December 15, 2008

Monday with Mike: Risky business at Auburn

MORE: Coaching carousel | Season review coverage

Gene Chizik?

That's not to say Auburn made a bad hire for its football coach, just a surprising one.

A few seasons ago, Chizik was one of the hottest assistants in college football. He had just left Auburn to become co-defensive coordinator at Texas. It wasn't a coincidence that the Longhorns won the national title in 2005, Chizik's first season in Austin.

Chizik was known as a good recruiter, a good motivator and an excellent X's and O's guy. He had been a secondary coach and a linebacker coach. Not surprisingly, the back sevens on defense always were a strong point on any team he coached.

Chizik remained at Texas for one more season before surprising almost everyone by taking the head-coaching position in purgatory better known in the Big 12 as Iowa State.

With the Cyclones, he fell out of the public's eye, both because Iowa State is a below-the-radar "Big Six" program and because the Cyclones won only five games against 19 losses in his two seasons.

When Tommy Tuberville resigned or was forced out at Auburn, Chizik wasn't a name that came up when discussing potential replacements. Indeed, Chizik was busy searching for replacements for his recently demoted coordinators. After the Cyclones went 2-10 this season, offensive coordinator Robert McFarland and defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt were stripped of their titles but allowed to remain on staff.

There was a lot of speculation about the Auburn search, but Chizik's name didn't really crop up until Thursday. By Friday, it was evident he was a legitimate contender, and word came Saturday that he was Auburn's choice.

Thus, Chizik now moves his search for coordinators to a higher plane. His staff at Iowa State, frankly, was no great shakes. He had a lot of friends on the staff, but at times Iowa State looked overmatched on the sideline and in the coaching booth. That needs to change at Auburn.

One plus is that Auburn obviously has a far higher national profile than Iowa State. Assistants who would listen but say no when an assistant's job at Iowa State was offered now will be far, far more willing to listen when a job at Auburn is being dangled.

Still, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs has to know this decision is a controversial one.

First, Tuberville had a tremendous run of success. It's unfortunate for him the worst season in his tenure coincided with archrival Alabama's re-emergence on the national scene. Now, Tuberville's replacement is a guy who has been a head coach for all of two seasons and has a 5-19 record.

Chizik needs to place a huge priority on recruiting abilities when he puts his staff together. It's a lot easier to recruit at Auburn than it is at Iowa State. At the same time, Alabama has become a recruiting juggernaut under Nick Saban. Still, Tuberville and his assistants could go into a recruit's home and say, "We've been successful for a long time at Auburn. We will win while you play for us." It's going to be different for Chizik, who can't sell any success as a head coach. He can sell that he has been successful as an assistant and he can sell Auburn's recent run of success, which he was part of from 2002-04.

But his will be a short tenure unless Chizik can duplicate Tuberville's success quickly. The SEC has no four- or five-year plans; instead, there are two- and three-year plans. And, frankly, if there's another Auburn coaching search in three years, there's a good chance Jacobs won't be in charge: His job security is tied to Chizik's won-loss record.

A look back

Chizik's hiring and the recent hirings of Doug Marrone at Syracuse and Dave Clawson at Bowling Green provide an opportunity to look at the first-year coaches from this past season and give them a grade for their work.

Arkansas and Bobby Petrino. Petrino's departure from the Atlanta Falcons was ugly, but few doubt he'll have success at Arkansas. The amount of success is the question. The Hogs won five games this season. On the face of it, that's not that impressive, considering how down the SEC was this season. On the other hand, Petrino's offense is centered on the pass and the talent he inherited was recruited for a run-first offense. Problems should have been expected.
Bottom line: Arkansas was inconsistent this season, an offshoot of the talent on hand trying to master a different offense. Assuming Petrino and his staff can reel in a lot more wide receivers, this should be a team to watch in the next few seasons.
Grade: C.

Baylor and Art Briles. Briles had turned around the Houston program, and more than a few folks were surprised when he left the Cougars to take over Baylor. Houston is a stronger program and Baylor lags far behind the rest of its Big 12 South brethren. But getting freshman quarterback Robert Griffin on campus may have started a turnaround.
Bottom line: The Bears had a pulse this season, mainly because of Griffin, who is a big-time talent. Now, Briles and his staff have to bring in a lot more guys who can help Griffin win.
Grade: B-minus.

Colorado State and Steve Fairchild. Fairchild had been an assistant during Colorado State's glory days under Sonny Lubick, and Colorado State still held enough sway that Fairchild left his assistant's job with the Buffalo Bills to return to Fort Collins. The Rams finished 6-6 this season and are headed for the New Mexico Bowl.
Bottom line: Colorado State's program had fallen a long way in a short time, but Fairchild and his staff including defensive coordinator Larry Kerr, who also had been a part of some great Rams teams seem to have righted the ship. The question now is whether the Rams again can become one of the Mountain West's best teams.
Grade: B-plus.

