How Gene Chizik's firing at Auburn set him on a unique, ever-evolving path that's far from over
CHARLOTTE — “Furman-ETSU?”
Dressed in a gray suit with a purple pocket square over his a white pinstripe dress shirt and purple tie, Gene Chizik walks into the SEC Network studios ready for a full day of work. The purple in his Saturday attire is to support Furman University, where his son, Cally, is a freshman cornerback.
As Chizik approaches the set where he’ll spend the better part of 11 hours working from on this late-September Saturday, he’s informed that his request has already been granted. SEC Network anchor Peter Burns made sure that Furman-ETSU was on one of the 6 monitors that he and his fellow on-air cohorts will watch to keep tabs on all the action in college football. To Chizik’s delight, Furman is out to an early lead.
The college football weekend actually began Friday night for the former Auburn coach. He was the color commentator on ESPN’s broadcast of the Duke-Virginia Tech game in Blacksburg, Va. He calls a handful of Friday night non-SEC games for the network throughout the year, despite the ribbing he gets from SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.
The quick turnaround doesn’t faze Chizik. As he settles in for his day breaking down SEC games, every person he encounters — from the makeup artist to the production assistant who cuts up highlights — is greeted by name with a hearty handshake as if he’s seeing his best friend from high school and not someone he saw a week ago. Chizik looks more like the guy coming off 9 hours of the best sleep of his life than the guy who had a Friday night broadcast followed by an early wakeup call and a 3-hour drive to Charlotte.
“I love to work, man,” Chizik tells SDS. “I love to work, and I love being productive. I can’t slow down.”
And that, folks, might be the understatement of the century.
In the fall when Chizik isn’t breaking things down for one of ESPN’s networks, he’s at speaking engagements or he’s flying to Dallas for a mock College Football Playoff selection process. He’s checking in on 1 of the 2 restaurants he owns back home in Auburn or he’s watching game film all day Monday and Tuesday. Nothing about Chizik’s workload suggests he’s the guy with lucrative investments who took home a $7.5 million buyout when he was fired from Auburn in 2012 — 2 years after leading the Tigers to a national championship.
“Gosh, just a guy that could make all the money in the world, but he’s gonna have a lunchbox mentality,” former Auburn defensive lineman Jeff Whitaker tells SDS. “Unfortunately in this profession, there’s a lot of people with a suitcase mentality.”
His Auburn successor would say the same thing.
“He’s a very detailed guy. That’s what I always appreciated about him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said when asked about is former boss during the SEC teleconference. “At the same time, he was able to have fun. Just very well-rounded. He was a blessing for me to work for and he’s one of my mentors. I learned a lot from him that I still use to this day.”
That desire to keep working is why Chizik isn’t with his wife, Jonna, in Greenville (S.C.) for Cally’s game on this Saturday. The irony is that Chizik is in his 3rd consecutive season with SEC Network — and 4th overall — after he stepped down as UNC’s defensive coordinator because he wanted to be at Cally’s high school games and help him accomplish his goal of playing college football. It’s been nearly 3 years since he was a coach, almost 7 years since he was fired at Auburn and this January will mark 9 years since he won a national championship.
Spend a day with Chizik and it becomes perfectly clear: His post-Auburn journey has been — and continues to be — anything but typical.
“My story is different than anybody’s out there,” Chizik says. “There’s no way around it.”
* * * * * *
Whitaker remembered the long line of Auburn players waiting outside of Chizik’s office.
Throughout the 3-win season in 2012, Whitaker and his teammates heard rumblings that Chizik could be on the way out. A program 2 years removed from a national title season with 7 1-possession wins suddenly became the team that always found a way to lose. Once Auburn lost its 3rd 1-possession game to fall to 1-6 overall (0-5 in SEC), the wheels came off. In the Tigers’ final 3 SEC games, they were outscored 150-21, including a 49-0 drubbing at the hands of Alabama.
