Why Gene Chizik went from good to great — to awful

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.


Infamous bank-robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he targeted banks.  “Because that’s where the money is,” he answered.

So why do we look deeper into the mind of Gene Chizik in light of his team’s unmatched calamitous decline? Because that’s where the real answers are.  There lays the power of hidden motivation — why success itself totally blind-sided him.   

Success carries with it powerful threats. If you believed unconsciously that success was dangerous, you would act accordingly. If this deeper quick-read mind had a major vote, you would do the “Success Two-Step”—a step forward as though you really did want to succeed, followed by a big disguised step backward, a blind spot step.

You would continue the same dance without ever really recognizing it until it was too late.

Coach ‘no show,’ team ‘no show’
First, another prominent coach highlights just how clearly Chizik’s players were accurately reading his messages of retreat. Former Georgia Coach Vince Dooley — whom I once interviewed and who also won a national championship — told an unforgettable story at the same Birmingham quarterback club that Chizik later addressed.

One Sunday following a Saturday football game Dooley experienced a painful attack of angina. He had an emergency stent put in place and survived the procedure with no damage to his heart. But what about his team’s next game? He was told he could coach the following Saturday only if he simply “made an appearance” and avoided all excitement. As Dooley put it, “I made an appearance the following game in the first half—and my team made an appearance.”  The Bulldogs appeared, all right, but that was the extent of it. They were lackluster and on the verge of losing.

At that point Dooley said he showed up, told his team exactly what he thought of their effort, and as a result his Georgia team showed up in the second half and won. He highlights that players read coaches for guidance at an unbelievable depth, never missing a thing.

Coaches’ points determine wins and losses
Along the same line comments by the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden also shine a bright light on Gene Chizik. Wooden noted that when games were won by twenty points, those were players’ points, but when games were won by one or two points, those were coaches’ points. He also suggested that when games are lost consistently by thirty points to major opponents those are coaches’ points as well—and over his last two seasons Chizik would often lose by huge margins.

When we put Chizik’s 2011 season under the microscope we find numerous retreats enabled by his own decisions. Those detrimental decisions are exactly the kind of choices made by men who’re secretly afraid of winning.

Chizik slows down the offense – and the quarterback
His most obvious retreat occurred when he demanded offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn slow down the “Gus Bus”—his fast-paced offense—to protect the defense. He made this demand over Malzahn’s extreme objection. It guaranteed Malzahn—the highest-paid coordinator in college football at $1.3 million a year—would leave Auburn. Malzahn was so determined to escape Chizik’s sinking ship, he took a $500,000 pay cut to take the Arkansas State head coaching job.

Chizik’s rationale that his defense needed protection because it was young suggests his real message, his deeper message about himself, “I am young when it comes to success and need protection because it’s so dangerous,” as he told us (see previous blog).

Simultaneously he delivered a related secret message: “I’m slowing down my offense, my power, the real strength of my team.”

Soon Chizik would repeat the same message when he suddenly changed quarterbacks in the second half of the Florida game at mid-season with his team leading. At halftime his starter, Barrett Trotter, had thrown just seven passes and completed two. But one of them had been a thing of beauty which put Auburn ahead, a perfectly placed touchdown pass between two leaping defenders. On top of that he had a pass dropped inside the 20-yard line virtually guaranteeing at least a field goal just before halftime. The same quarterback had led Auburn to a 4 and 2 record including a gutty win on the road as an underdog at South Carolina two weeks before and hadn’t yet played a truly bad game. Trotter appeared rattled at times—rifling the ball without his usual touch—but this was his first year as a starter in the tough SEC.

It goes unsaid that quarterback is the most important position on the team. As the player who runs the offense, calls the plays and takes the snaps, the quarterback is clearly an extension of the coach. He’s the coach on the field, and changing leaders sends a powerful message to the team— “I no longer believe in your leader.” If we read deeper, the coach’s message can be seen as, “I am no longer your leader” if the decision doesn’t pay off—and it clearly didn’t. Of all positions to change, a coach must be most careful with the quarterback.

Micromanaging the quarterback – more retreat
Chizik indicated he had already made the decision before the Florida game. During practices that week, he had told back-up quarterback Clint Mosley to be ready. Auburn had lost to Arkansas on the road the week before, but Trotter played reasonably well despite the fact that his only experienced wide receiver was injured. The game was closer than the score.

I suspect the quarterback change was largely another Chizik micromanaging decision—and that Malzahn covered for him.

As it happened, Mosley played fairly well in the second half if you overlook the dropped “pick 6” near-interception the new quarterback threw to the wide-open Florida safety. That rookie mistake could have lost the game.  While Auburn went on to win, Mosley proved significantly immobile and prone to throwing interceptions. In short, he was not the answer.

