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Auburn Tigers coach Gene Chizik achieves thanks to the gifts of his father

The son stands vigil as the father lies silently in a Clearwater hospital room. Time is running out, and nothing in this world can change that. So the room is mostly quiet except for an elderly gentleman who has come to whisper his final goodbyes. "Look at it this way," he says to his dear old friend, "you lived 40 or 50 years longer than you thought you were going to." When the gentleman gets up to leave, the son follows him into the corridor. "What did you mean … "

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People will tell you Gene Chizik has his father's eyes. His forehead. The curve of his jaw.

But, in the end, that's just genetics. The greater gifts passed on by a father are the ones that shape a son's life. His sense of purpose. Of loyalty. Of compassion and commitment. In that sense, we are just now beginning to see the man Gene C. Chizik Sr. was.

Because, at long last, his son has hit the big time.

For a certain generation of Pinellas County residents, that will be Mr. Chizik's boy leading the Auburn Tigers out of the tunnel and into the BCS national championship game against Oregon this evening. The same boy who played football at Clearwater High, and began his coaching career at Seminole High. The boy who taught third grade at Bauder Elementary, and married the daughter of his Clearwater High coach.

The boy who asked his father to be the best man at his wedding, and who has spent a lifetime following the best man's ideals.

This is their story, a father's and a son's. It begins in anonymity and, over the decades, winds its way toward a grand stage, but the central theme never wavers.

"They had a special relationship. Gene was born later in the marriage, and he grew up idolizing his dad," said Chizik's father-in-law, John Nicely. "He's a lot like him today. Very mild mannered but very determined. Mr. Chizik was a special man and a special father, and Gene is the same kind of father today."

They were men in public positions but with quiet tastes. There was faith. There was family. And there was football.

Chizik Sr. played a little college ball at Rollins before enlisting in the Marines at the start of World War II. When the war ended, he followed his best friend to Pinellas County and began a career as an educator. He coached football for a couple of seasons before spending more than 30 years as a principal in Tarpon Springs and at Largo High School.

As for young Gene, he was a linebacker at Clearwater when the Tornadoes won the county conference title in 1978, and he was a Pinellas All-Academic team selection in '79. He walked on at the University of Florida, but his playing career ended with a back injury.

Back in town after graduating from UF, Chizik ran into Sam Roper at a friend's wedding. Roper, his former position coach at Clearwater, was now the head coach at Seminole and offered him an assistant's job.

The only problem was finding a teaching position. There wasn't anything at Seminole, but Bauder Elementary had a job open for a third-grade teacher.

"He was fantastic with the kids. You could not have asked for a nicer man in that job," said Rangel Dockery, who was part of a two-teacher team with Chizik at Bauder.

"In some ways it was funny seeing this very big, very buff man sitting in these little chairs teaching math and science to third-graders, but he really related with the kids. He would get down to them on their level."

The career may have begun modestly, but the intensity has always been there. Early in his first season at Seminole, the Warhawks were getting soundly beaten when Chizik ordered his linebackers into the empty showers at halftime.

"He ripped us pretty good. I think he put us in the shower because he knew his voice would bounce around the locker room," said Dom Green, who has gone on to become an NFL scout. "But I'll never forget one thing. He said, 'Go as hard as you can for as long as you can and don't ever look back.'

"That has stuck with me forever. It's like a microcosm of who he is. And it's the way his teams play today."

By the end of his second season at Seminole, Chizik was convinced he wanted to make a career of coaching. Roper was friends with then-Clemson coach Danny Ford and arranged for them to have dinner when the Tigers were in Orlando for the Citrus Bowl.

It was the start of a college career that took Chizik from Clemson to Middle Tennessee State to Stephen F. Austin to Central Florida. His big break was as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, which led to defensive coordinator at Texas and his first job as head coach at Iowa State.

"I've seen him grow and become a great coach, a great father and a great role model," Roper said. "He's very appreciative of everything that's happened to him. Very humbled. Not arrogant at all. If you want to compare him to somebody, he's like a more polished Bobby Bowden.

"If Gene Chizik comes to your house and talks to your son about playing football, you're going to fall in love with the guy."

On Sunday, Chizik sat in front of dozens of cameras in a Scottsdale, Ariz., hotel ballroom in the final news conference before the BCS game. For 30 minutes he answered questions politely and blandly. Someone asked about his rule that Auburn players are not to celebrate touchdowns, but instead are supposed to hand the ball to the referee.

Chizik, 49, explained this is a team game. It's not about what an individual has done, but what has been accomplished toward a greater goal. It sounded a lot like any other coach except, maybe, for those who knew Gene Chizik Sr.

On that afternoon in May 2002, when his father lay dying in a hospital bed, Chizik listened as Bill Justice, his father's lifelong friend, made the cryptic remark about living longer than he expected. Justice, a former Clearwater City Commissioner, had been friends with Chizik Sr. since they were teenagers and enlisted in the Marines with him at the start of World War II.

When Justice left the room, Chizik followed him out and asked what he meant.

He never told you?

That was the first time Chizik heard the story of his father's military service. Of a small group of Marines who took a mound of dirt on Okinawa known as Sugar Loaf Hill in one of the bloodiest and most pivotal battles in the Pacific. Hundreds of men went up the hill, and few came back down. This was the reason for the Bronze Star for heroism tucked away at home that his father never talked about.

"His father was a great man. A loyal man. Chizik would be proud of his son today, but he would never let you know because he wasn't the type to talk about it," Justice said. "I'm just glad the son is getting his recognition today."

In a way, so is the father.

John Romano, who is covering the BCS title game in Arizona, can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Auburn Tigers coach Gene Chizik achieves thanks to the gifts of his father 01/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 7:15am]

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