By Jeff Greenberg
When a successful coach has a tough season it’s not because he forgot how to coach overnight. It’s hard to win in college football. There are numerous factors that go into winning a single game, let alone having a winning season. So did losing his job at Auburn mean Gene Chizik was no longer wanted in college football? Did he all of the sudden become a bad coach? Well, if the amount of people reaching out to him to come to their school and coach is any indicator, I’d say that answer was no.
Coach Chizik had won the national championship at Auburn and he won more games in his first three years there than any other coach had won in the history of the program. But after his fourth season in Auburn, and for the first time in thirty years, Coach Chizik wasn’t coaching college football. In the final part of our series, “A Coach’s Life,” we bring you “ACT 3: The Next Journey.”
ACT 3: The Next Journey:
After being let go at Auburn did you think you were done with coaching at that moment? – “I didn’t really give it a lot of thought. I knew I still had a lot of great years of coaching in me. But I also knew that I had options at that moment. I could look at TV and radio or coaching. But I was focused on healing and getting back to a balance that was good for our family. If I got back into it I knew it was going to have to be a family decision. At this point it’s not about me, it’s about my family.”
At that moment, what defined the terms that would get you back into coaching? – “It needed to be a situation that I believed in. If I was going to be an assistant, it had to be with a head coach that I believed in. It had to be a head coach that I respected and would love to coach with. I knew we could be selective because we had options. At the end of the day I didn’t have to work anymore if I didn’t want to work. Coaching again was a choice for me at that point in my career, not a necessity. Over those first two years I had several opportunities with different programs to coach again and I said no to each of them.”
What made you say yes to Larry Fedora and North Carolina? – “First, I’ve always had a very high level of respect for Larry as a coach and as a person. Our career tracks were very similar in a unique way while we were assistants. He was a coordinator at Middle Tennessee when I was a coordinator at Central Florida. He was the OC at Florida when I was the DC at Auburn. Then he was the OC at Oklahoma State when I was the DC at Texas. I had met Larry years ago and almost worked with him when he was at Baylor. So I’ve always had a high level of respect for what he’s done in coaching. So we met in person to discuss the job at North Carolina. We talked about the job and what we could do together. After thinking about it there was really one thought or feeling that I kept coming back to. That thought was around the feeling that if there was ever a guy I really wanted to coach for and help win, it was Larry. I wanted to be a part of helping him win. He was great to me. He wanted to know what I needed to make it work and he made that happen. Larry and Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director at North Carolina, were phenomenal. We had a great two years there together. I’m glad I did it.”
How did you handle the transition from being a head coach to an assistant? – “I fell right back into it easily to be honest. But I fell right back into it because I knew what Larry wanted and I knew what Larry needed. I told him, “If I take this position and join you there in Chapel Hill, I want to take half of this team off of your plate. You won’t have to worry about the defense. I got it.” I said all of these things because I knew what it was like to be a head coach. I knew exactly the amount of burden on his shoulders. I had sat in his chair. I wanted to take some of that burden off of his plate. I didn’t realize this when I was an assistant, but I did later when I was a head coach. There are things that may happen on the defense or the offense in the day-to-day operations of the program that never need to reach the head coach’s desk. The coordinators and the assistants can handle some of the minutiae of the day-to-day stuff. That was part of my role at North Carolina. I wanted to help the staff understand what a head coach goes through on a daily basis and help change our mentality so that everything was running smooth and efficient. What I learned as a head coach is that the amount of stuff coming at you on a daily basis that has nothing to do with strategy or coaching can suck the life out of you. My goal was to help Larry be able to have the time he needed and wanted to work on what he needed to work on to help us win.”
Looking back now, are you glad you took the job at North Carolina? – “I’ll tell you right now, I loved every bit of my time working at North Carolina and working with Larry Fedora. I thought he was extremely organized as a head coach. As organized a head coach as I’ve worked with in football. He didn’t win 11 games by accident and 19 games during my two seasons there. He’s a great football coach. I don’t care how many games they won this last year. And you know what? Bubba Cunningham giving Larry another year after going 3-9 last season was the exact right thing to do. No doubt in my mind. There are few times I can remember in college football where the athletic director didn’t panic and allowed the head coach to turn the ship around. Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly are two great examples. Larry has earned that trust and I think Bubba made the right decision.”
