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Local football legend now at top

Gene Chizik was floored by the welcome he received as Iowa State's new football coach.

The former Clearwater High star walked through a smoke-filled tunnel to a pep rally, complete with cheerleaders, a marching band and thousands of fans.

"I'm still expecting a rock star to come out behind me," Chizik said Monday during his introductory news conference. "This is truly a blessing."

The Cyclones viewed Chizik, 44, a defensive coordinator for the defending national champion Texas Longhorns, as their sideline savior and wooed him with a six-year deal worth $6.75-million, including incentives that could push his total package to more than $10-million.

"To me, it's important for me for people to want you to be there, that they target you as their guy," Chizik said. "I really feel like I was recruited."

Since being hired, Chizik has been inundated with congratulatory calls, including ones from people back home. They have watched a local legend, who graduated from Clearwater High in 1980 and was an assistant coach at Seminole High from 1986 to 1987, ascend to the top of the coaching ranks.

"It was just a great situation for him," said Seminole football coach Sam Roper, who gave Chizik his first coaching job.

Chizik absorbed football knowledge from his father, the late Gene C. Chizik Sr., who began his long career in the Pinellas County school system in 1948 as a teacher and football coach at what was then a combined Tarpon Springs Junior and Senior High School. Chizik Sr. also served as Largo High principal from 1968 to 1986.

Chizik first showed flashes of greatness to come with the Tornadoes and was on the same team with Hassan Jones, who went on to star for Florida State and the Minnesota Vikings.

When Chizik graduated from the University of Florida in 1985, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He thought working in virtually any capacity for the coaching staff of a high school team would be the best way to build his resume for a full-time graduate assistant's job in college football.

He started with the Warhawks, caught on quickly and became a hot coaching commodity. Along the way, Chizik got a lesson in American geography, taking assistant coaching jobs at Clemson (1988-89), Middle Tennessee State (1990-92), Stephen F. Austin (1992-97), Central Florida (1998-2001) and Auburn (2002-04).

Chizik was the defensive coordinator for Auburn in 2004, when the Tigers went 13-0, and was the winner of the Frank Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in college football that season. The Longhorns were so impressed that they hired him to be their defensive coordinator.

Though Chizik had led a nomadic life, he eventually settled down. He is married to Jonna Nicely, the daughter of his former high school coach. The Chiziks have identical twin daughters, Landry Grace and Kennedy Danielle, and a son, Cally.

They named their son Cally after one of Chizik's players at Stephen F. Austin: Calloway "Cally" Belcher, who died from a brain aneurysm in 1994.

"Cally was a phenomenal person, so uplifting," Chizik said in January. "He was the kind of boy I wanted my son to be like."

Sorrow followed. In 2002, Chizik's father died from pulmonary fibrosis. The tragedies of the past were paralleled by his greatest triumph, a national championship last year.

Now, he'll try to win another at Iowa State.

Chizik still is in the process of assembling his staff and moving his family.

"Gene called me when he first got the job, and I know he was thrilled big-time," said his mother, Rita Chizik, of Clearwater. "But I'm sure he's pretty busy because I haven't heard from him since."

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