Where Smart Picks Go to Die
Yet another Saturday has come and gone for the Auburn faithful, and about the only way to describe it is this: same s***, different day. It’s really not even worth delving into the specifics of what happened in Auburn’s loss to Vanderbilt. The same problems that have plagued Auburn all season: poor line play on both sides, atrocious play-calling, lack of passion and enthusiasm, etc., were still out in full force.
Unfortunately, a very difficult decision is now upon the decision makers at Auburn. I mentioned on the blog and also on the podcast that, in my opinion, if Auburn lost to Vanderbilt Chizik’s time was up. The Sunday firing window has come and gone, so much to many Auburn fans chagrin it is unlikely to happen this week. Overall, it’s very difficult to imagine Gene Chizik still patrolling the Auburn sideline next year.
So why is the decision difficult? To the impartial observer this seems like an easy call: get rid of the guy who’s given you your worst season in 60+ years. It goes deeper than that, though. This one is tough for two reasons, both implicitly linked. Number one being what it says about Auburn if they fire Gene Chizik, and number two being what it says about Auburn if they hire a certain replacement.
Let’s start with number one. Gene Chizik brought Auburn fans something they dreamed of for a very long time (many their entire lives) – a legitimate national championship. Sure, many Auburn fans might like to count 2004, 1993, and maybe even 1983 (not all schools can get away with that sort of malarkey however), but 2010 felt like Auburn had finally climbed a mountaintop that had seemed untouchable in years before. The pain of years and years of pent-up frustration – with circumstances beyond Auburn’s control, with “the system”, with other teams seemingly getting preferential treatment – was lessened somewhat by the crystal football. The media and many others still did their best to ruin the experience, but somehow it didn’t matter as much this time around, because Auburn had finally beaten the odds. Many (if not most) would love to give all the credit for that championship to anybody other than Chizik – to Cam, to Gus Malzahn, to Nick Fairley, hell even to Ted Roof. Those figures were all important pieces, but if you want to blame Chizik for Auburn’s ineptitude in 2012 by the same token you have to give him credit for 2010. Further, with all of the distractions the 2010 Auburn team faced, Chizik’s steadfast, unwavering, media-unfriendly approach was critical to that team’s success. In fact, I firmly believe that all of those amazing comebacks would never would have happened without Chizik’s presence.
Add to Chizik’s crystal ball the kind of man he is, and it becomes a crisis of conscience for Auburn fans to let him go. Many Auburn fans feel that it’s of the utmost importance that Auburn win the “right” way, and by most accounts Chizik is doing that (maybe minus the winning part). Chizik is a man of faith – he was instrumental in setting up a football chaplaincy during his time at Iowa State, and has stated repeatedly (and publicly) that one of his major goals is to help his players grow spiritually. This mindset goes hand-in-hand with the Auburn Creed that many Auburn fans hold as a code of honor.
Do Auburn fans feel differently in this regard than fans of other programs? It’s difficult for me to say, because as much as I try not to sometimes, I still see things through orange and blue colored glasses. However, many Auburn fans see this moral commitment as something that sets Auburn apart from say, Alabama. Nick Saban is not known as an especially friendly or compassionate person, and he certainly didn’t win any points for trustworthiness with his comments about the Alabama opening while still coach of the Miami Dolphins. Alabama got what it paid for in Nick Saban (and has really reaped a massive return on its investment). Maybe the feelings of Auburn fans are legitimate, or maybe they are just a defense mechanism to try to save face when Alabama is on top of the football world and Auburn is getting kicked in the mud. It’s hard to say what’s the truth, but after all, it’s just football.
This brings us to the next difficult question for Auburn. Not only are you likely to get rid of “Good Gene”, but it’s likely that your best bet for a replacement is an alleged mercenary – “Bad Bobby” Petrino. We all know the backstory with Petrino, and it goes without saying that, at least on the surface, hiring Petrino goes against a lot of the things Auburn fans supposedly believe in. Nobody is saying Petrino is a devil-worshiping heathen, but at the same time his primary goal is to win football games and if he has to be an SOB to get it done, so be it. Maybe that’s the attitude it takes these days to win big. Ralph “Shug” Jordan is claimed by many to be one of the nicest men you could ever meet, but I have to wonder if that would have gotten him eaten alive in today’s recruiting and media landscape.
Alabama paid big to get Saban, and it’s worked out beyond their wildest imaginations. Maybe it’s time for Auburn to do the same, although the costs may not be monetary as much as principled. This Auburn fan is struggling mightily with that reality.