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One Year Later AU fans.
One year in, Auburn has accepted Gene Chizik
By Charles Goldberg -- The Birmingham News
December 14, 2009, 8:15AM
Gene Chizik's arrival at Auburn was clouded by a less-than-enthusiastic response by some fans, but a year later things have changed. (The Birmingham News / Bernard Troncale)AUBURN -- Jay Jacobs figured the hiring of Gene Chizik as his football coach might raise a few eyebrows. What Auburn's athletics director didn't expect was the firestorm that ensued.
The national media questioned the hiring of Chizik, who had led Iowa State to only five wins in two years, and raised the issue of race because the school passed over University of Buffalo coach Turner Gill. They, and many Auburn fans, believed the school could have and should have made a better hire.
But the one-year anniversary of Chizik's hire passed quietly Sunday not with a team in disarray, but with the Tigers preparing for a New Year's Day bowl game and what may be their best recruiting class in years.
Jacobs welcomed the anniversary by noting a turnaround season. And many fans and commentators have a different perspective now.
A Birmingham News online poll during the weekend found 80.3 percent of the 2,834 people who responded said they like the hire, a dramatic increase over the 15.1 percent who liked the choice when The News asked the same question one year ago today. Only 5.2 percent of this year's respondents said they don't like the hire, down from 47.4 a year ago. A third, wait-and-see option dropped from 37.5 percent a year ago to 14.5 percent this year.
The mood a year ago was reflected in other ways too. Charles Barkley, not an expert on football but one of the school's most recognizable former athletes, attacked the hiring. An ESPN headline said, "Auburn Tigers downgrade in hiring Gene Chizik." Chizik was talk show and Internet fodder.
It got so bad that former coach Pat Dye felt compelled three days after the hiring to rally the troops, sending an e-mail to members of Tigers Unlimited, the school's athletics fundraising organization, asking fans to support Chizik.
Nobody faulted Chizik for taking the job. Jacobs was the point man in the hiring, a process that included interviews of at least eight candidates, and was the man caught in the immediate fallout.
"It bothered me. It bothered me because I grew up Auburn," Jacobs said. "It bothered me, but it didn't bother me to the point where I lost focus of what the task was at hand."
The task at hand, he said, was to change the culture of the team that finished so poorly the season before.
"I knew it wouldn't necessarily be a popular choice at the time, but I thought that people would see the same things I saw," Jacobs said. "I've had an advantaged seat here. I've seen the atmosphere, I've seen the culture around this program. I knew what kind of change we needed."
A year later, he said, Chizik "has changed that culture inside the department, and that's phenomenal in itself."
A year later, the media have moved on to other topics.
Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and CBS, and a measured national voice, wondered in print a year ago whether Chizik was the right candidate at a time when Auburn was struggling and Alabama was surging.
"I think the national perspective in the beginning was Auburn hired a 5-19 football coach," Barnhart said last week. "They were looking at the reaction within Alabama. Now, I think you can say, 'You know what? The guy had a plan.' He hired an innovative guy on offense (Gus Malzahn), a proven guy on defense (Ted Roof). I believe the national perspective is that Auburn is better than a lot of people thought they'd be. Were they really, really good? No, but nobody thought they'd be really, really good.
"If you listened to the fans, Armageddon was coming. But what happens? They play Alabama down to the wire. All in all, it was not a bad first year."
The change in perspective came, he said, early in the season.
"I think that might have been when they went on the road and beat Tennessee. I think people said, 'OK, maybe these guys know what they're doing,'" Barnhart said.
Bo Jackson won a Heisman Trophy at Auburn and has embraced Chizik, probably spending more time around the team this season than the previous 10 combined. But it was another one of Auburn's famous former athletes, former basketball star Barkley, who was most quoted after Chizik's hiring. He turned up the heat when he said Auburn didn't hire Gill because he is black.
A year later, Barkley hasn't toned down his criticism, but reminds people of his original point.
"I never said a bad word about Gene Chizik, and I never will. It was about the hiring process, and the lack of minority coaches," Barkley said. "I said the exact same thing when Sylvester Croom was passed over in favor of Mike Shula (at Alabama). That was an even bigger travesty."
Barkley said hiring Gill "would have given Auburn instant national recognition. I said Auburn couldn't get just a good coach. Auburn had to make a splash. Turner would've been the right hire."
Gill was on his way to an 8-6 season when he interviewed with Auburn. A year later, Buffalo is 5-7, and Gill just became Kansas' coach.
Unlike Jackson, Barkley said he hasn't spoken to Chizik.
"I'm the black sheep of the family. They don't reach out to me anymore," Barkley said.
But, he added, "He's the Auburn coach, and I'm pulling for him."
Other Auburn supporters had other concerns about the choice of Chizik.
Former Auburn quarterback Stan White said he was surprised that Chizik was Auburn's choice, "not because I didn't think he could do it, but simply because his name surfaced so late in the process.
"... He's unified the whole Auburn base in a short time. I don't know if he's turned the corner yet, but it's pretty obvious he's excited the fan base and a lot of the ex-ballplayers as well."
Another ex-player agreed.
"I was guilty, along with probably 90 percent of the fans, of just being really surprised at the choice," said former quarterback Ben Leard. "... Unfortunately, Coach Chizik's forecast was measured on his stint at Iowa State. Based off of that, the future did not look very bright."
Leard says now he is "unbelievably surprised at how well they've done. You could tell they were going to be successful by the staff he hired."
Both White and Leard said they're pleased that Chizik has been aggressive in recruiting top talent.
"He's taken some outside-the-box thinking when it comes to getting Auburn's name out there," White said.