Will UNC never learn? read the subject line of the email. Indignation wafting from the computer, the following question loomed in my inbox:
Gene Chizik is to become a coach for the football team? The guy who recruited Cam Newton and arranged to have him (his father, actually) to play for Auburn? No!!!
This response to the news that UNC plans to hire Gene Chizik as its defensive coordinator reminded me of a 2008 scene at the Auburn airport. As Chizik and the Auburn athletic director arrived, a heckler bellowed: "We want a leader, not a loser!"
The scene was replayed over and over on ESPN, local news shows and YouTube—an indication of how underwhelmed Chizik's hiring left much of the Auburn faithful. Not because of any ethical qualms, but because he was 5-19 at Iowa State as a head coach.
The question now, though, does include some concerns about behavior, not just wins and losses. Based on the news of academic fraud that has come out of Chapel Hill over the past couple of years, it would seem that UNC has answered which matters more.
There may be some hesitation, though. While various media outlets have reported that Chizik will become the new defensive coordinator, he has not yet officially been hired and announced as such. More recent reports say that UNC is still vetting his record and investigating his background.
First, a quick explanation: Auburn plays in the SEC, where football is king, and is the cross-state rival of the University of Alabama. Their rivalry was once declared "the most venomous" in the nation by a TV pundit.
There is nothing in that state, my home state, more important than college football. Take what this area considers passion for basketball and multiply it a hundredfold. You scoff, but have any Duke or State fans killed 130-year-old oak trees because they were upset over a loss? Sorority girls in Tuscaloosa wear houndstooth lingerie because of a hat worn by a coach who's been dead for 32 years. Are any of you wearing Dean Smith-inspired bras? At both schools, the annual spring game, aka a meaningless scrimmage, draws 85,000, about 22,000 people more than Kenan Memorial Stadium—the largest of the Triangle's football stadiums—can hold.
So yeah, it's that serious, which is why Chizik went from meh to messiah for Auburn fans. In his second year, he led the Tigers to the national championship.
But during that championship run, questions arose outside of the fan base. The first controversy swirled around possible improprieties in the recruitment of Auburn's quarterback, future Carolina Panther Cam Newton.
Cam's father, Cecil, allegedly had asked Mississippi State through an intermediary—ex-Mississippi State player Kenny Rogers—for $120,000 to $180,000 for Cam to sign with them out of junior college. (Seems reasonable—have you been to Starkville, Mississippi?)
But Cam went to Auburn, so, naturally, the assumption was that Auburn had outbid the Bulldogs. Danny Sheridan, a nationally known sports handicapper, claimed vociferously that he knew the identity of "the bagman" Auburn allegedly used to pay the older Newton $200,000 plus another $30,000 to his Georgia church.
Sheridan claimed to have passed a lie detector test but never released the name because, he said, he feared being sued. The NCAA publicly rebuked him for "unsubstantiated claims."
Chizik kept the team on track through the constant media drip drip drip of rumors, news and pseudo-news. Auburn eventually suspended Newton because of the matter during the week before the SEC Championship game, but reinstated him a day later after the NCAA cleared him of wrong-doing and declared him eligible to play. (Auburn's defense was that Cam had no idea what his dad and Rogers were asking Mississippi State, and that there was no evidence any other school had been asked for money. Emphasis mine.)Auburn fans answered all the criticism publicly with "The NCAA cleared him" and privately with "We got a bargain if we got him for only $200,000." Because, in the SEC, if you're not cheating, you're Vanderbilt.
Then, unfortunately for Chizik, Cam went to the pros, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn left for a head coaching position and Auburn fell from national champion to a record of 8-5 followed by 3-9.
You post records like that and suddenly people take notice of your "out of control" program. They ask why you have to hire a private firm to run curfew checks on your players, as Chizik did. Four members of the 2010 championship team getting arrested for robbery in March 2011 is considered a black eye for the program instead of a few individuals making bad choices. Players being arrested for public intoxication become a symptom of a lack of discipline instead of college kids being college kids. And every serious Southern football fan knows that lack of discipline leads to stupid penalties which leads to losses and, well, we can't have that.
There were also NCAA investigations of the recruitment of Memphis running back Jovon Robinson (a high school guidance counselor had created a fake transcript) and allegations by four former players that they had been paid thousands during their careers. There was no wrong-doing found on the part of Chizik or Auburn in either case.
So Chizik ends up fired and working for ESPN as a surprisingly decent studio analyst. (Surprising because during his tenure at Auburn it seemed as if he never said anything beyond "We're just going to do what we do and not worry about things we don't have any control over.")
Of course, it was the 3-9 season and humiliations by Georgia and Alabama that got him fired from Auburn, not the NCAA investigators racking up loyalty rewards at local hotels or any off-the-field player incidents. According to a New York Times report, at the University of Florida there were at least 31 arrests of Gator football players while Urban Meyer coached the team from 2005-2010. But Gator fans were sad when he left and angry when he took over at Ohio State. And, of course, Florida State this year had its share of "dirty program" accusations centering on allegations the local police department gave players a break when trouble arose, the most famous instance being the sexual assault case involving Jameis Winston. (If only I knew how to punt, I might have paid FSU a few hundred dollars less in campus parking fines.) If Chizik had won like that, he'd still be wearing orange and blue.
When it comes to big-time college football, what matters most is the won-loss record (we won't get into big-time college basketball and getting top recruits from AAU programs because, in these parts, that would take me from preachin' to meddlin').
If the Tar Heels go through with the hiring, the good news would be that Gene Chizik is an excellent defensive coordinator. The bad news is that he would probably fit right in at UNC.