The 2012 Season Disaster: Chizik Retreats Part 3

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.

One last quarterback undermined – another boundary violation
The crucial point in such micromanaging came game in the fifth game of the year when Chizik pulled starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier at halftime with Auburn trailing Arkansas by just 7-0.  Frazier was starting to get his mojo back, throwing with the most authority of the year. He had been nurtured back from the Mississippi State disaster in the second game to help win an overtime contest against a surprisingly strong Louisiana Monroe team.  And the week before suiting up against Arkansas Frazier had nearly engineered a remarkable upset of LSU at Auburn. If he hadn’t slightly overthrown a third down pass to an open receiver (McCalebb) inside the ten yard line late in the 4th quarter the Tigers easily could have prevailed in a 12-10 loss.

Most knowledgeable fans were shocked by Chizik’s strange decision to pull Frazier against Arkansas. (One popular blogger vehemently opposed the move calling it one of the most foolish decisions he could recall.) In truth it was déjà vu 2011. Again Chizik pulls the team leader — in whom Auburn was greatly invested — sending the message, “You have no leader. “ Yet again Chizik violated a clear boundary by stepping in and – in essence — saying to Frazier, “Let me take over, I don’t trust you.”

At that moment Chizik failed to recognize that a quarterback must be allowed to make mistakes — as an individual — and must be trusted as much as humanly possible to overcome those mistakes so that he demonstrates to the team, “I am the leader, the strong individual you can follow.” A coach must trust the process of a quarterback truly coming into himself.  He must give his quarterback the secure commitment that he needs to eventually relax and flourish. The coach must respect the “sanctity” of the role and honor the strong boundaries by letting his quarterback remain firmly planted so that he can grow into a real leader.

This is especially true of a young quarterback such as Frazier who had a devastating beginning and was just starting to overcome it. He was the quarterback the coaches had chosen to lead the team from the beginning. To jerk him out of that role without a really strong reason sent a powerful shock wave through the entire team.

Back-up quarterback Clint Mosley entered the Arkansas game in the second half and was his same immobile self.  Once again he promptly demonstrated he wasn’t the answer as he led Auburn to a debilitating second-half defeat by Arkansas — followed by three more consecutive losses against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Texas  A & M.

The Arkansas game at home was the crucial point in the season, the time to really turn things around following a great but losing battle with LSU. Instead, Chizik chooses this propitious moment to undermine his quarterback and himself – and guarantee his secret self-sabotaging vision of total collapse. Like quarterback Barrett Trotter the previous year, Frazier would never get a real chance to perform again the rest of the regular season. After just four and a half games, he’s finished as quarterback.

At the heart of Chizik’s micromanaging was a boundary problem. It was as if he announced, “I must take control, you can’t do the job.” Secretly such excessive control reflects weakness and uncertainty in himself as well as in leaders he has chosen.  At such key moments he could not stay within his boundaries as an individual and allow others to be individuals. Deep down he was modeling a weak individual and leader – and the players saw it.

Freshman Sammie Coates pegs the coach for lack of leadership
Following the Arkansas loss, freshman wide receiver Sammie Coates shocked everybody when he publicly appealed to older players to provide team leadership. He said, “We don’t have the leadership to win.” And added, “They [coaches] put it on the older guys, but they aren’t showing much…Everybody’s talking about they want to win, but they aren’t showing they want to win.” Then he specifically criticized the quarterbacks, “They talk, but they don’t…explain things enough.”

Coates nailed it. “I want to see one of the quarterbacks step up and lead,” he said. “The leadership has to come from people in main roles.”

The young receiver was unconsciously acting as a proxy for the entire team, players who could sense that the real senior leadership missing was that of the head coach. Deep down Coates saw that changing quarterbacks meant no quarterback, no leader. He mentioned “things not being explained” by the quarterback suggesting Chizik’s decision to change quarterbacks was inexplicably bad.

In the back of his mind Chizik had played a final self-sabotaging ace at just the right moment. He waited until the season hung in the balance and then he suddenly and publicly undercut his leader. If anybody saw Frazier’s potential it was the talented receiver Coates.  He had caught a long touchdown pass and dropped two other well thrown long passes from Frazier in the preceding two weeks – and he picked right up on Chizik’s self-defeating plan.

There’s “no leadership,” the freshman said. “They aren’t showing they want to win.” Chizik was not showing up, and this young player knew it. The coach was communicating that he really didn’t want to win, that unconsciously he wanted to lose. As hard as that possibility can be to believe, Coates implies exactly that. Think about it.

Player morale on the Auburn team really started to slide after the Arkansas debacle. The momentum that had been recaptured with a win followed by a nail-biting loss to LSU was now merely a memory.

Players reflect coach
Players had reflected on the loss of discipline with off-the-field issues. Three arrests for alcohol-related activities and one suspension for drugs are the ones that we know about.

