This is the first in a series of a articles which are a white paper on the profile of a prominent football coach who reached the pinnacle of success only to retreat at a record pace.
From ‘All In to All Out’
As college football prepares to begin its bowl season, a major player on the scholastic gridiron stunned its faithful fans by sabotaging its long-held tradition of success. The performance of the 2012 Auburn University football team represented an unprecedented collapse of historic proportions. No other former national champion has fallen so far so fast. Two short years after winning it all, Auburn posted the worst record ever for a former champion. The team lost nine of its 12 games.
The Auburn Tigers won the 2010 National Championship by beating the Oregon Ducks in the Bowl Championship Series on January 10, 2011, to cap off a magnificent undefeated season. Under second-year head coach Gene Chizik, the 2010 Tigers completely dominated the prestigious Southeastern Conference and soundly defeated the South Carolina Gamecocks 56 to 17 in that season’s SEC Championship Game. The following year, Auburn posted a somewhat respectable record of 8-5 and ended the season with a victory over the Virginia Cavaliers in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
In 2012, however, the Tigers entirely lost their roar. The team failed to win a single SEC game—going 0-8 in the conference. And they lost big—suffering unimaginable beat downs in big games with Texas A&M (63-21), longstanding rival Georgia (38-0), and finally a 49-0 loss to arch-rival Alabama. So porous was the Tigers’ defense that in all three games the scores could easily have been doubled.
Auburn fans had never seen anything like it, and—although they’d seen it with their own eyes—nobody could explain it. After the demoralizing lopsided defeat by the Texas A&M Aggies, longtime Auburn sportswriter Phillip Marshall (auburnundercover.com) noted that he had been watching Auburn games since 1960 when he was ten years old and this was by far the team’s most inexcusable performance he’d ever witnessed. Then Auburn followed it with two more.
Everybody was puzzled, but—looking back—there had, in fact, been warnings.
Do players always know when they quit?
During an interview, Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden once told me that there comes a time in a football game when an opponent will quit mentally – often unconsciously — when deep down they know they are beat. We could say the same thing about Auburn’s entire 2012 season going south. As the season progressed, the Tigers began to quit earlier and earlier in every game. But the way the team quit was not exactly the way we usually think of quitting. In fact, recruiting had been strong as usual. Players and coaches alike insisted that practices remained spirited and strenuous. The effort was there. But there was a definite mental quitting they couldn’t completely recognize.
In the end, Auburn went 3–9 and 0–8 in the SEC, and in its final three conference games the Tigers were outscored 150–21. So what happened? How do you explain why a team with plenty of potential, a team used to being on top, so thoroughly forsakes its capabilities?
Stories have emerged describing coach Gene Chizik’s increasingly dysfunctional behavior—which explains some of what happened. But why did it emerge so strongly only after he had won a national championship?
Chizik speaks between the lines
We shall see that Gene Chizik himself will answer the most important questions explaining the team’s incredible implosion. In his public comments and during brief conversations I had with him over his four years at Auburn his brilliant, quick-read unconscious mind revealed far more than he realized. Before that disastrous season resulted in his firing on November 25, 2012, Chizik’s own deeper mind was explaining that his team was performing poorly because of the emergence of blind spots – blind spots which seriously clouded his vision, blind spots brought on by success itself.
He was unconsciously attempting to understand himself, hoping against hope that he would catch on before it was too late. Sadly, he never did. But he has much to teach us about success and failure. Chizik’s story will help us begin to grasp the most underappreciated and least understood pressure in sports and elsewhere—the intense pressure imposed by success itself.
You will see as Chizik reads himself and speaks between the lines. Since I have been trained to decipher those messages, this is the story I am reporting.
Background history–Chizik the Loser?
It would be an uninformed mistake to simply label Chizik an incompetent loser. Initially that was the tag he carried into Auburn when he arrived in 2008 saddled with an unimpressive 5-19 record from his former coaching job at Iowa State. So we must first appreciate the enormous, seemingly unexpected success he achieved at Auburn in in his first two seasons. How many men win a national title in their fourth year of coaching and in their second season at a new job?