The reason that you’re not at North Carolina anymore, and it’s something you discussed publicly at the time, is your family. What has this last year been like for you and your family? – “It’s been nothing short of outstanding. I couldn’t have scripted this situation better if I tried. The timing was impeccable. The ability for me to be here with my son during his last two years of high school has been priceless. To be with him through football, baseball and things like taking the ACT is something I can’t replace with any job in the world. I get to be his coach at home and help him navigate his own journey through sports and his recruiting experience that has begun. I’d like to think I know a little bit about that process and could be of some assistance to him(laughing). And then there are my daughters who go to school here at Auburn. I get to see them every week now for dinner or for lunch or whatever fits their schedule because I’m here. We just get to spend so much more time together as a family. I’ve tried to live my life with the mantra of no regrets. I’ve loved everything I’ve experienced in football and I’ll never forget those experiences. But when I was sitting there after the bowl game that second year at North Carolina and thought about my family, I knew I was missing those experiences that I would never get back. I had only seen my son play two football games in two years. I did not want to look back at my work life and regret missing any more family time.”
Was it an easy decision to make then? – “In terms of my family and wanting to go home to them? Yes, that was a no-brainer. But on the football side of that decision? Let me tell you something. It was hard to leave North Carolina. It was hard to leave Larry. It was hard to leave that staff and our players. But once I was home, with my wife and my kids, I knew I made the right decision.”
What’s your future look like right now? – “Well, I’m in the middle of my contract with ESPN. I’ve really enjoyed what I’m doing with them and they’ve been fantastic to me. When that deal is up, hopefully they’ll want me back. I still get football offers as well. To be honest, I’m not thinking about that a lot. I’m enjoying what I have now, and what I have now is pretty remarkable.”
How has the coaching profession changed the most in your eyes? – “The first thing that pops into my mind is recruiting. The recruiting aspect of the coaching profession has exponentially changed in the last ten years. The recruiting calendar, the effects of social media and what is expected from a time commitment now in recruiting has made it extremely difficult. I think it’s hard for both the prospects and the coaches. It’s become a 24/7 dynamic that you can’t ever turn off if you’re going to be great at it. You have to have the right recruiters on your staff now or you’ll have a hard time competing in the long run. The other factor that has completely changed coaching is the money. It’s changed everything about coaching. In the NFL some guys are fired after one year. In college some guys are getting fired after two years which just doesn’t make any sense because it sets your program back more in those cases. But it’s happening because of the money involved now. Coordinators are now being paid seven figures, and so their tenures are scrutinized more now as well. All of this instability is stressful on the younger guys, the assistants. It’s stressful for their families. I’m lucky that in my career the moves we made were always steps up in coaching. It was always a better job. I only got fired once in my 30 years of coaching and it was after I had reached that head coaching chair. A lot of young guys today have to make moves every couple of years as head coaches and coordinators have had their tenures shortened after getting fired. That’s not easy on a coach. That’s not easy on their family. Yes, the money is better, but that doesn’t make it easier or make all of those moves better for the spouses and their kids. Also, I don’t think it’s good for the student-athletes. I don’t think it’s good for the overall well-being of the programs.”
How can that dynamic change? – “I think it’s only going to change when you have athletic directors who are comfortable in their own skin and are not swayed by social media and the amount of voices that are in their ear. The guys that are in places of authority feel the pressure from so many directions now. Look, you don’t have tell coaches when a year went badly. The coaches know it more than anybody. They get it. But that doesn’t mean immediately cutting the head off of everything is the answer. Coaches that have had one bad season didn’t just become ignorant and forget how to coach. If they’ve been successful before give them the chance to come back and fix the issues, provided there are no systemic problems. The existing head coach knows better than anybody else how to fix what went wrong and how to do it with the players that are in that locker room. It’s just going to take the people making the hiring decisions to have confidence in the hires that they’ve made. They have to remember that the big boosters are just fans too. Most of them are experts in fields outside of athletics. They don’t have the expertise that an athletic director has. They certainly don’t know what it takes to run an athletic department. The athletic directors that can hold their own, be confident in their abilities and be able to effectively communicate their vision and opinions will be the ones that change the dynamics we are seeing in coaching today.”
Knowing what you know now about the coaching career journey, what would tell a young Gene Chizik 30 years ago as he was about to enter into this profession? – “First, don’t be a job-chaser. Whatever job you have, you put everything you’ve got into that job. Second, you grind and you work in your silo every day to figure out how you can be the best help to your coordinator and your head coach. You work to be the Broyles Award winner at your position. I don’t care what league you’re in you figure out how to do your job better than anybody else. Be great at your job and make your coordinator and your head coach’s jobs easier. Third, be uniquely you. Don’t imitate another coach’s style if that doesn’t fit who you are. Don’t try to be Knute Rockne. You’re not him. You’re not going to be him. There’s already been one of him. Be you. Be emphatically you. And finally, treat everybody you encounter with respect. Fellow coaches and your players. You respect them all. If you can understand those four things, you don’t have to about getting to the top because you’re going to be there one day.”
That concludes “A Coach’s Life” with Gene Chizik. We would like to thank Coach Chizik for his time. You can follow him on Twitter at @CoachGeneChizik.