Gene Chizik will always be to Auburn football what Barry Switzer was to the Dallas Cowboys. Both won championships while others received the credit. Switzer inherited a Hall of Fame roster built by Jimmy Johnson and oversaw the Cowboys’ third Super Bowl championship in four years. At Auburn, Chizik had a solid roster of seniors from Tommy Tuberville that, combined with Cam Newton’s magical season and Gus Malzahn’s play calling, yielded an undefeated national championship season. But after each coach turned in a losing season, they were quickly dismissed as coaches who succeeded in spite of themselves.
At least Switzer retained his college coaching legacy, including three national titles with Oklahoma. Chizik is now back to being the 5-19 coach from Iowa State who failed upward into the SEC. But even coaches with poor reputations get second (and third) chances. Just ask Lane Kiffin.
Reputation is an interesting thing. It’s subjective and impossible to quantify. In the NFL, coaching reputation is largely a function of the league’s internal management culture. Ultimately, there are 32 individual owners who hire and fire coaches. The customers’ views are irrelevant. A coach with a mediocre resume—e.g., Mike Shanahan, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, etc.—can survive a decade or more so long as he maintains a good relationship with his owner. The NFL is a closed society where reputation, once gained, is difficult to lose.
College football is more dynamic and reputation is subject to harsher, more frequent assessments from a wider base of stakeholders. It’s not enough to keep the athletic director or university president on your side. The fans, the press and especially the alumni donors all help determine and maintain a coach’s reputation.
This is why the success and failure of many coaching hires often comes down to “winning” the press conference. Gene Chizik’s hiring was never well received, which was understandable given his resume. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs felt Chizik was a good hire based on his prior experience with the program. It was a matter of familiarity and comfort for Jacobs. But the larger Auburn community didn’t share in that one-on-one relationship. More importantly, they didn’t see Chizik as a top-flight coach who could compete with the likes of Nick Saban and Les Miles on a yearly basis.
In a strange way, Chizik was likely doomed the moment he won the national championship. By exceeding his reputation and resume in his second season, he established a benchmark that he couldn’t possibly hope to meet again—not in the SEC at least. And without the preexisting reputation to carry him through a bad season, Auburn officials felt compelled to scapegoat Chizik in order to try and save their own positions.
The problem for Auburn going forward is that because they’re still only recently removed from a national championship, fan and donor expectations remain impossibly high. Reputation isn’t just for coaches; it applies to schools as well. Auburn considers itself the equal of Alabama. The next coach hired will need the reputation to sustain the stakeholders’ belief that they can go into 2013 ready to contend for an SEC title. It won’t be enough to find a hungry, relatively unknown coach. The people will want a reputation, hopefully with a resume to match.
This can lead to a vicious cycle. If you’re chasing the next “hot” name in coaching, he basically has to pay off in the first or second year. Kevin Sumlin has done that at Texas A&M. James Franklin has done likewise at Vanderbilt. (Indeed, Auburn may try and poach Franklin.) The flip side is when the hot coach goes cold and you end up cycling out staffs every three or four years. There’s no sense of continuity, of head coaches building a program over the course of a decade and developing a successor. Now it’s all about the instant gratification of buying a known “brand” coach from another program.
Auburn will now hire its third head coach in six seasons. And there’s little reason to believe the next coach will last much longer than Chizik. Remember, Mark Richt is the longest tenured SEC coach in his 12th season. (Missouri’s Gary Pinkel has also served 12 years, but obviously the first 11 were in the Big 12.) Even the venerated Nick Saban has only been at Alabama six years, and at age 61 he’s on the downside of his career. The safe bet is Chizik’s successor manages five seasons before the administration and stakeholders go chasing yet another “hot” candidate.