The Iron Bowl debacle was when Whitaker realized that the guy who brought him to Auburn out Bulldogs country in Warner Robins, Ga., could actually be fired. But when the team got the news of Chizik’s dismissal after the Alabama loss, it still packed a heavy punch.
“It’s not real until it happens,” Whitaker said. “When it happened, it was just a shock to everybody.”
One by one, Auburn players went into Chizik’s office. Players thanked Chizik, told him they loved him, gave him a hug and wished him well.
It was a different kind of embrace than they were used to getting from Chizik. Before games, he would dap players up in the locker room and ask them about which of their family members were at the game. As in, he’d ask players about the family members who he met years ago in their living rooms on recruiting visits. By name.
“You’re like, ‘This dude knows everybody,’” Whitaker said.
Like Whitaker, many of the players who waited to say their goodbyes were part of the 2010 national championship team. That fairytale season came in Chizik’s 2nd year following his arrival as the out-of-nowhere hire from Iowa State (Chizik reminds people that while he didn’t win many games during his 2 years with the Cyclones, he at least fueled the initiative to get the program past those “Ronald McDonald” uniforms).
Most coaches who win a national championship in Year 2 are getting statues in Year 4, not getting fired. Then again, most coaches don’t go 0-8 in conference play with the program’s worst season in 60 years shortly after winning it all.
“I understand the league,” Chizik said. “Did I believe without question that I could get that turned around and did I believe that I — based on being the winningest coach in the history of the school in the first 3 years — should’ve gotten another year? Absolutely. Do I understand the league and what happens? Yes, I do.”
Chizik wished he could have had a chance to work with that 2013 team, which pulled off one of the biggest year-to-year turnarounds in college football history. Gus Malzahn, who was Chizik’s offensive coordinator on the 2010 Cam Newton-led title team, turned Auburn into SEC champs and 2013 BCS National Championship participants.
Whitaker had a front-row seat to that magical season. He pointed out that the 2013 team didn’t have the preseason tragedy that the 2012 squad did — when 2 former Auburn players (Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips) were shot to death and then-current Auburn player Eric Mack was wounded 2 months before the season started — and that it was a better-than-advertised situation for Malzahn to walk into. Auburn might have been coming off a disastrous season, but Whitaker said Chizik gave that team more structure than people outside the program realized.
“You don’t rebuild in a year. It’s impossible,” Whitaker said. “From us going from a third-world country to the Taj Mahal, it happened in a year, but there were some key ingredients that we had that coach Chizik and some of that staff that help lay that groundwork before the 2013 season … 2012 is so important for the 2013 success.”
While that season unfolded, Chizik didn’t move his family out of Auburn. It was home. He spent nearly 3 decades coaching to get to that point and didn’t see the benefit of leaving for the first available job, so he took a year away from the profession. There was no ill-will watching the program he built back up get back to national relevance, either.
“Do I hold a grudge against it? Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
As those around Chizik learned after he was fired, there was no need for him to drink poison when he had access to the fountain of youth.
* * * * * *
As they stand in front of the oversized touch screen, Chizik and fellow SEC Network analyst Chris Doering discuss which plays they want to break down from the Northern Illinois-Vanderbilt game for the in-studio halftime show. “Let’s do 2 good ones and 2 bad ones,” Chizik says to Doering near the end of the first half. Chizik settles on a long run from Vanderbilt tailback Keyon Brooks for one of the good ones.
“Hey Jeremy, how long was that run by Brooks?” Chizik asks the producer.
Minutes later, Burns sets up Chizik and Doering to break down some highlights and lowlights from Vandy’s first half. In a quick 30-second window, Chizik explains to Doering, Burns and the TV audience why the guard pulling freed Brooks for the 61-yard scamper.
