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.
Gene Chizik was telling us that success was “The Issue” on his plate.
His team had already told us that in the off-season—very quickly. Chizik had shown us that certain stars were treated differently. But now he had a team full of stars, national champions all. On a cold January 22, 2011, a dozen days after beating Oregon, Auburn staged a monumental championship ceremony in Alabama drawing nearly 60,000 proud fans to Jordan-Hare Stadium. Around the same time, the players received their national championship rings.
In March of 2011, barely two months after Auburn won the national title, four players with no apparent history of trouble-making decided they would rob a person in a nearby trailer home. They had reportedly been drinking and smoking synthetic marijuana.
It was a stupendously stupid crime. With only one gunman among them, the players took money and other items from another college student who had been entertaining a female friend at the trailer. Returning to the getaway car where the driver had remained, the robbers rolled five minutes down the road before the Auburn police—who had been immediately alerted—pulled them over. All four players were arrested and one has since gone to trial.
The three who ventured inside the trailer had been expected to be key players when the 2011 season got underway in the fall. The senior-to-be gunman, Michael McNeil, certainly anticipated an NFL future and the other two with him in the trailer might also have developed into professional prospects. The home invasion plan had been hatched in an apartment where star freshman running back Michael Dyer was also present. The four thieves had even taken Dyer’s .45-caliber handgun to pull off the robbery.
For the sleepy, gentlemanly town of Auburn this was a surreal moment—four heralded college football players had been arrested and charged with a senseless and dangerous crime. Right off we can believe that the incident resulted from “success craziness”—albeit it unconscious. Why else would these players behave in such a strikingly unusual fashion—even considering drug use? It was as if they were simply relinquishing their success. This becomes even clearer when we take a close look at Michael Dyer.
In many ways Dyer was a symbolic example and a precursor to coach Gene Chizik’s eventual success sabotage. In 2010 he had been one of the two or three top running back recruits in the nation, and he eventually broke Bo Jackson’s longstanding Auburn rushing record as a freshman. But it was at the National Championship Game against Oregon where Dyer suddenly was catapulted to fame. He rushed for 147 yards with two memorable runs—one unbelievable 35-yard run in which he rolled over the Oregon tackler on the final drive leading to a chip shot Auburn field goal. Michael Dyer —not Cam Newton—was voted the MVP of the game, and it quickly became more success than he could handle before he finally pulled a “Maurice Clarett.”
As a powerful freshman running back, Clarett lead the Ohio State Buckeyes to the national championship in 2002 where he was also MVP of the game. Basically Clarett became so dysfunctional and difficult that he never played another meaningful down either in college or as a professional player. He was suspended from Ohio State after being charged with filing a false police report about $10,000 worth of missing merchandise before being arrested a few years later on armed robbery and weapons charges. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Success had gone to Clarett’s head in a huge way.
At Auburn, to his credit Dyer lasted two seasons. While he had a productive All-SEC-type sophomore year rushing, he was a disruptive, self-centered force on the team. He had developed a secret drug problem – at least to the degree — and was suspended prior to the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl game. He was told major behavioral changes had to take place before returning to the team.
When Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left to take the head coaching job at Arkansas State, Dyer—an Arkansas native—decided to transfer with him and “get a fresh start” even though he would likely have to sit out the next season as a transfer.
Here was Dyer sitting on a gold mine at “running back U” Auburn, who with another productive season would have signed a lucrative NFL contract. But his behavior was clearly signaling retreat and self-sabotage.
At ASU, Dyer continued on his decidedly self-destructive course. He was a star in the spring game but around the same time he was caught speeding in a car at more than 90 mph while high on marijuana with more in his vehicle and his girlfriend by his side. The highway patrolman who pulled the football star over let him off with a warning and soon lost his job over the permissiveness. When the story came to light Dyer then lost his job as Coach Malzahn kicked him off the team. (Reports have since surfaced that Dyer, who did not play in 2012, is now getting help with his drug problem.)
Later, at the trial of one of his former Auburn teammate’s, Dyer testified under oath that he had been battling a synthetic marijuana problem for at least his first two years at Auburn. His abuse of “spice” —which had apparently started back in high school as his fame grew—had worsened as time went on. Understand addiction is just one form of self-sabotage which undermines success. Often it begins with success.
Looking back we see how fame became increasingly difficult for Dyer to handle. Early success can be especially tumultuous for young men to navigate.
Now we can better understand how success produced two Gene Chiziks: one “pre” and one “post” national championship. Take nothing away from what he achieved. Of course he had some good luck in 2010, but winning teams always do. As will we see during his first two seasons his players read his message—“I want to win badly” —and followed his plan to a tee. Yes, he was blessed with extraordinary players, but he managed to keep the team together. Chizik’s message gradually changed, however, over the next two seasons.
If we pay attention he will tell us how and why. He will explain to us how his somewhat subtle but powerful message became “Men, as your leader I am now in a disguised but powerful retreat from success. Follow my lead—read my deeper messages, especially my behavior.”