Duke and David Cutcliffe. "Football season" at Duke usually can be measured in the number of days from the opener until basketball practice starts, but Cutcliffe may have started a culture change. Duke was far more competitive this season, but the question remains whether the Blue Devils can get enough good players to move from "competitive" to "contenders" in the ACC.
Bottom line: While Duke finished 4-8, this was not a typical Duke team. The Blue Devils seemed to have a clue on both sides of the ball, and they could've been a bowl team had enough breaks gone their way.
Grade: C-plus.

Georgia Tech and Paul Johnson. Johnson had great success at Navy with his triple-option offense, but there were more than a few observers who wondered if that offense would work in a major conference. That question has been answered in the affirmative. While it helped that two holdovers QB Josh Nesbitt and RB Jonathan Dwyer were perfect fits for Johnson's offense, Johnson and his staff deserve a ton of credit for getting the linemen and receivers to buy into the scheme as well. As for the defense, it once again was one of the best in the ACC.
Bottom line: Tech showed this season that the triple option can work in major college football. Now, Johnson and his staff need to reap the benefits on the recruiting trial.
Grade: A.

Hawaii and Greg McMackin. McMackin was defensive coordinator last season, when the Warriors went 12-1 and reached the Sugar Bowl. He was promoted when June Jones left for SMU. Hawaii didn't come close to reaching those heights again. While the defense was solid, the offense was way too inconsistent. Mediocre quarterback play was the biggest problem, though Hawaii did get a bowl bid.
Bottom line: Considering the amount of talent Hawaii lost off the 2007 team, no one expected the Warriors to tear it up again. They didn't. The challenge now for McMackin is finding enough talent to keep Hawaii in the top half of the WAC standings.
Grade: C-plus.

Houston and Kevin Sumlin. Sumlin was hired off the Oklahoma staff, and he and his staff actually revved up Houston's offense a feat considering how well the Cougars had played under Briles. But the Cougars finished a mildly disappointing 7-5 despite a tremendous offense. The defense needs work.
Bottom line: Sumlin did a nice job with the offense this season and should continue to grow into his head-coaching role. But the Cougars underachieved a bit this season.
Grade: B-minus.

Indiana and Bill Lynch. Lynch was the interim coach in 2007 after the death of Terry Hoeppner, and the Hoosiers reached a bowl which lead to Lynch getting the permanent job. Alas, things were back to normal for IU this season, when the Hoosiers finished 3-9. A knee-jerk reaction would be to say IU made a mistake when Lynch was hired, that it was an emotional decision in the wake of a turbulent but successful 2007 season. Frankly, that knee-jerk reaction looks correct.
Bottom line: A lot of things went right in 2007 for IU, but a lot of things went wrong this season, most notably an injury to star QB Kellen Lewis. Still, the talent deficit is large, and IU coaches have a lot of work to do on the recruiting trail.
Grade: D.

Michigan and Rich Rodriguez. The season was a nightmare for Rodriguez and his staff as the Wolverines suffered through the worst season in school history. The talent on hand was ill-suited to run the spread. Still, while no one expected the Wolverines to go 10-2, they had more talent than their 3-9 finish.
Bottom line: While the hiring was a good one that eventually will pay off, this season was a disaster.
Grade: F.

Mississippi and Houston Nutt. Nutt basically was run out of Arkansas by a delusional but vocal minority of the fan base that thinks this is 1968 and that the Hogs can be an annual national title contender. Nutt was embraced by Ole Miss fans looking for something anything after the nightmare that was the Ed Orgeron era. Nutt and his staff had a clue, and it paid off to the tune of eight victories and a Cotton Bowl appearance. The Rebels finished second in the SEC West, beat Florida in Gainesville and took Alabama to the wire.
Bottom line: The Rebels are likely to lose a lot of key linemen, but the rest of the division - with the exception of Alabama - is going into next season with just as many questions. Ole Miss recruited well but played poorly under Orgeron. Can Nutt keep the recruiting at a relatively high level?
Grade: A.

Navy and Ken Niumatalolo. Niumatalolo was promoted from offensive line coach when Johnson left for Georgia Tech. Niumatalolo coached Navy in the bowl game last season, a loss to Utah. This season, though, the Midshipmen finished 8-4 and beat Army for the seventh consecutive time. Navy is running the same triple-option attack and didn't miss a beat despite some offensive injuries.
Bottom line: Things are going well for Navy. There was a seamless transition to Niumatalolo, as evidenced by the Midshipmen's 8-4 record and EagleBank Bowl bid. Navy's success has been noticed by Army, which fired coach Stan Brock after just two seasons.
Grade: B-plus.

