Tonight, our Auburn University football team will run out of the Jordan-Hare tunnel behind a new head coach.
This is a rare and special event, only the fifth such event in the last 50 years, an event on par with unassisted triple plays and the more frequent comets. But the nice thing about this event is that we know exactly where and when it’s going to happen.
My fellow Auburn fans are, unfortunately, still only mildly interested in showing up. As of around 9:15 Central this morning, not only could you still buy tickets for this event, you could buy them in … let’s see …22 different sections. Tonight’s ticket will be the opposite of tough.
I want very badly to be furious about this, and part of me is. Last week I moved by necessity to a tiny Arizona town in the middle of the federal Navajo reservation, 1,600 miles from Auburn as the crow flies and even further removed spiritually. I would give up so many things to be in Jordan-Hare tonight–our dining room table, a toenail, alcohol for some extended amount of time–that the blood does reach a low simmer considering that so many of my fellow Auburn fans won’t part with 50 bucks for it.
But that simmer is as far as I get, because we can be honest about this: this is not the season and not the coach for the casual Auburn fans among us. This is a season where even the fanatics are expecting 7-5 or 6-6. There will be no deathmatch against LSU for the SEC West title this year, there will be no scoreboard-watching to figure out how far into the AP top 10 Auburn will rise. There will be only winning, only losing, and when I remember the Birmingham News “Sound Off!” comment in the wake of the 2006 Arkansas loss–in which a woman whose name I can’t remember said she’d been waiting 50 years on another national title and wanted Tubby hanged for not delivering it–I know that’s not enough for some.
Which is fine. I have my Auburn football, and they have theirs. But the unusual aspect about the apathy towards tonight’s game isn’t the team’s expectations. It’s the team’s coach. A new head coaching hire is typically a time of great excitement for a football program, a promise that things are going to get better, that a new direction has been charted.
I honestly couldn’t tell you if tonught’s absentees have responded to Gene Chizik with a shrug because they liked the old direction or feel like Chizik isn’t enough of a new one. (Chizik is a former Tubby assistant with a defensive bent who’s hired a spread guru to run his offense. In some ways, not much has changed in the head coach’s office.) But the shrug is there in that screencap above, and I can’t bring myself to blame anyone for it. The facts are the facts: 5-19. Winless in the Big 12. Less success in his second season than his first. Getting past those acts requires both a dedication to learning the other facts out there and a kind of blind faith that those facts won’t amount to anything in the end. There will be thousands upon thousands of Auburn people both in the Jordan-Hare stands and scattered across our country who have that dedication, that faith, but it doesn’t mean it’s that easy to come by. He’s still Gene Chizik.
And to be fair, Chizik has not given us reason to define him by something other than 5-19 just yet. We know he has an encouraging willingness to make aggressive, intelligent hires on his assistant coaching staff. We know he is a stickler for detail, from the facemask to the shoelaces. We know he is not fond of providing information about his football team to the press and general public.
And that’s about it. Who Chizik is as a person, what he’s really like as a coach, we don’t know. No one knows. Lane Kiffin has made the world forget he went 5-15 with the Raiders by squawking like a parrot whenever he’s sensed a microphone nearby. But Chizik finishes watching a spring scrimmage and can’t even bring himsef to tell us who played well, is asked whether starting the season well is important and can’t even finish agreeing that it is without explaining that it is also not. If Kiffin is a parrot, Chizik is a kind of clockwork owl.
So we’re left to fill in the blanks about him ourselves, to try and find our own handles with which to hold and understand our new coach. We will find one of them starting tonight, when Chizik either wins or loses and becomes a winner or a loser. It is a dangerous game Chizik is playing: if you can’t define yourself by who you are away from the sidelines, you risk being defined exclusively by what happens between them. “5-19 Gene” is cruel, but it’s also apt, because what other nickname could anyone give Chizik at this point?
At this point, none. In the near future, however, I believe he will have a new one, because there is a second way we can define Gene Chizik: as an Auburn football coach. Nothing more, nothing less. A quote from Lee Ziemba I find myself returning to time and time again as the clock ticks closer to kickoff:
Ziemba said there’s no mistaking what the identity of this program will be under Chizik.
“He’s always preaching to us about continuing what Auburn was built on, and that’s down and dirty hard work,” Ziemba said. “A man can only count on what he earns. That’s basically what coach Chizik is trying to instill in us.
Here we see why Chizik’s unwillingness (maybe even inability) to define himself for us isn’t a negative–it’s an overwhelming positive. Chizik isn’t trying to put his stamp on Auburn; he’s allowing Auburn to put its stamp on him. He’s not letting his football team define what it means to be Auburn; he’s letting Auburn define what it means to be a part of his football team.
Maybe Chizik is letting us fill in the blanks, but I believe with the same faith of those who will be in that stadium that he wants those blanks filled by the team, the University, and the community he represents. The reason Gene Chizik will succeed isn’t because he’s Gene Chizik, it’s because tonight he will run out of the same tunnel Shug Jordan ran out of, and Pat Dye, and Tommy Tubberville. It will be the tunnel above which an eagle will fly, the tunnel rocked by 80,000 orange-and-blue true believers screaming like their houses are on fire, the tunnel filled with 100-plus young men ready to give everything they have for the intersecting A and U on their helmets.
The coach that runs out of that tunnel tonight may only be Gene Chizik. But even before that he will be the Auburn head football coach, and because in part I believe Gene Chizik knows and understands that, I believe he will run back into it victorious.
This is Auburn. We are Auburn. War Damn Eagle, Coach Chizik. War Eagle, all of you, all of us.