It was in the last game—the Chick Fil-A Bowl against Virginia—when the forgotten Trotter (5 and 2 as a starter at the time) finally stated his unmistakable case. He came off the bench after Mosley sprained his ankle on the first series after throwing another sure interception which was dropped on Auburn’s own 13 yard line. Now Trotter, relaxed with the pressure of being Cam Newton’s successor off his back, confidently ran Malzahn’s offense to perfection leading Auburn to an eventual runaway victory. Trotter’s vastly superior mobility was apparent.

He demonstrated after his sabbatical that he had gone through the learning curve and all he had needed was a sideline break to gain perspective. All in all, Auburn was 6 and 2 when he played—and by now Trotter was an experienced SEC quarterback who had weathered a difficult season. The striking message from Trotter in the bowl game was “I figured it out.” Keep that in mind because it comes into play in a huge way the next season.

More micromanaging – the defense
When it came to the defense in 2011, Chizik continued to micromanage. He ordered defensive coordinator Ted Roof to simplify the defense, and would change game plans in the middle of the week. Micromanaging undermined his coaches and reflected a lack of discipline and trust. In the end it undermined Chizik’s own role. Strong leaders build strong associates, but Chizik was weakening his coordinators and thus weakening himself.

Such management also reflects a boundary problem in relationships—addictive type behavior. It’s as though the boss, the coach, is saying, “I must cling to you, control you and not let you be an individual.” No boundaries means no discipline deep down, self-sabotage and  passive-aggressive anger.

Chizik’s surrogate coach
Chizik had also given executive associate athletics director Tim Jackson too much power to deal with players and coaches. He and Jackson had become a team. Jackson would later describe  athletic director Jay Jacobs as the CEO, himself as the GM, and Chizik as the coach.  That says it all.  And Chizik again reflects a boundary problem in defining himself as “the leader.” The players would have again sensed an absent leader, a leader who wasn’t sure he was the leader.

Chizik also seemingly undermined staff unity by allowing coaches to quarrel unnecessarily to the point of supposed bitter disputes—when decisions by Chizik could have settled arguments. Another hint of an absent leader.

Team lacks mental toughness
A significant realization came in the LSU game when the LSU fullback described Auburn as the least physical team they had played—something Auburn had never been accused of in its long history. He accused Auburn players of backing down (and they clearly weren’t good tacklers). That opponent’s deeper mind was also pointing out that, just as the players weren’t mentally tough, neither was their leader. Was he picking up on something even the Auburn players didn’t realize? Surely it echoed what former player Heath Evans noted (see previous blog).

In the back of their mind the players could read the retreat modeled by Chizik’s decision-making: slowing down the offense, pushing Gus Malzahn aside, changing his QB, pushing coach Ted Roof aside and running a vanilla defense. He also failed to model a clear leader role either in himself or his associates.

One behavioral tip-off which spoke volumes was Chizik’s reported habit of arriving late to team meetings —and apparently his staff followed suit. We all know the meaning of promptness in organizations. In that light a starting player told me he overslept once as a freshman in 2010 and was late to strength coach Yox’s early morning workout. Yox’s punishment got his attention, and after that the player set three alarm clocks every day—living in fear of missing another workout. But Chizik didn’t hold himself to the same rules, just another subtle way of not showing up.

Chizik’s team makes appearances – but doesn’t show up
Auburn would lose big in the last half of the season suffering massacres at LSU and Georgia, and bowing to Alabama at home 42-14 without scoring an offensive touchdown except on a kickoff return. Chizik’s micromanaging would become so pronounced that—frustrated with the ineptness of the offense—he took over the play-calling in the last quarter of the Alabama game, the ultimate insult to Gus Malzahn.  Chizik’s desperate move produced zero points.

We remember John Wooden’s wisdom about coaches’ points and the scores of games reflecting a coach—and here we had a team reflecting a coach who was losing control. In too many ways Chizik had just made an appearance as a coach, had not really shown up and thus neither had his team. Key alums were warned at the end of the season that Chizik was slipping. But nobody in their wildest imagination could have envisioned what was to unfold in 2012.

The 2011 season ended on a note of optimism with the bowl victory following the crushing losses to major conference rivals. His defense had been young and supporters were looking for better days ahead.  But when we pick up with the key decisions Chizik made at the end of the 2011 season and the beginning of 2012, they will still reflect a coach in retreat. We continue to look at a post-national championship Chizik. And he will tell us that deep down more than anyone he saw it all coming.

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