AUBURN — There’s an old Pat Dye tale that seems relevant, in light of Auburn’s firing of Gene Chizik.
As the story goes, Dye encountered Bear Bryant before their first Iron Bowl clash and told Bryant, “I’m not scared of you.” Bryant said “Come again?” and Dye modulated to his ex-boss.
“I might not beat you,” he said, “but I’ll beat all of those pups that come after you.”
That’s how Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs and his search committee of Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Mac Crawford must think, now that Auburn again needs a head football coach. They must think long term.
Auburn’s football program, which just ended its worst season in 60 years with a 49-0 loss in the Iron Bowl, has too many fundamental issues for immediate turnarounds. Then consider that rival Alabama stands poised to grab a third national title in four years.
It’s delusional to think any coach relishes coming into Alabama and recruiting against Nick Saban for immediate results, so the sell job must be long-term. Auburn must promise patience, with the understanding that it’s time to rebuild for the inevitable day when Saban no longer coaches Alabama.
That’s the hole in which Auburn finds itself, and a panicked hire will only dig the hole deeper.
Auburn stands in a hole because of a bad hire four years ago. Indeed, December of 2008 marked the end of the Tommy Tuberville era and beginning of the Chizik error.
Never mind the oasis of 2010, which brought a national championship with drop-in, Heisman-Trophy quarterback in Cam Newton, All-American defensive tackle in Nick Fairley and two dozen senior holdovers from Tuberville’s stay.
Never mind a better-than-expected, 8-5 showing in 2009, with most of those same Tuberville holdovers.
Even as Chizik went 22-5 in his first two years at Auburn, inducing the contract extension that now obligates Auburn to pay him and his staff $11 million to go away, the signs of amateurism were there.
His 5-19 record at Iowa State wasn’t enough to scare Jacobs off, but how about Chizik’s off-note, “God thing” comment after Auburn’s dramatic victory over Clemson in 2010?
How about Chizik’s poke-the-lion moment, when he challenged NCAA enforcement director Julie Roe Lach in an open meeting during the probe of Newton’s recruitment? Yes, the NCAA concluded its probe a few months later, exonerating Auburn for lack of evidence, but guess what.
The NCAA is back, reportedly looking into new matters. Though Jacobs thundered his confidence in Auburn’s NCAA compliance Sunday, issues raised in the new probe were reportedly enough for Auburn to pull two assistant coaches off the recruiting trail.
Could Chizik not control his underlings?
Could Chizik not at least take a closer look at recruits his assistants wooed?
It’s hard to overstate how much missing signees affected Chizik’s last two Auburn teams, especially his last team. Recruiting-service rankings say they were good players, but 35 Chizik-era signees over four years weren’t on the roster this year for various reasons.
Think about it. What if the NCAA imposed a 35-scholarship reduction over four years? Such penalties are designed to make it impossible to win, and Chizik managed to impose them without the NCAA’s help.
That’s how Chizik’s teams became perpetually young, and let’s not go into accountability issues evident when a team shows season-long, whack-a-mole execution flaws.
It doesn’t take long to crash a major college football program, especially in the SEC. It took just two years for Auburn to go from a national championship to Ole Miss, circa 2010-11.
A 3-9 record, 0-8 SEC, says it all.
That’s how Chizik became the quickest national-championship coach to be fired, and that’s the hole in which Auburn finds itself as Jacobs and Co. search for another football coach.
There’s no quick fix. The new coach must have a clear mission to do everything the right way. No shortcuts. No winks on patience.
After Auburn’s losses to Alabama by a combined score of 91-14 over two years, just about anything will look like progress to a fan base whose mood rises and falls with the Iron Bowl. It’ll be a while before anyone can realistically expect Auburn to beat Alabama, and how will the 61-year-old Saban feel about his career then?
He’s never stayed at one place long, and how much more can he accomplish at Alabama?
The day will come when Auburn fans start seeing the first pups that follow Saban, and the next Auburn coach’s mission must be preparing the Tigers for that day. The mission starts with rebuilding the roster and culture of accountability.
The mission might also start with a fresh batch of NCAA sanctions, if Jacobs’ confidence again proves to be misplaced, so he and his committee must think long term. The group must come prepared to put patience on the table.
That and lots more money would give Auburn its best chance to hire the type of coach who can pull the Tigers — and Jacobs, for that matter — out of their current hole.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.