Then came Chizik’s shocking capitulation of leadership.  Auburn hired an outside security firm to do bed-checks nightly with all players having an 11 p.m. weeknight curfew. He was confessing that, lacking discipline, the players had no fear of him. Player resentment grew.  Chizik had violated other rules of success: no fear of his authority, delegating it to an outside power and in the process micromanaging — treating his players like children just as he did his coaches.

The players were reading Chizik like a book. Undisciplined and in a retreat from his power, his team became undisciplined and retreated from its potential greatness. Gene Chizik became a self-destructive leader and his players reflected it on field. The team made repeated mental errors often by older players which we can also read as a request – send us a coach.

Many Chizik decisions said, “I don’t trust you.” He built “I don’t trust” into the team and they started not trusting one another.

Chizik’s behavior really said, “I don’t care.” Inside sources reported that several players no longer cared and desperately wanted coaching changes. As sportswriter Phillip Marshall later reported, one player’s parent had warned, “If something doesn’t change, the exodus of players leaving this program will be a national story.”

Such attitudes were angrily reflecting Chizik’s disguised passive-aggressive anger. He had taken a well-respected, historic gridiron program and for a season destroyed it – and his reputation with it. We don’t think of the controlled Chizik as angry, but he was. Such destruction reeks of disguised anger.

Losses by huge scores emphasize the message
As the 2012 season progressed Auburn lost — for the second year in a row — by huge margins to its last three major opponents, Texas A & M, Georgia and Alabama. As the season drew to a close in November, the Tigers failed to score at all against chief rivals Georgia and Alabama.

Finally defensive coordinator Jeff VanGorder couldn’t contain himself after the Georgia loss and spoke up about the “obvious problem” – a lack of strength by the players. But his deeper, more accurate message was that the head coach lacked strength.  VanGorder saw John Wooden’s coaches’ points rule in action: big losses reflect a lack of leadership (see previous blog: “Why Gene Chizik went from good to great – to awful”). “Out of respect,” VanGorder declined to elaborate further.

True freshman quarterback says it all
With four games left in the season true freshman Jonathan Wallace emerged as the starter at quarterback. The immobile, injury-prone Mosley was indeed hurt again as was Frazier who still could have played. Wallace showed promise but was clearly in over his head in the SEC. If you had known in January that, through mismanagement, Auburn would be down to its fourth quarterback – and a true freshman at that — you could have predicted the season’s awful outcome.

The truth was Chizik’s best and most experienced quarterback – Barrett Trotter — was back in Birmingham helping coach high-school football. Chizik had unconsciously created a huge deficit at the most important position on the team – and continued to do so.

Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine columnist Mark Murphy was puzzled by Auburn’s decline from eight wins to three wins between 2011 and 2012. But he also provided more of an answer than he even realized, “Despite all of the other things going on, if the quarterback play had even been close to average the Tigers would have had excellent chances to beat” six opponents (Clemson, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Vandy). Trotter had already established he would have at least been “close to average” (6 and 2 as a starter). Even though Chizik had limited his growth somewhat in 2011, it’s highly likely that in 2012 Trotter would have been a solid, average, experienced SEC quarterback in his second season. He would’ve been a player who knows how to win. He would have paid all his dues.

Chizik’s destructive quarterback decisions reflect Chizik the failed coach. At season’s end he reportedly recognized that changing his spread offense had been a mistake and that he planned on returning to it. If he had simply stayed with the spread offense and kept his senior quarterback on the team, Chizik would still have a job.

Starting a true freshman quarterback spoke volumes and well fit Chizik symbolically. He coached as if he were coaching his first game back in high school. It was that bad.

The plan to retreat
But understand that was his deeper plan – to retreat.  His grand offensive plan produced the worst offense in the SEC, and Auburn finished the 2012 season ranked 115th in total offense (down from No. 21 in 2009 and No. 7 in 2010). At the end, hard-working, soft-spoken freshman quarterback Jonathan Wallace told a friend regarding Chizik’s leaving, “It’s time.”

How bad was Chizik? It is simply unbelievable.

His chaotic confusing behavior produced a losing team on the brink of mutiny – nearly an even bigger national story – a team who basically quit in the end. And he did all this with enough talented players but made sure he again undermined his chosen quarterback. You don’t have a season like this without planning it unconsciously.

How do you go from being the best assistant coach that Mack Brown ever had at Texas, a head coach who won a national title and then fall off a cliff? You don’t do it without a plan, a plan secretly controlled by blind spot emotions and the need to retreat.

Former player Liston Eddins – whose son, Bart, played for Chizik in 2010 – commented about the 2012 season, “You just scratch your head. When one thing gets fixed for a little while, something else breaks down…I’ve never watched a team where everybody is scratching their head so much when they appear to be oozing with talent.”

But it all comes back to the leader showing up. Chizik behaved like he was an unproven coach and he was. He had never proved he could handle success as the head guy. All those credentials and past performances as an assistant did him no good. He had never been up there to those heights all by himself and alone. And it was just too high for him. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last.

Still, he has more to explain about why success was so difficult for him. He has must to teach people about managing success – if we listen.

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