When Gene Chizik was hired to take over a struggling Auburn football program almost exactly two years ago, what he brought with him was a reputation for honesty and hard work, and his staunch belief that he was the right man for the job.
At the time, that didn't seem like nearly enough.
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs' decision to hire Chizik to replace Tommy Tuberville sent a wave of criticism throughout college football. Fans, analysts, even Auburn alum Charles Barkley seemed to believe that hiring Chizik was a colossal mistake.
Tuberville was 85-40 at Auburn, including one undefeated season. Chizik was 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State — his only head coaching experience.
When he arrived in Auburn, fans heckled the new coach and the AD.
Barkley, the basketball Hall of Famer, favored then-Buffalo coach Turner Gill, an African-American, for the job and said race played a factor in Chizik's hiring. One longtime SEC writer called the hiring "the most unpopular choice in modern Auburn history." Some predicted he wouldn't last more than two seasons.
Meanwhile Chizik, a native of Clearwater, did the only thing he knew how. He did his best to ignore the outside abuse and went straight to work.
"We came in and we sat down a path where we wanted to go, and we've literally been consistently walking on that path," Chizik said this week as he remembered the uproar in the early days. "It's really that simple. I didn't really have the energy to pay a lot of attention to any of the outside distractions."
It turns out, Chizik, who turns 49 next month, may have been right about himself all along.
He is 19-5 at Auburn, and the No. 2 Tigers are 11-0 and riding the wave of their most successful season since the 2004 undefeated season when Chizik was defensive coordinator. On Friday, Auburn will travel to Tuscaloosa to play defending national champion Alabama in the annual Iron Bowl. Win that and beat South Carolina for the SEC championship, and the Tigers will be in the BCS national championship game.
"The Iron Bowl is going to be a huge game for our team," Chizik said. "We'll be excited to play the game. It's good for us that we had a little extra time (a bye week) to prepare to go to Tuscaloosa. It ought to be an exciting time for Auburn and an exciting time for our players."
While the Tigers may have caught the nation by surprise, none of this success comes as a surprise to Chizik's players. While the critics were taking shots, Chizik began his rebuilding effort where it counted most — with his players.
"When he came here he didn't put on a front," senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said. "He came to us and told it like it was. He told us that we didn't know him and he didn't know us, but we were going to need to learn to trust each other to turn things around. Since that day, he hasn't changed. We've all been together, and we've seen a constant, steady guy that is going to push you but is going to love you at the end of the day. He'll do anything he can for you to help you maximize your potential."
The family type atmosphere Chizik has fostered reflects his upbringing in Clearwater. He began his coaching career as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Seminole High in 1986, where he spent two seasons.
"It was a great place to grow up," Chizik said. "Clearwater, my elementary days all the way through high school, I had a great time there. I have a lot of close friends and a lot of family that are still friends with other people there. I don't get a chance to get back as often as I'd like, but I still have a lot of friends and people there that are very good friends of mine,"
If Chizik anticipated this type of success at Auburn so quickly, he won't admit it. He insists there was no set timetable for the rebuilding effort, but there was a clear vision for what he wanted to accomplish.
"We didn't really set our goals in terms of numbers of wins and losses necessarily," Chizik said. "We set our goals on how we wanted to get this program back to where it had been in the past, which was competing for championships. And that's what we wanted to do without pinning a number of wins to it. We obviously want to be able to be in a position every year to compete for a championship. I can't say that we're ahead of schedule or behind schedule. But I think we've done everything the right way here. We've recruited right. I think we've set a foundation right, and I think we've done all the things that we think are important to be able down the road to compete."
Success has come with a price. After an 8-5 season last year, Auburn landed former Florida quarterback Cameron Newton in its 2010 recruiting class. The junior college transfer has had a breakout season and is the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. But over the past month, Newton has been embroiled in a whirlwind of allegations concerning his recruitment coming out of junior college and his academics at Florida.
Among the accusations is that cash was sought in his recruitment. The NCAA, SEC and FBI are involved.
Chizik has staunchly defended his star quarterback. And it is the manner in which he has withstood so much — from the time he was hired straight through this controversy — that has made his players more dedicated to him than ever. They believe and trust in Chizik.
"Around here family is very important," senior guard Mike Berry said. "He's our coach and we're going to stay dedicated to him no matter what. He's a very family oriented guy. He has great character. He believes in hard work and being a good leader. He's just a good guy and a good Christian man. I think all those traits allow him to be a great leader and to lead people in the right direction."
"He's a players' coach," sophomore tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said. "He knows everything that's going on with us."
The national spotlight Chizik finds himself thrust into hasn't always been kind, but he insists he's enjoying every moment. Experience has taught him that dream seasons like this don't come around often — for some never. So despite it all, he's determined that he and his players will enjoy every moment. Even the difficult ones.
"Absolutely," Chizik said. "It's tough to get to this point, certainly in this league, and we've enjoyed all of the wins we've been able to accumulate. And we're going to continue to obviously try to stay on that path. But it's been a lot of fun. I think our players have had a lot fun, and I think our coaches have had a lot of fun. We try to be mindful of that. But you have to stay focused and stay on the right track."
No matter what the critics may say.
Antonya English can be reached at English@sptimes.com.