Fortune Cookie Says: Over self-confidence is equivalent to being blind

Former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik was recently quoted as saying he was “tarred and feathered erroneously” during his time at Auburn.  Hate to beat a dead horse, but Chizik’s comments display the same resolute stubbornness that not only helped him achieve success at Auburn, but also led to his ultimate demise.

“I feel like at times I got tarred and feathered erroneously, because I think a lot of people didn’t do their homework,” Chizik said. “There were a lot of assumptions made that were absolutely false and incorrect. I stand by everything that I did. I have absolutely nothing to hide and I never will because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I always did it right.”

It’s there, in that “beyond a shadow of a doubt” comment that Chizik lost his way.  He displayed that same iron-jawed sense of absolute certainty that his way was THE way when he arrived at Auburn, despite a dismal three-year tenure at Iowa State that reeked of mismanagement.

It was that concrete refusal to admit that he might have made mistakes as head coach of the Cyclones that had many Auburn fans upset — upset to the point of heckling — when his hiring at Auburn was announced.

In the weeks after Chizik was announced as Auburn head coach, Iowa media piled on with reckless abandon.

The Cyclones were undisciplined, the sideline chaotic, and Iowa State found ways to lose games it should have won. It would have gotten better, but Chizik realized he was in over his head long before Auburn threw him a lifeline.

Another Cyclones beatwriter was even more harsh:
When Chizik told the players he inherited that he wasn’t going to come down to their level, his legacy of all-hat-no-cattle sound bites was in motion. Few of those players had ever been part of anything as wretched as the two seasons Chizik presided over. He’d have been fortunate to have them bring him up to their level. And when he made the players spend 20 minutes of the first spring practice of 2007 precisely lining up their helmets, you wondered if a real life Captain Queeg hadn’t taken over the ISU football program.

When Chizik arrived at Auburn he seemed to say and do all the right things.  He hired an impressive staff that included Auburn legend Tracy Rocker and offensive mastermind Gus Malzahn. He hit the recruiting trail with an aggressiveness lacking in the latter years of his predecessor’s tenure.

His absolute conviction began to win over the Tiger fanbase.  When his inaugural team improved drastically with essentially the same talent as one that had slogged through a lackluster 2008 season, his determination seemed focused in the right direction.  Chizik’s 2009 team made winning fun again. From outlasting West Virginia in a monsoon to plugging Ole Miss on Halloween to pushing eventual national champion Alabama to the brink to shooting it out for an overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, the 2009 season showed promise. Still there were cracks. A mystifying loss to Kentucky, a punishing loss at Arkansas proved there were still issues to be solved.

Then came 2010.  The best thing to happen to Auburn in decades was perhaps the worst thing to happen to Chizik in terms of his longevity.

Cam Newton and a spectacular offense paved the way to a perfect season and a national championship. The championship erased years of frustration for Auburn fans, giving us the title many of us had craved.

For Chizik, however, it seemed that he took it as complete and total validation of his way of thinking. The 2010 title convinced him of his absolute and undeniable rightness.

As all coaches seem to do these days, Chizik authored a book in the wake of the title.  All In: What It Takes to Be The Best told the story of his road to the title. To many it was shockingly self-aggrandizing.  He seemed to take all credit for the success. He devoted little space to his assistants or players who were so vital to the 2010 run. Worst of all, Chizik seemed to take none of the blame for anything that had gone wrong at Iowa State.  Not his fault. His plan was absolutely right, he just didn’t get a chance to finish it.

He had led Auburn to the promised land, done it his way, and along the journey steered the Tiger program through an NCAA morass not of Auburn’s making.  Chizik was on top of the world.

Auburn fans were so enthralled by Chizik’s steely self-righteousness and the incredible glow of a longed-for title that when the cracks in the infrastructure he’d created began to show just months later, many were willing to ignore them, or at least look the other way.

Many blamed (and often rightfully so) a media witch hunt for a plethora of negative stories that began to pile up.  But the results, or lack thereof, on the field couldn’t be denied.

Something happened at halftime of the third game of the 2011 season.  No one has yet talked about it on record, but Auburn football under Chizik changed that afternoon.

The Tigers had barely survived Utah State in the opener, surrendering nearly 500 yards to a mediocre team while needing two late miracle touchdowns to pull out the win. A goal line stand staved off Mississippi State’s 531-yard offensive explosion and secured a 41-34 win over a pedestrian Bulldog squad.  In both games, the Tiger offense was the saving grace, putting up 40-plus points.

Then came Clemson. The Tigers started hot, building a 14-0 lead and putting up 21-point first half points. Clemson rallied for two second quarter touchdowns to even the score at 21 going to halftime.  Auburn, or the Auburn offense that is, was never the same.

