A Coach Retreats From Success

We continue with this white paper in the profile of a prominent football coach who reached the pinnacle of success only to retreat at a record pace.

We now turn to the 2011 season and the beginning of Gene Chizik’s historic decline.

A magnificent national championship season inspired a spectacular celebration that was followed shortly by a shocking armed robbery by four Auburn players. Those amazing events ominously mirrored the rapid rise and fall of Gene Chizik and Auburn’s football fortunes.

Success goes to his head
In 2011 Chizik wrote a book entitled All In, which had been his team’s war cry during its championship ascent.  But Chizik’s book really should have been named All About Me.  While offensive guru Gus Malzahn, quarterback extraordinaire Cam Newton, and defensive star Nick Fairley had basked in the limelight in 2010, Chizik had apparently stewed in the background. In his book he barely mentioned those people. As his envy surfaced in his narrative, success had clearly gone to his head—the kiss of death. His decision-making—which reflected both arrogance and jealousy—quickly faltered as he fell victim to a series of self-defeating blind spots.

A lack of discipline and focus had begun to permeate the team. Chizik’s demoralizing star system—his unchecked favoritism—had mushroomed into other areas. For one thing, he was secretly favoring his own star which now shown so brightly.

After Auburn’s dramatic 2012 decline, Heath Evans, a former Auburn player who went on to enjoy a long NFL career, revealed that when he’d worked out with team members during the 2011 pre-season what he saw was “scary.” Missing were “discipline, structure, accountability, and most importantly, mental and physical toughness…it’s non-existent,” Evans said. Without the right coach, Evans observed, even the toughest team member could crumble. “Great coaches know how to make great men, and they’re built,” Evans noted. “You don’t come out of the womb with great character, great discipline, great emotional and physical fortitude.”

Like most top athletes, Evans emphasized mental toughness over physical strength, and Chizik’s mental toughness had started to go south—and his players read the message. It’s a mental game—like the rest of life.

Chizik’s blind spots were multiplying—and quickly. His decisions left much to be desired. He replaced stalwart defensive line coach Tracy Rocker with Mike Pelton, an Auburn alum who had worked under Chizik in 2007-08 at Iowa State. Pelton proved wholly inadequate. Under Rocker, physicality would not have been a problem, and the increasingly awful line play would simply not have been tolerated.

Confession of lacking discipline — hallmark of retreat
In May 2011 at the Auburn Fellowship of Christian Athletes annual fund-raising banquet in Birmingham with virtually his entire team present, Chizik was noticeably less supportive of his players. His speech stressed players’ misbehavior and their need to make better choices – in part likely in response to the robbery. But those words suggest that unconsciously he was quick-reading his own misbehavior and his own poor decisions—secretly observing the proverbial log in his own eye.  Deep down he knew he was slipping.

His guilt-inducing comments point to the unconscious guilt which invariably comes with great success. It’s the guilt which successful people consciously experience when they realize how much success they’ve had in comparison to others. But deep down such guilt can be an unbelievable powerful motivator.

For instance, when he was a basketball star for the Detroit Pistons, Isiah Thomas’s success guilt would surface whenever he passed through “the hood” where all his friends remained trapped in poverty. Thomas credited teammate Bill Lambeer for helping him overcome the guilt.

At the following year’s Auburn FCA meeting in May 2012, Chizik revealed how success guilt was eating at him from the inside out. Already the coach was telling us the secret story behind his personality change, how and why he was no longer the same confident leader. Success arrogance and guilt were two unseen culprits.

Chizik rejects reading deeper
At previous FCA meetings I had brief conversations with Chizik about the best-selling book Blink (see blog explanation page) which underscores “the new unconscious mind” that intuitively and instantaneously quick-reads situations. An Auburn Board of Trustees member and prominent leader had first urged him to read the book. Chizik expressed interest and eventually read Blink. I emphasized to him how his players were quick-reading him moment-by-moment for guidance, that he had far greater influence than he realized.

We discussed the step past Blink where he could listen to his players for their deeper verbal messages—and I sent him my book, The Deeper Intelligence, which explained how. But he implied that he already understood how the deeper mind worked and used it for reading body language.

He never understood that his quick-read unconscious really existed. He never grasped his propensity for blind spots. He never realized any of this even though his super intelligence progressively confessed to his own failures and blind spots.

‘Them boys are going to try and drown us’
Already in a hidden retreat from success and violating fundamental rules of success (for instance by failing as a disciplinarian), Chizik provided the key story four months later by telling us success—and his inability to handle it—was “The Issue” for him. On September 12, 2011, two days after barely winning his first two games of the new season, he spoke to the Birmingham Monday Morning Quarterback Club which raises more than a million dollars a year for children’s charities. I was especially interested in what he would have to say on the heels of a national championship.

The coach casually related a powerful story about the dangers of success. Remember, the right-brain unconscious mind communicates its intuitive quick-read on a situation through symbolic stories. In other words, we need to read Chizik’s story like a self-parable.