Flip on SEC Network on a given Saturday and you’ll see Doering and Chizik as the analysts while Burns is the in-studio anchor for the noon slate and Dari Nowkhah takes the afternoon/night shift. It’s the 3rd such season of Chizik, Doering and Nowkhah working together, and it shows. Their conversations off air aren’t much different than they are on air. Off camera, Chizik will tell Nowkhah and Doering about how impressive it is to watch the Ole Miss’ running game be predictable yet successful against Alabama. Within minutes of watching Mississippi State at Auburn, Chizik predicts (correctly) that the Bulldogs’ offensive deficiencies are about to make for a long night at Jordan-Hare.
“I feel like I know an awful lot about football,” Doering said, “but it’s nothing compared to what he knows.”
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) September 28, 2019
Now, Doering considers Chizik one of his close friends. When Chizik isn’t calling a Friday night game somewhere, he and Doering will grab dinner together. Chizik usually joins Doering, Nowkhah and a handful of SEC Network co-workers at a bar a mile from the studios for a post-Saturday beer. Doering will get fired up early in the week when he sees something on film within a game plan that he knows will resonate with Chizik, and they’ll text back and forth about it.
It’s a different story than when they met in 2012. It was an early-November game between New Mexico State and Auburn. Doering was on the call for CSS, and Chizik was in his final couple of games as Auburn’s coach. According to Doering, Chizik was standoffish and understandably a bit closed off during their production meeting.
Five years later, their paths collided again. In 2017, Chizik joined forces with Doering and Nowkhah to anchor SEC Network’s in-studio coverage. While shooting a promotion together, Doering quickly realized that Chizik was different from the lame duck coach he met 5 years earlier.
“Immediately,” Doering said, “it’s like you’ve known the guy your whole life.”
Nowkhah had a similar reaction.
“It took like 3 days for me to realize that he’s not who I thought he was when he was coaching,” Nowkhah said. “When he was coaching, it was well-known that he was not fond of the media, and he didn’t give the media much time. He just didn’t seem like the type of guy that you’d want to spend all day with … I think he probably knows that.
“He gets out of coaching and he’s a completely different person. He’s cooler than hell and he’ll do anything for anybody … everybody loves him.”
One thing that didn’t change about Chizik is that he’s a people person. His colleagues will say that he finds a way to relate to anyone. He speaks clearly, he listens, he doesn’t interrupt. It’s no wonder how he even won over a fan base that once had every reason to hate him.
“You have Alabama people within those first couple months (of being on TV) who are like, ‘Wow, I never knew I’d actually like Gene Chizik, but he actually does a great job and I enjoy watching him on TV,’” Nowkhah said. “What else do you need to know?”
Chizik actually started at SEC Network when it began in August 2014. Chizik, in his 2nd year out of coaching, had adjustments to make to his new in-studio role.
The desire to over-prepare was still evident from his coaching days.
“He’d ask hours before the show, ‘where are we going on this question? What are you gonna ask me on this question? What exactly does that mean?’” Nowkhah said. “And I’d look at the clock and be like, ‘Chiz, we’ve got 4 and a half hours until showtime. We’ll get it figured out. I haven’t even started thinking about it yet.’”
Chizik’s aforementioned lunchbox attitude hasn’t changed. Now, though, Nowkhah knows that he can go off-script a bit and not have any concerns about whether Chizik will handle it. He’s a pro now. Three years working with the same surroundings will do that.
It was nearly 3 years ago that SEC Network brought Chizik back following his departure at UNC. Unlike his time at Auburn, Chizik’s time in Chapel Hill ended on his terms.
* * * * * *
Jeff Schoettmer thought long and hard about transferring.
With a new defensive coordinator set to arrive, the UNC linebacker talked with his high school coach at the end of the 2014 season about whether he should find somewhere else to spend his final year of eligibility. UNC coach Larry Fedora convinced Schoettmer that they were going to bring in a big name defensive coordinator.
Fedora wasn’t lying. After asking him several times, Fedora landed one of his buddies — a guy by the name of “Gene Chizik.”
