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December 13, 2008

Dateline Campustown: Auburn can't count

Finally. After two years of holding my tongue and being a good soldier - or shill as KXNO's Marty & Miller not so inaccurately said - I can put it all out there regarding what I've thought from day one about former Iowa State football coach Gene Chizik.

When Chizik was hired, I told some media colleagues in confidence that his stay at Iowa State would be three years maximum. Either he would fail miserably and be fired or he would have a little success and jump on the very first opportunity that came along to move back south. Now I must admit, even I am surprised at the bizarre turn of events whereby he failed miserably at Iowa State and still got to jump on the very first opportunity that came along to move back south. What the hell Auburn is thinking is anybody's guess. And who cares. Because it just unburdened Iowa State of its most unprepared, overmatched and incompetent head coach of the modern era.

The red flags began popping up almost immediately. When Chizik said that winning is hard everywhere - that it was hard to win at Texas and Auburn, too - you knew he had no comprehension of the task at hand. Chizik's resume is built on winning with superior players, something anybody can do. It's not hard to win at Texas or Auburn; it's hard to lose. When he was given the third-highest assistant coach salary pool in the Big 12 and immediately set about hiring his old buddies for jobs they weren't qualified for at a pay rate twice what he could have gotten them for, you knew he was playing head coach instead of actually being one. When Chizik told the players he inherited that he wasn't going to come down to their level, his legacy of all-hat-no-cattle sound bites was in motion. Few of those players had ever been part of anything as wretched as the two seasons Chizik presided over. He'd have been fortunate to have them bring him up to their level. And when he made the players spend 20 minutes of the first spring practice of 2007 precisely lining up their helmets, you wondered if a real life Captain Queeg hadn't taken over the ISU football program.

Chizik's game day performance speaks for itself and his Saturday state of confusion was boderline comical, if you subscribe to the idea that it's better to laugh than to cry. He might someday have the mental capacity to manage a game as head coach, but it's not there yet. The next opposing coach that Chizik outsmarts will be the first. Without superior athletes, he was rendered impotent as a coach and when all three phases became his ultimate responsibility, he gagged on it. Chizik coordinated defenses at Auburn and Texas; but as a head coach, all he coordinated was disarray. The Cyclone sideline resembled a fire drill more often than not in crucial situations and the number of delay of game penalties and wasted time outs that could be attributed to him and his staff was a career's worth, not two season's worth. The defense was ultimately dumbed down not so the players could understand it, but so the coaches could manage it. And even then they failed.

Would Chizik have eventually been able to win more games at Iowa State and perhaps even get to 6-6 and a bowl game? Maybe, eventually. Had he at least been stubborn enough not to quit, it was possible. After all, he had a brilliant rebuilding plan in place - get better players. Who could fail with a plan like that? But when you consider the games that his Iowa State teams choked away against very beatable opponents these last two autumns, even better players might not have mattered. Because the players he had at Iowa State were collectively good enough to go .500 or better in each of his two seasons in Ames. He and his coaching staff were the problem, not the players. Had the coaches been as good as the players, ISU would have won more games. Even if the players were horrible - say 5-19 horrible - that still means that Chizik and his staff generated a grand total of zero wins with their talent. The players, of course, were not 5-19 horrible, which means the reality is that Chizik and staff cost Iowa State victories as opposed to making them happen.

Iowa State had some good individual talent on its coaching staff. I was impressed throughout the past two seasons by coaches like Tony Petersen, Scott Fountain, Jay Rodgers and Mike Pelton. But when the CEO is swimming in confusion and the coordinators are ten years past their primes and their primes weren't all that good to begin with, there's only so much individual position coaches can do. When word came down that Petersen was losing his job in the staff reorganization, it was clear evidence to me that ability didn't carry much weight in the Cyclone football organization. Instead, clearly, it was a lot more about being part of Chizik's confederate clan than it was about coaching ability.

A two-word phrase will serve as Chizik's epitaph when it comes to his burying his dismal tenure at Iowa State: "firmly entrenched." That phrase was part of his disingenuous explanation regarding comments attributed to him by a Dallas radio show host by way of an Oklahoma State assistant coach. Now, those comments supposedly made by Chizik about being sorry he took the ISU job may have indeed been false. Or they may have been true. Whether they were ever spoken or not doesn't matter, they were definitely being thought. The truth was, Chizik couldn't have been less firmly entrenched at Iowa State. If the Chiziks even bothered to fully unpack, it would be a stunner to me. Never has someone so obviously had an eye on the exit immediately after coming through the entrance.

Chizik's decision to bolt for Auburn - while fine and good in and of itself - is obvious proof that he did regret coming to ISU and that he had quit on the job and given up on accomplishing anything in Ames. And it certainly shows that he was not firmly entrenched. Whether or not he ultimately got the Auburn job was immaterial once he had interviewed. The real story of the last two days was the Chizik was not up to the task and he knew it. As did many of us. It's nothing short of a blessing that Auburn took him off Iowa State's hands. It was quick and painless and just gives ISU a one-year head start on cleaning up the mess that Chizik created. He never hesitated to let people know how much work there was to be done and what a bad situation he stepped into. Well, the next guy will have it a lot worse, thanks entirely to Chizik. But the next guy will probably be a lot better head coach, so it's still a net gain for Iowa State.

Gene Chizik was Plan B for Iowa State. While even that was too high considering the candidates interviewed, it's at least reassuring to know that someone better than him wanted the job in 2006 and was even offered the job, but just couldn't pull the trigger fast enough to take it. ISU settled for Chizik and got what it got. Even though he was packaged and sold as a rock star, he wasn't hired as one. The rock star got away, so Iowa State took the back-up singer. It's Auburn's problem now. While he has a better chance of winning in general there - because he'll have better players - he'll be up against it in a job where so much is riding on one rivalry game a year. Beating Alabama trumps all else at Auburn and Nick Saban will probably floss with Gene Chizik on an annual basis. It's a coaching mismatch of epic proportions. I mean, if Mike Sanford and Tom Amstutz and Doug Martin hand you your lunch with inferior talent, what's Saban going to do with superior talent? When the clock ticks down to 0:00 on future Iron Bowls, there will be nothing left to do but I.D. the Auburn bodies.

Good luck, Auburn, you'll need it.


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