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Auburn coach Gene Chizik gaining respect after tough welcome

TAMPA — How tough can it be to satisfy Auburn's football-crazed fan base?

Exhibit A: While deplaning at the Robert G. Pitts Auburn Airport in December 2008 after a flight from Memphis, four Auburn athletic officials were greeted by a group of about two dozen mostly upset fans.

The reason?

Word had leaked that the Tigers were set to hire Gene Chizik, who had gone 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State, as coach.

During the awkward event, which was captured on video and seen by millions on YouTube, one disgruntled man took a break from booing and shouted, "We want a leader, not a loser."

"That," Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens said, "was a little unfair."

Apparently, though, many shared the fan's sentiments.

At least, at first.

"I'd say in the initial 24 hours, the response (by Auburn fans) was overwhelmingly negative," said Evan Woodbery, who covers the Tigers for the Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register.

Meanwhile, Auburn's players weren't upset; they were stumped.

"Most of us were like, 'Who is he?' " running back Ben Tate said.

Twelve months and two weeks later, the boo birds have quieted. While there remains much work to get Auburn back into the elite of the SEC, the selection that flabbergasted some and disappointed others now doesn't look half bad.

In his first season at Auburn, Chizik, a Clearwater native whose first coaching job was as defensive coordinator at Seminole High, is 7-5, is the school's first first-year coach to reach a bowl (it plays Northwestern on Friday in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium) and apparently has been recruiting hard. Auburn is ranked No. 7 in the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings, ahead of USC and Miami, among others.

"I feel like I'm the most blessed man on the planet," Chizik, 48, said Tuesday.

In hindsight, Chizik's respectable start shouldn't be a surprise. Although his record at Iowa State is what many initially focused on, his work as defensive coordinator at Auburn (2002-04) and Texas (2005-06) was nothing short of phenomenal.

During those two stops, Chizik's defenses were ridiculously good and helped each program record an unbeaten season. The 2004 Tigers, in fact, led the country in scoring defense. It was that success that helped persuade the Tigers to hire him.

"I know that we have found the right fit for Auburn," athletic director Jay Jacobs said when Chizik was hired.

It didn't take the mild-mannered and close-to-the-vest Chizik, hardly a quote machine but clearly a man focused on football, long to start winning people over. At his initial news conference, he spoke of his affection for all things Auburn, particularly its tradition. Then he focused his attention on the players.

"He told everyone who he was and said, 'I know you don't know me or trust me, but we're going to get to know each other,' " Tate said.

Chizik started gaining that trust in the spring, Tate said.

By the fall, most everyone was on board.

The season hasn't been without its valleys, but the peaks included a 5-0 start, wins over Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia and a near-miss in its regular-season finale against unbeaten Alabama.

"These guys have bought into Auburn," Chizik said.

And many, including a lot of those naysayers from a year ago, undoubtedly have bought into Chizik.

"He proved people wrong," Stevens said. "He won them over."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kniebuhr@sptimes.com.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik gaining respect after tough welcome 12/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 29, 2009 8:32pm]
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