Schoettmer didn’t need to do any research on Chizik. He grew up in Texas, where he watched Chizik’s defense help lead the Longhorns to the 2005 BCS National Championship as a coordinator. Schoettmer, a college football junkie, was in high school when Chizik led Auburn to the 2010 BCS National Championship.
From the moment Chizik walked in, Schoettmer said he could feel the presence of the national championship-winning coach. Instantly, Chizik had the respect of the defense, which finished No. 120 in scoring the year before. As a coordinator for the first time in nearly a decade, the 53-year-old launched into the new chapter of his coaching career dead set on turning around one the country’s worst defenses.
“He was like, ‘Look. If you’ve got a question about anything — if you’ve got a question on what a 3-technique is, what a shade is, what a Cover-4 is — ask me because I’m gonna assume that you know nothing and I’m gonna teach you football from the ground up,’” Schoettmer said. “He said, ‘Obviously there have been some struggles in the past, but we’re gonna get this thing right.’”
In UNC’s 2015 conference opener against Georgia Tech, it looked like more of the same from the UNC defense. Schoettmer and Co. went into the locker room staring at a 21-14 deficit, in jeopardy of falling to the Yellow Jackets for the 9th consecutive time (including a win UNC was forced to vacate).
What happened after that set the stage for the rest of UNC’s season.
“We’re getting our ass beat. Can’t stop the run, can’t stop the triple option at all,” Schoettmer said. “We think we’re gonna go into halftime, get our asses ripped, but Chizik, legit calm as can be says, ‘We’re not changing a thing. We’re just gonna play better, we’re gonna execute better, etc.’ So we’re like ‘Holy s——, he’s calm, cool and collected. We gotta be that way. He believes in us so let’s just get it done.’”
And that’s exactly what happened. UNC held Georgia Tech to 10 points in the second half to pull out the comeback win.
Chizik’s stoic, controlled attitude was what the doctor ordered. The following day during the Sunday film session? That was a different story, according to Schoettmer.
What he and the rest of the team didn’t realize was that game was the first win of an undefeated season in conference play. A school-record 11-game winning streak was only snapped in the ACC Championship by eventual-national runner up Clemson. The Tar Heels went from the No. 120 defense to No. 42. More important, they finished in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in the 21st century.
“He didn’t just impact the defense. That’s the biggest thing,” Schoettmer said. “Usually the defensive coordinator only has say over the defense. Some defensive coordinators interact with the offensive guys and special teams, but he really brought a mindset to the whole team … just the way he interacted with the offense and taught them things and made our relationships with our offensive players, I think that went the longest way.
“He bought into the team completely. It wasn’t just like, ‘I’m in control of the defense.’ He wanted to have an impact on the whole team.”
Within the program, players knew the sacrifices Chizik made to be at UNC. His family still lived in Auburn. During the offseason, Fedora let Chizik leave after practices on Thursday to spend the weekend with them. When Jonna was sick, Chizik flew back to Auburn and missed a spring practice.
During his 2 years at UNC, Chizik rented a little apartment 10 minutes from the team’s facilities. When Jonna and the kids came to Chapel Hill, they stayed there.
Stop and think about this for a second. How many coaches 5 years removed from winning a national title as a head coach would be willing to (as someone with millions of dollars in his bank account) rent a small apartment so that he could be a coordinator at a basketball-focused school?
Players saw that. They also saw him staying at the team facility breaking down film past 1 a.m. on a given night.
“He was doing that all just so that we could win,” Schoettmer said. “And it paid off.”
Chizik’s defenses finished No. 42 and No. 43 in scoring in 2015 and 2016, respectively. He showed the college football world that he could still coach. Schoettmer only got 12 months to learn from Chizik, but it left a lasting impression.
“I learned more in one year with Chizik and John Papuchis than I did in my entire time growing up until my junior year,” said Schoettmer, who is now a GA at UNC on Mack Brown’s staff. “That’s how different it was.”
But there was something weighing heavily on Chizik after the 2016 season ended with 8 wins and another winning record in ACC play.
