Monday, November 19, 2012
The Sense of Stability
Quick, name the tallest mountain on Earth.
Before you Googled it, you probably thought of 29,029-foot-tall Mount Everest, but sorry, this is one of those trick questions. Mauna Kea, on Hawaii's big island, only rises about halfway to Everest's height above sea level at its peak. But if you slid down its mountainside, left the nearby shore, dove past the reefs, and plunged to the island's base at the seafloor, you would have descended 35,500 feet.
And somewhere down there, after falling from atop a mountain to the ocean's darkest depths, you would find what's left of Gene Chizik's Auburn career.
Nothing about Chizik's time on the Plains has been flat. An undefeated season as a defensive coordinator that did not result in a BCS Championship Game appearance. His own hiring being criticized by Charles Barkley as a racist travesty. The rise and sudden exit of a high school coach turned spread guru in Gus Malzahn. A team predicted to finish fifth in its SEC division winning the national title amid swirling rumors that its Heisman-winning best player had been shopped to the highest bidder.
And now, with that 2010 peak still visible in the rear view mirror, Chizik's 2012 squad faces all-but-certain defeat Saturday against Alabama. A loss to the Tide would close out a winless SEC schedule just two seasons removed from outright perfection.
To hear some tell it, Chizik was little more than a fortunate waterboy for Cam Newton. Yet, he returned to a stalled Auburn program after 2008, and within two years had changed its image and brought in the important pieces. It's difficult to write an honest account of Chizik's time at Auburn without weighing for both sides.
What do we expect anymore from major college football coaches? Many times, coaches must pass a test of their ceilings. Can the program reach its loftiest goals, typically a national championship, with this coach?
In Chizik's case, that question doesn't even need to be answered by extrapolation; the paint is still wet on his evidence.
But coaches are now graded by different criteria. For example, while college football games only fill three months of the year, recruiting can be a fan's year-round obsession. What measure could be a better litmus test for your program's state than whether top recruits want to play football there? At some points in the year, any top coach will be judged as much for winning the commitments of recruits as actual games.
If nothing else, the BCS has broadened the regionalism of college football to the national level. Whereas conversations of conference superiority were once saved for bowl season, the BCS has required the college football nation to consider each team's place in relation to the rest of the country. Hoping your team is in the mix for a BCS championship or at large berth? You better know your potential competition from coast to coast.
The problem with this one-criteria-fits-all evaluation of college coaches is that every job is a stacked deck. In the NFL, shared revenues, salary caps, and violent roster turnover even the playing field between jobs. Over just a few years, untenable positions can evolve into attractive ones.
But not in college football. Every program has advantages and disadvantages carved deep into their landscapes by time. Oklahoma, Ohio State, and USC are good jobs today for the same reasons they were good jobs 50 years ago. Cleaning house and installing a quality core group might work wonders on Sundays, but it cannot erase inferiority of tradition or facilities on Saturdays.
As a result, the traditional powers tend to keep a firm hold on their perches. Competition at the top is fierce. It's hard enough for the very elite to beat each other for superiority; it's nearly impossible for a team from a lesser perch to unseat those elite programs with regularity.
All of which brings us back to Chizik. Auburn is well entrenched as the state of Alabama's second-most popular team. The program has certainly had plenty of high points, but year-in, year-out, you are better off betting on the Tide than the Tigers.
Auburn is also under attack from its neighbors. Traveling just a few hundred miles from Auburn places you squarely within the traditional stalking grounds of powers like LSU, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.
The Tigers find themselves in the center of the country's toughest conference. The Auburn throne does not rule a vast kingdom with a comfortable stronghold.
Still, the frustration of Auburn boosters and fans with this season is understandable. They only get a dozen games with their team most years and a couple more in a great year. Lost years like 2012 eat into the enthusiasm and, let's face it, generosity of the fanbase.
But the reasons to expect better from Chizik's Auburn in the future seem to outweigh those indicating further putridity. While not reaching Nick Saban's lofty recruiting classes at Alabama, Chizik has outperformed many other SEC counterparts during his tenure.
Furthermore, Chizik's current plight seems most related to a mismatch between his roster and coaching staff. Since Malzahn's departure, Auburn has struggled to establish a scheme that matches the skills of its key offensive players. But just as Malzahn radically shifted the face of the Tiger offense upon Chizik's arrival, another coordinator could do the same. The number of bright offensive minds available, especially young ones looking to prove themselves, is great.
A coaching change will certainly result in the exodus of some current players and recruiters. In the best scenario, 2013 will have growing pains and losses that might have been avoided if the current staff could continue its program. And the worst case? Ask Tennessee how easy these transitions are.
Auburn's 2012 has been a nightmare, and it is reasonable to say it is the kind of season that is unacceptable for the caliber of the program. But there are no guarantees that the Tigers' next coach can reach the accomplishments Chizik has already demonstrated he is capable of.
The abyss Auburn sits in now must seem cruelly bleak. But it only seems that way because Chizik showed them what view from the top of the mountain looks like.