ve been with me through it all. My circle of people that I truly trust and can count on is very small. That’s both by design, and it’s a result of people eliminating themselves from that circle. When you’re in the coaching business you learn that there are people that are always there with you; and then there are people that are only there for the winning.

That concludes Act 2 of “A Coach’s Life” with Gene Chizik. Look for Act 3 on Friday on www.undertheheadset.com.

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