The Tigers managed just three second half points on the way to its first loss in 18 games.

Who really knows what, if anything, actually transpired in that lockerroom, but the Tigers that emerged at the half were not the same Tigers that had entered the tunnel.

The Tigers didn’t top 40 points again until a 41-23 win over Ole Miss six weeks later.  The next time the Tigers reached the 40-point plateau came in Auburn’s last game, a bowl win over Virginia.

Along the way there were demoralizing losses to Georgia, Alabama, LSU and Arkansas by a combined score of 170-45.

Did Chizik put the brakes on Malzahn’s offense as many speculated?  No one knows. He is once quoted as saying: “It’s always about points allowed.”  That philosophy doesn’t mesh with a team that spent the better part of the previous two seasons figuring out ways to outscore people.

Was there a rift between a head coach who thought he deserved the praise and an offensive coordinator in Malzahn who was actually getting the tiger’s share of it? One can only wonder.

Whatever the reason, the headlong stumble of the 2011 season led to significant restructuring.

Offensive coordinator Malzahn left in the offseason, headed to Arkansas State for a head coaching gig. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof was shown the door.

Chizik brought in a green offensive coordinator, Scott Loeffler, and pledged to mold Auburn into a pro style offense. He hired Brian VanGorder to lead the defense.  VanGorder was a proponent of the 4-3 and fit Chizik’s propensity for running the Tampa 2.

Both decisions backfired.  Auburn’s offense was stagnant in 2012, failing to score more than 21 points against any SEC team.  The defense was repugnant, gagging up 41 points to Ole Miss, 63 to Texas A&M,  38 to Georgia and 49 to Alabama.

It was arguably the worst Auburn team of all time and was eerily reminiscent of Chizik’s last abysmal Iowa State squad.

Winless in the conference. Humiliation at every turn. Chaos on the sidelines.  Chaos in the program. Problems on the field and off. No clear leadership or direction. It was hard not to look back at the chiding that came from Iowa sports writers when Chizik was hired and see the parallels. So much of what they had criticized him for during his ISU tenure were the same problems that plagued Auburn.

The less said about 2012, the better. It was a disaster of epic proportions.

At the end of the season, in the shadow of a tepid effort in a 49-0 loss to Alabama, Chizik’s rise and fall at Auburn was complete.  He was fired.

Kevin Scarbinsky, columnist: Bottom line: Chizik failed in terms of player discipline and player development. He failed in replacing valuable assistant coaches from Malzahn to defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. He failed to either spot the problems in his program or to adequately address them.

At the end of his tenure, Chizik is what a lot of people thought he was when Auburn hired him with his 5-19 record from Iowa State.

Auburn fans who had grown to admire Chizik’s unwavering faith that his plan was the only plan, his way the only way as it helped create a championship run were forced to admit that his unwillingness to embrace his own failings or adapt when things went wrong proved to be untenable in the long run. The change had to be made.

There was little malice. Hardly anyone in Orange and Blue bears Chizik any ill will. Chizik gets respect for his handling of the firestorm that surrounded Cam Newton. He will always be appreciate for the national championship he helped bring to the Plains. He is an undeniable part of some of the best times in Auburn memory.  Sadly, he will also be a reminder of some of the worst.

There is disappointment that his tenure ended the way it did, but the ruin of the 2012 campaign was so complete and thorough, there was no other choice but to make a change. It wasn’t a slight dip that a modification here or a tweak there could correct. It was, quite frankly, a dumpster fire that threatened to engulf the entire athletic program.

And here’s the problem. Chizik left Iowa State utterly secure in his plan despite the nuclear devastation smoldering in his rear view mirror. He left Auburn grimly confident in his own rightness despite the shattered trail of wreckage left in his wake. Even today he doesn’t think he got a fair shake. He thinks he was “tarred and feathered.”  He remains steadfast that he was right.

That’s hubris. Massive hubris. It’s the kind of hubris that permeated the pages of All In.  It’s the kind of hubris that led Chizik to ultimately fail at both ISU and Auburn.  It’s the kind of self-deluded hubris that won’t allow him to learn from his mistakes and become the kind of coach we all briefly thought he could be.

Chizik wasn’t tarred and feathered at Auburn.  Not by any stretch. If anything, most will remember him as he was, with confetti raining down on the stage that January night in Arizona, not as he was on that late December afternoon two years later.  The good will persist. The bad will fade.  That doesn’t mean, however, that it can be ignored.

You’ve got to own it, Gene.  You’ve got to accept the realities. You’ve got to admit the failures. You’ve got to shoulder the blame. You can’t stand by 5-19 at ISU or by 0-8 in the SEC and declare you weren’t at fault, that you did everything right.  It doesn’t work that way.  It’s insulting.




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