In 2 years at UNC, he only saw 2 of Cally’s baseball games and 2 of his football games during his freshman and sophomore years at Auburn High School. In February 2017, Chizik told Fedora that he didn’t want to miss the latter half of Cally’s high school experience, and that he needed to step down.
“That’s when I just said, ‘I can’t sit here and let my sons go through 4 years of high school, he wants to be a college football player. I can help him try to accomplish that and I’m not there,’” Chizik said. “I had to really, really reflect if that was OK. My wife and I talked about that and it just wasn’t OK.
“There are zero jobs I’ve taken in my career — zero — where I reflect on and I regret it. Not one job. Now, I’ve turned down a lot of them. A lot. But the ones I took, I had zero regret, and I didn’t want to sit there, stay at Carolina as he finished through high school, then all of the sudden look back on it and really regret it.”
* * * * * *
There’s a stat that Chizik is extremely proud of. After seeing just 2 of Cally’s baseball games and 2 football games while he was at UNC, Chizik saw nearly 25 football games and 150 baseball games during the rest of his son’s high school career.
His life is more comfortable than ever. Instead of flying back and forth to UNC during the offseason, he went on spring break with his family. Even now with his daughters at Auburn University, Chizik has breakfast with them on Monday mornings. He’ll take them to the doctor or run errands. He and Jonna are proud members of the AMC A-List club now, as well. He fills the rest of his time watching film — he reads articles but bases all his opinions on what his eyes tell him — working out, firing off his “Words of Chizdom” tweets (those are all him) or dropping in on 1 of the 2 Louie’s Chicken Fingers locations he owns.
Chizik will occasionally mingle with customers, get behind the counter and fry up some food or he’ll even greet people at the drive-thru window. But admittedly, the restaurant business comes with its fair share of stress.
“Trust me, the restaurants are neck and neck with the worst, most miserable game day there is out there,” Chizik said with a laugh.
Chizik is many things — a husband, a father, an analyst, a restaurant owner, a motivational speaker, etc. He’s also one other thing — an empty-nester.
With Cally at Furman, there’s an obvious question facing Chizik. What’s next? Is there more coaching in his future?
“I get (offers) every year,” Chizik said. “I’m talking jobs that offer a lot of money. Over the last 4 years, I’ve gotten a lot of defensive coordinator and head coaching jobs. I turned down head coaching jobs this past year that were offered.”
A source confirmed that Chizik also had an offer to be the head coach for a team in the upstart XFL in 2020, but he ultimately passed on that opportunity as well.
Clearly, the market is still there. And why wouldn’t it be? Besides having national titles as a coordinator and as a head coach, Chizik’s defenses at UNC finished in the top third of FBS in each of his 2 seasons there (and then dropped considerably after he left). He can afford to be picky because he doesn’t need the money and he isn’t chasing a ring, though he said being part of an elite program would be attractive.
“If I’m gonna go somewhere, it’s’ gonna be the absolute perfect scenario for me, whether it’s a head job or a coordinator job,” Chizik said. “Coordinator job is gonna definitely have to be with the right guy at the right place. If it’s a head coaching job, it’s gonna have to be with a guy I really believe in at a place I really, really feel good about bringing a championship to. All the pieces of the puzzle have to fit.
“Ya gotta remember: I’m in the best place I could be at. I don’t need the money. I love the job I have on TV. I have a phenomenal life away from work because of what ESPN allows you to do when you work in the TV world. For me to go back and job into the grind of coaching again, it’s just gonna have to be the perfect scenario.”
Chizik, in some ways, still approaches his SEC Network job like he’s a head coach. In the back of Chizik’s mind when he’s on air is the belief that SEC coaches are watching him provide analysis.
As usual, he’s not wrong about that.
“I think he does a marvelous job as a TV analyst right now,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said during the weekly SEC teleconference. “I’m sure if he chose to, he’d be very successful as a coach if he wanted to do that.”