Gene Chizik was an unpopular choice as Auburn’s new head coach in 2008 due to his losing record in Iowa, but he had a sterling record as a defensive coordinator. In 2004 at Auburn his work with the defense was a big factor in the Tigers’ 13-0 undefeated season. Wooed to Texas as defensive coordinator in 2005, his defense stopped USC’s offensive juggernaut at the end of the national championship game — to leave time for quarterback Vince Young to work his magic and win the title for Texas. Chizik coached three defensive backs in a row who each went on to win Thorpe trophies awarded to college football’s defensive back of the year. Carlos Rogers at Auburn in 2004 was the first. He felt so strongly about Chizik’s selection as Auburn’s new coach prior to the 2009 season that he left his pro team, the Washington Redskins, for a few days to fly in to Auburn to show his support. Similarly, former Auburn linebacker Anatarious Willliams solidly backed Chizik’s hire. He not only recalled how thoroughly Chizik prepared his players for games but said that what he missed most after his collegiate playing days were over was Gene Chizik the man. His players all thought Chizik was a great leader, and so they played hard for him. No wonder he was such an effective recruiter.
And in two short seasons as head coach, he led Auburn to the top of the football world as 2010 national champions. Blessed with two extraordinary players—Cam Newton and Nick Fairley—Auburn’s season was glorious. But don’t think it was all about those two star players. Chizik had come in and restored Auburn’s good name, gone head-to-head with arch-rival Alabama and Nick Saban both on the field and in recruiting. Against all sorts of odds, Chizik put together a plan and undergirded an “Auburn family” mentality that was second to none.
He hired an effective coaching staff including offensive guru Gus Malzahn who recruited Cam Newton and Michael Dyer. His offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, developed his unit into one of the best in the country. Chizik hired defensive line coach and former Lombardi winner Tracy Rocker who pushed Nick Fairley and the rest of the line to new heights. That line and a solid game plan from defensive coordinator Ted Roof shut down Oregon’s high-powered offense in the BCS National Championship Game. Chizik’s coaches were all gifted recruiters, and so he and his staff significantly broadened Auburn’s recruiting horizons all over the country.
At the top
After winning it all in 2010, Chizik was sitting on top of the college football world. He had won a national championship, coached the offensive player of the year—Heisman winner Newton—and the defensive player of the year—Lombardi award winner Fairley. Chizik was voted National Coach of the Year, wrote a book, and received significant salary bonuses. For the BCS Championship-winning 2010 season, Chizik earned a base salary of $2.1 million plus bonuses worth an additional $1.1 million, including $500,000 for 13 wins, an SEC title, a BCS bowl appearance and winning the AP SEC Coach of the Year and an additional $600,000 for winning the National Championship Game. He signed a new contract at a substantial raise. Gene Chizik had far more success in a single season than most coaches have in a lifetime.
He brought an “all-in” mentality to Auburn fans, and they were all in by now. Looking back, Brett Eddins, a member of the 2010 team, tells us what a magical time it was. He saw no problems with the program’s direction. While Chizik had fostered a “star system” favoring elite players such as Newton and Dyer, Eddins believed that system had not greatly disrupted the team. In retrospect, however, Chizik’s star system soon grew into one of the coach’s most disabling blind spots.
At the time, former Auburn coach Pat Dye said the Tigers had never been so strong and the program’s future so promising. Birmingham News columnist Kevin Scarbinsky—one of the most respected sportswriters in Alabama—chronicled Chizik’s accomplishments and noted how the coach had achieved rare heights despite having to perform in the shadow of Nick Saban who was on the verge of creating a dynasty at Alabama. Scarbinsky underscored how Chizik had gone “tit” for ‘tat” with Saban, and the scribe logically anticipated a longstanding battle between the two coaches.
For Gene Chizik to suddenly nosedive from that pinnacle calls for a powerful explanation.
The hot potato called success
Clearly things changed with success. And it was the insistent pressures of success which had also plagued Chizik’s two immediate predecessors. Auburn is the only SEC school to have three undefeated seasons over the past 20 years, led by three different coaches (Terry Bowden, Tommy Tuberville, and Chizik) and each coach followed their success with losing seasons a few years later which cost them their jobs. Each coach became dysfunctional. Each coach had major blind spots when it came to handling success. I have spoken to all three, listened to their comments in speeches or interviews, and examined their behavior.
Understand, there was a pre-national championship Gene Chizik and a post-national championship leader. Exactly like there was a “pre” and “post” national championship Michael Dyer—the star of the 2010 national championship game for Auburn. Let’s look closely at the sad story of Michael Dyer who serves as a symbolic proxy for Gene Chizik.