He described how the week before the Mississippi State game (which Auburn had just won) a player pleaded with his teammates to look at the impending game as if the MSU players were going to try to drown each one of them. The player vowed it would take more than one opponent, maybe three or four could drown him, but not one. Read the primitive message, “Them boys are coming over here to kill us. They’re going to roll in here like a tidal wave to drown us because we’re the defending national champion.” In other words, succeed and you get death threats. This threat doesn’t just register consciously, it reverberates to the deepest level of the psyche like a post-traumatic stress disorder experience. I could give you hundreds of examples.

Think about it. Everyone wants a shot at whoever’s on top. College football is a particularly brutal game, and it mobilizes primitive “killer instincts.” Ask anyone who has played in the trenches. College football players face unimaginable near-homicidal impulses—as Chizik’s player so aptly put it. And here was Coach Chizik himself on the heels of enormous success presenting the classical underlying equation “success means sudden destruction.” What goes up must come down. Of course coaches and football players are taught to deny such emotions, but like everyone else they have a deeper quick-read unconscious mind of their own. This deeper mind often casts the deciding vote, and for successful people and teams it can become the overriding motivator—following success.
This is a primary reason why so many prominent individuals retreat on the heels of success in various self-sabotaging ways—or at times on the verge of success. (Successful coaches know how to navigate these tricky waters but Chizik didn’t—as he will remind us a year later.)

Chizik’s overlooks his message — Two trains of thought
Later, at the end of  the next season, when reviewing his failures Gene Chizik unconsciously described his key idea regarding the mind—“train of thought.”  For example, he will state, “That’s not my train of thought.”  In so doing he points to the most impressive thing about the mind: at any given moment we have two trains of thought, one conscious and the other an amazing quick-read unconscious. Of course by nature we are consciously in denial of that deeper train of thought.

This is truly difficult to comprehend at first because we’re all biased against such a possibility since we can’t immediately control it—unless we learn how to hear its messages. But this powerful idea confronts us. Do we actually have two trains of thought going on in our minds? The world of sports provides striking examples of this reality. Recall Gladwell’s book Blink which demonstrated simultaneous normal-speed conscious thinking and super-speed unconscious thinking. Truly we have learned something new and startling about the human mind.

In his quarterback club speech, Gene Chizik revealed two trains of thought about success. First, in repeating his player’s story, consciously he was discussing someone else. But telling the story at that moment was his idea—his speech, his words. He had chosen to repeat the story, suggesting the idea was rattling around in his unconscious mind. He suggests his super intelligence was attempting to get him to pay attention to the unrecognized pressures he was facing. In a nutshell Chizik confirmed that a powerful psychological obstacle associated with success is potential destruction.

Bryant and Dye confirm danger of success
Bear Bryant once summed it up: “Stick your head above the crowd and somebody will try and knock it off.”

After Chizik’s speech I waited in line to speak with him on the dais. Patiently he greeted everyone in front of me, and then suddenly he walked off as if I were not there. He knew exactly who I was and whether his avoidance was consciously intentional or not—most importantly unconsciously he didn’t want to see me.

He walked several feet away when I called out his name and he came back to greet me. Symbolically I represented the deeper mind, the very thing he was running from: the deep fear of danger caused by success.

This incident spoke volumes about Gene Chizik’s blind spots. His unspoken message in walking off was: “I am avoiding the powerful threat of success which my team and I are facing—I am retreating.” He was running from himself. He was running from success and all the pressures and danger it represented.

Still, he listened to my brief counsel about the extreme burden of success he was clearly carrying. I  told him about how Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs had retreated from success the season after winning the Super Bowl (that story later) and of how success stirred up powerful emotions prompting potential retreat. I mentioned how, in a clinical study, the dreams of NFL players were filled with violent images remarkably similar to those of war veterans. Then I asked him which player had told the “success means drowning” story, and he declined to tell me. His response suggests that he didn’t want to admit he was actually the main one who feared success.

Chizik needed help to decipher his own deeper motivation—the real reason I believe he told the story was a cry for help to understand himself.  Sadly he continued to operate in massive denial. Over the next two seasons, his blind spots would progressively worsen. But he was clearly explaining how and why the surprising “other post-championship Gene Chizik” emerged. We needed to explain such a drastic change in his behavior.

Ironically former Auburn coach Pat Dye once communicated the identical idea linking success and danger. In 1982 after breaking a nine-year losing streak in the Iron Bowl with Auburn’s memorable 23-22 victory over Alabama and Bear Bryant (Dye’s former mentor), Dye stood at the post-game interview podium. Suddenly a loud noise reverberated through the room when the interview trailer he was in fell off its support in a back corner. Immediately, Dye responded to the sharp noise, “I thought I’d just been shot,” he said. “I always said if I beat Alabama, I would die.”

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