year ago this past weekend a stunned Auburn family got the news. Former Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was coming home. This was the same Chizik who bolted from Auburn following the 2004 Perfect Season because Texas offered a better chance at becoming a head coach. This was the same guy who won five games in two years as coach at Iowa State. The Auburn Nation was angry and bewildered.
A year later things are much different. Chizik has largely won over the Auburn faithful with his recruiting efforts and a surprising seven win season that will culminate in a New Year’s Day bowl. Just about everyone will tell you things are moving in the right direction. So far, you’d be hard pressed to find fault with this new coaching staff.
As good as things look today, there are stiff challenges ahead. Unlike Tommy Tuberville, this coaching staff must deal with a cross-state rival that’s arguably at an all-time high. In an age of internet and 24 hour sports, Alabama football is on everywhere you turn.
Whether it’s Mark Ingram and his Heisman or the talking heads all but guaranteeing an Alabama victory in the national championship game, the Tuscaloosa program is getting positive press from coast-to-coast. Ultimately it will be up to Chizik to answer the challenge.
It’s a task that would push the limits of even Lombardi and Bryant. Chizik is taking on a program and a coach that’s laid down the gauntlet not only to Auburn, but the rest of the conference. Like him or not, Nick Saban lives football 24 hours a day and demands the same of his staff. You likely wouldn’t want to work for him or be his friend, but as far as coaching goes, there are few who are better.
What must Auburn do to answer the challenge?
Most importantly, it has to recruit. Chizik’s staff is made for it. If a few chips fall its way, Auburn will end up with a top five class in February. Tuberville liked to say he could take his three-star athletes and beat your five-stars. In these times that’s too much of a risk. Auburn must answer power with power.
Chizik will also need to retain his staff. An eight or nine win season next year means the likes of Gus Malzahn and Trooper Taylor will be in high demand. Auburn hasn’t been shy about paying its assistants. That philosophy has to continue. Continuity is key in the early years of a program.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof must build a defense that can handle being on the field for long periods of time. In Malzahn’s book, The Hurry Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy, he explains that teams must be prepared for a drop-off in defensive stats. When the offense is not clicking, the defense is under more stress than Tiger Woods. Malzahn all but guarantees a team’s defense will suffer with his offense. Recruiting should help in this area.
Auburn must continue to upgrade its facilities. After Friday’s story, many of you disagreed with my recommendation to increase seating at Jordan-Hare Stadium. All of you had valid points. The key thing about expanding is the addition of luxury boxes. Talk to school officials and they’ll tell you that’s where you make money. Currently, Auburn has hundreds on the waiting list to purchase these suites. Adding two additional levels of sky boxes along with a few thousand additional seats will bring in millions for the team. That money can then be used to enhance other parts of the football program.
Most importantly, Auburn people must stand together. We all must be patient while Chizik builds this program. The Auburn experience is unlike any other. Most alumni love their schools, but Auburn people take it to another level. The divisions that existing during the Tuberville years must remain locked away. Bobby Lowder leaving the board of trustees in early 2011 will do wonders for morale.
Finally, Auburn must operate on its own timeline. Everyone’s aware of what’s happening in Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge and Gainesville. It alright to be cognizant of the challenge, just don’t let it affect the overall plan. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, you have to like Auburn’s chances of returning to the BCS in the coming years.
The Tigers have come along way in a year. There’s much work to do, but the future is bright.