Nebraska and Bo Pelini. Bill Callahan was a bad fit for the Huskers, and previous athletic director Steve Peterson paid the price along with Callahan. Enter Pelini, who re-energized the fan base and the team itself. The Huskers went 8-4 and are playing in a New Year's Day bowl albeit the Gator Bowl, not a top-tier game the Huskers once were accustomed to playing.
Bottom line: There still is work to do in Lincoln. The defense looked awful in the four losses, and QB Joe Ganz and numerous other key players are seniors. But the good news for Pelini and his staff is that the Big 12 North appears to be wide open next season.
Grade: B.

Northern Illinois and Jerry Kill. Kill and some key staff members arrived from Southern Illinois, one of the best programs in the Football Championship Subdivision. NIU had been one of the most consistent MAC programs from the late 1990s into this decade but had fallen on hard times of late. NIU seemed to have a renewed purpose this season and did an especially good job on defense.
Bottom line: NIU is going bowling, a nice turnaround from two consecutive bad seasons. Successful teams seem to ebb and flow in the MAC. If the Huskies can find some more players, there's no reason they can't be annual contenders in the league.
Grade: B.

SMU and June Jones. Jones had been ultra-successful at Hawaii, but he took over one of the worst programs in the nation in the Mustangs. He promised a pass-happy attack and he delivered. But one season after he led Hawaii to a 12-1 mark, his Mustangs went 1-11. That was the same record that got predecessor Phil Bennett fired.
Bottom line: Quick turnarounds aren't that tough in Conference USA because the league lacks good defenses. But Jones may not have realized how bad things were at SMU. He played a lot of young guys this season, and he will probably do so again next season. He and his staff quite simply must get better players.
Grade: F.

Southern Miss and Larry Fedora. That Southern Miss ran off Jeff Bower was hard for many to grasp, but school officials thought the Golden Eagles should be annual contenders in Conference USA. Enter Fedora, off the Oklahoma State staff. He and his assistants made a splash on the recruiting trail in a short amount of time, but only a late-season surge got them bowl eligible in a mediocre C-USA.
Bottom line: The Golden Eagles were solid offensively all season, but it took a while for the defense to come around. Two of the key players on offense QB Austin Davis and WR DeAndre Brown were freshmen, and Fedora is known for his offensive prowess. How Southern Miss fares in recruiting this season is something to watch.
Grade: C.

Texas A&M and Mike Sherman. Sherman was a former Aggies assistant who had spent 11 seasons away from college football when he was hired as coach. His coordinators weren't in college ball in 2007, either, and at times this season the Aggies looked disorganized and dispirited.
Bottom line: Those who were wondering about the Sherman hire have more reason to wonder after this season. This recruiting "season" is huge for Sherman and his staff.
Grade: D-plus.

UCLA and Rick Neuheisel. UCLA was looking for an infusion of enthusiasm, and Neuheisel provided that. He put together a good staff and wasn't afraid to talk about the program across town USC and how the Bruins had their sights set on the Trojans. But Neuheisel likely learned this season that he needs a telescope to see USC because UCLA lags far, far behind.
Bottom line: It's all about getting more talent in Westwood. UCLA suffered from poor quarterback play this season, and that should be something Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow can fix assuming they have the raw material on hand.
Grade: D-plus.

Washington State and Paul Wulff. Wulff is a former Washington State player who had great success as a coach at Eastern Washington, an FCS school. This season, though, was nothing if not a great disaster. The Cougars finished 2-11 and gave up 60 points four times. Injuries crippled the offense, and a lack of talent was a huge problem on defense.
Bottom line: As mediocre as Washington State had been the past two seasons, no one saw this coming. The Cougars were awful. The only saving grace was that archrival Washington was even worse. Priority one has to be finding a quarterback. Priority two has to be finding a lot more guys who can play.
Grade: F.

West Virginia and Bill Stewart. There were more than a few people who guffawed when Stewart surprisingly got the job after Rodriguez's messy departure, and there are a lot more guffaws now. WVU was a preseason top-10 pick and the runaway choice to win the Big East. A loss in Game 2 to East Carolina, though, showed that there were problems. WVU did not win the Big East and isn't even in the top 25 heading into the bowl season.
Bottom line: Stewart already is on the hot seat, and his first season isn't even over. He appeared overmatched at times on the sideline and that was with QB Pat White, one of the most electrifying players in recent college football history. WVU needs to make a splash next season, or Stewart's tenure could be over quickly.
Grade: C-minus.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for He can be reached at is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
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