In a matter of time, Chizik will have a decision to make on that. In all likelihood, the offers will continue to roll in at season’s end. As Doering says, “there aren’t too many people on this Earth with a national championship.” There aren’t too many people with have Chizik’s knowledge of the game combined with his work ethic and people skills, either.
“The game needs him,” Whitaker said. “Whether he’s commentating or coaching, the game needs Gene Chizik.”
For the SEC Network crew that Chizik has grown so close with the past few years, the idea of him leaving to get back into coaching is a mixed bag.
“In some ways, it’s a waste to not have him out there having that impact on kids,” Doering said. “But at the same time, it’s great for all of us to have him. I love getting to be with him every weekend and I know the viewers love getting to learn from him on Fridays and Saturdays. I’m not ready to say (2019) is our last run, but I’m certainly aware that there are some jobs out there that very well could tempt him to get back into it.”
Who knows what that job would be. Schoettmer believes Chizik deserves another Power 5 head coaching gig and that “his presence is too big just to hire him as a defensive coordinator.”
The last thing you’ll hear Chizik speculate about is another coach’s job opening up. After all, he’s been there. He remembers that whenever he speaks about a coach’s future on TV. He’s learned about being on the other side of that discussion and just being in the media in general. If he were to get back into coaching, having a better working relationship with the media would be one of his top priorities.
No matter what he decides, one thing is clear — he has plenty of people in his corner in Charlotte.
“If he gets the right job, dude, take it. Send me a shirt and I’ll be your biggest fan,” Nowkhah said. “I wish we could have him forever. But if we can’t, yeah, I’ll root like hell for him wherever he ends up.”
* * * * * *
As the SEC night slate gets going, Chizik disappears to the dark SEC Networks studio that’s used for the show “Thinking Out Loud.” He sits at a table with his laptop dissecting everything he can from the day that was in the SEC. Once the Kentucky-South Carolina game ends, he, Nowkhah and Doering will put a bow on Week 5 with their hour-long show.
It goes off without a hitch. Nowkhah sets up Chizik and Doering to weigh in on a variety of topics, like why Auburn’s defense was so successful against Mississippi State and what South Carolina showed by bouncing back against Kentucky. They each share what their top 10 teams looks like heading into Week 6 and to the on-air crew’s surprise, the hour comes to a close.
A producer catches Chizik as he walks off set and says, “Nice work, Chiz.”
“That ain’t work, man. You kiddin’ me?” Chizik responds with a smile.
It’s now past midnight and the SEC Network crew exits the studio en route to their usual local bar for their post-Saturday beer. The shop talk doesn’t stop when the cameras stop rolling. There, they have a weekly tradition of snacking on appetizers and doing their own power ranking of the SEC teams from 1-14.
On this night, however, Chizik’s agenda is different. Instead of joining the crew and retiring to his hotel room before making the 2-hour drive down to Greenville on Sunday morning, Chizik climbs into his rental car in the SEC Network parking lot and starts his trip early. He plans on driving straight from the SEC Network studios to Greenville, where he’ll arrive around 2:30 a.m., so that he and Jonna can get a head start helping Cally move into his dorm on Sunday morning. After spending Sunday with Cally, Chizik and Jonna will fly or drive back home to Auburn.
Admittedly, the new routine of spending Sunday in Greenville is still fresh. But like every new tweak to his lifestyle over the last 7 years, Chizik is embracing it. Spend any amount of time around Chizik and it’s easy to see why he’s “100% loving life as much as ever.” That’ll be true even if he doesn’t scratch that itch to return to coaching.
On a fall Saturday in mid-October, Chizik takes to Twitter to share a code he’s learned to live by through the ups and downs of his atypical post-SEC journey.
“Happiness starts with YOU! Not your job, money or any human relationship. But with YOU!!!!” #WordsOfChizdom
Chizik isn’t chasing happiness, money or a ring. His eyes are looking forward.
Well, at least when they’re not locked in on the Furman game.