Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Revolving Door (SEC Coaches' Edition)

Charles Barkley is ticked.

The former NBA star turned TV analyst is mad at his alma mater, Auburn University. Sir Charles is accusing Auburn of racism in the hiring of its new football coach, Gene Chizik.

In fact, Barkley says that race is the only reason that Chizik got the job over the other leading contender, Turner Gill. The head coach at the University of Buffalo, Gill was interviewed by Auburn before Chizik was hired over the weekend. Gill is widely credited with resurrecting the Buffalo program, which won the MAC championship earlier this month, defeating a previously unbeaten Ball State team.

But Auburn decided to go with Chizik, who previously worked as a defensive coordinator at the SEC school and at the University of Texas. During that span, both the Tigers and Longhorns went undefeated. For the past two seasons, Chizik has been the head coach at Iowa State, compiling a less-than-impressive 5-17 record.

At his introductory press conference, Chizik repeatedly stated that he is "the right man for the job." But many observers disagree. ESPN.com columnist Mark Schlabach described the Auburn search as "the most haphazard in recent history," as athletic director Jay Jacobs talked with a number of better-known (and arguably, more qualified) contenders before settling on Chizik:

How Jacobs settled on Chizik is perplexing. Jacobs talked to nearly anyone who was interested in coaching at Auburn. He interviewed at least eight candidates: Ball State's Brady Hoke, Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley, Buffalo's Turner Gill, TCU's Gary Patterson, Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, Tulsa's Todd Graham, Georgia assistant Rodney Garner and Miami offensive coordinator Patrick Nix.

All of the aforementioned head coaches were more qualified than Chizik -- at least their teams won during the final three months of the regular season.


The rest of Auburn's A list included two highly regarded coordinators: Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Texas' Will Muschamp. Both assistants have already been designated as coach-in-waiting at their respective schools. Muschamp wasn't willing to leave one of the best jobs in the country for Auburn, and FSU wouldn't budge on a $5 million buyout for Fisher.

Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who led the Red Raiders to their best season in school history, was never considered for the Auburn job. And Leach might have been willing to crawl from Lubbock to Auburn. But at least one powerful Auburn booster feared the quirky Leach was too much like former Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who was fired midway through the 2008 season.

Auburn didn't want the Big 12 coach whose team went 11-1 playing in college football's toughest division.
Auburn wanted the Big 12 coach whose team went 2-10 playing in the league's lesser division.

And apparently, Barkley isn't the only Auburn alum who's upset over the hire. When Jacobs returned to "The Plains" after the hiring expedition, he was openly heckled by fans at the Auburn airport.

But, in fairness, Barkley's allegations of racism are way off base. Fact is, the Auburn decision was dictated by a small cabal of influential donors and alumni, led by one Bobby Lowder, the CEO of Colonial Bank, an Alabama-based chain that has grown exponentially over the past 25 years.

Auburn sports is Mr. Lowder's all-consuming passion, and he wields tremendous power within the athletic department. The fingerprints of "the real AD" (as some describe him) were all over the sudden resignation of long-time football coach Tommy Tuberville, who stepped down at the end of the season. Tuberville won 80 games in 10 years on the plains, and beat arch-rival Alabama six times in a row.

Unfortunately for Tuberville, it wasn't enough, particularly with Bama coach Nick Saban building a national championship contender in Tuscaloosa. After the Crimson Tide hammered Auburn in the season-ending Iron Bowl, Lowder and Company decided that Tuberville had to go, buying out his contract for a reported $5 million.

Now, it's Chizik's turn in the barrel. He's reportedly popular with Lowder and former Auburn coach Pat Dye, another key mover-and-shaker behind the scenes. Never mind that Dye coached his last game almost 20 years ago and left the program on probation. At Auburn--as at many big-time college football schools--it's a matter of connections. In the old Soviet Union, position and influence were measured by the official's position atop Lenin's Tomb, during the annual May Day Parade. On "The Plains" of Auburn, just look at the group in Bobby Lowder's skybox, or the names on speed dial in Coach Dye's cell phone.

Not surprisingly, the Lowder-Dye clique wanted a coach they were comfortable with (read: someone they could control). Chizik represented a known quantity, a head coach who knows how the game is played at Auburn--and we don't mean football. That may explain why the school hired a defensive specialist to rebuild a team that finished near the bottom of the SEC in most offensive categories.

We wish Coach Chizik well in his new gig. Between that Saban fellow in Tuscaloosa and the expectations of certain Auburn boosters, Chizik has his work cut out for him. But such is the life of a head football coach in the SEC, where job security is measured in wins and losses. If you don't believe us, just Phil Fulmer, the long-time University of Tennessee coach whose "retirement" was announced before the end of the season.

Fulmer won 152 games--and a national title--during 16 years in Knoxville, but that wasn't enough to save his job after this year's team got off to a slow start, and finished the season 5-7. Losing is no more acceptable at UT than it is at Auburn, the man reason that Fulmer is a former coach, at least for now.

As for Charles Barkley, he also knows how the game is played. If he wants more influence at Auburn, he might consider writing a bigger check for the loyalty foundation. In college sports, nothing speaks louder than cold, hard cash and Sir Charles has the resources to get his point across. Who knows? If Charles spent a little less time in the casinos (and more time back at Auburn), he could challenge Bobby Lowder and install his own choice as football coach.

Trouble is, collegiate football coaching is a small fraternity, and many candidates want no part of a school where a single alumni--or a small group--run the athletic department. True, that sort of behavior happens at most schools, to some degree. But alumni manipulation is off the scale at Auburn, one reason that many top coaches want no part of that situation.

Turner Gill should be thankful he was passed over for the Auburn job. But if he really wants to coach on the plains, Coach Gill should just be patient. If the football pundits are correct, Chizik's time at Auburn will be brief, setting the stage for the "next" coaching search in a couple of years.

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