John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE

For Auburn Football, Past is Prologue

Auburn Tigers fans need to learn their history, because they are about to see it repeated.

On Sunday, Auburn University Athletics Director Jay Jacobs held a press conference announcing what was by then a foregone conclusion: the firing of head football coach Gene Chizik. This came on the heels of a 49-0 drubbing at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide; the second such whipping since Auburn came from behind to beat the Tide on the way to capturing the 2010 BCS National Championship.

Within hours of the firing, Auburn columnist Kevin Scarbinsky penned an obituary on Chizik’s career that read like something out of Pravda, the Russian newspaper where excommunicated members of the Soviet Politburo were once turned into ‘non-persons.’

In his column, Scarbinsky lists Chizik’s numerous sins of both omission and commission. He gives examples of Chizik’s indifference to player discipline, his meddling in the offensive gameplan (The head coach? How dare he!) and asks rhetorical questions that sound like a Deep South version of the Watergate Tapes:

How widespread was that drug use, before and after the drug became illegal? When did Auburn coaches or officials become aware of it? What was done about it?

Scarbinsky notes that these problems were known to “official and unofficial power brokers” long before the Iron Bowl thrashing. The obvious question implied is, why was nothing done about it until now?

But another question, given the timing of this editorial is, why didn’t Scarbinsky say anything sooner?

Alabama is a small media market, without the competing news outlets of a New York or Los Angeles. You’re either working for the major media outlet in the state, or you’re one of the nameless rabble out the outside.* A writer covering Alabama sports often has to choose between writing exactly what he sees as the truth, without spin or deference, or being invited to a coach’s press conferences. It can be the choice between eating well, and sleeping well.

What does this piece tell us about who Auburn might hire as their next head football coach? Let’s look at a little history.

Auburn football experienced a resurgence when Pat Dye signed on as head coach. He led the Tigers to their first victory over Alabama in a decade, and made the team competitive year in and year out.

Dye was finally ousted when it came to light that a former player had taped conversations between himself and Auburn coaches and boosters, indicating he and other players had been paid.

Note the national media outlets reporting this; it’ll come in handy later.

Dye was pushed out and replaced by Terry Bowden, son of the legendary Bobby Bowden and then-head coach at Samford. He was successful at Auburn, going undefeated in his first 20 games and 47-17-1 overall. However, he too was forced out, at the urging of then-power broker Bobby Lowder. Bowden later gave a taped interview in which he stated that players were paid. Bowden would not give further interviews on the matter, noting a confidentiality agreement he had with the university, paying for his silence.

After Bowden, Auburn hired another up-and-comer, Tommy Tuberville of Ole Miss. Tuberville took advantage of Alabama’s suffering through a decade of near-death penalty sanctions and a string of bad coaching hires. He reeled off six Iron Bowl victories in a row, earning him the sort of power and freedom rarely experienced by an Auburn coach.

This didn’t sit well with the powers-that-be at Auburn, who attempted to hire Bobby Petrino in secret when Tuberville showed signs of struggling. The coup was eventually foiled, and Tuberville rallied his team to an undefeated season in 2004.

The arrival of Nick Saban signaled a sea change in football in the state of Alabama, and Tuberville was eventually sent packing like all the rest. His replacement, and the man selected to compete with Saban was Gene Chizik, a former Tiger defensive coordinator who had gone 5-19 in his previous gig as head coach at Iowa State.

Auburn caught lightning in a bottle in 2010, signing Cam Newton, a once-in-a-generation talent with a troubled past. Newton led the Tigers to their first national championship in over 50 years, despite a cloud of controversy over accusations the quarterback had been paid for his services. The SEC cleared him to play, however, and the rest is history.

Then just days before the 2012 Iron Bowl Yahoo Sports – again, a national outlet – broke the story that the NCAA was investigating Auburn for potential recruiting violations. If your daily intake of Auburn news came only from the state outlets, you were probably shocked.

Now here we are. Just two years after Auburn football reached its apex under Chizik, he joins the ranks of former Auburn head coaches, and Tiger fans are debating which A-list head coach will take his place. Jimbo Fisher and John Gruden are among the names that are being thrown around, all history to the contrary.

The history of Auburn football since the Pat Dye era (an era that continues as long as he is among the powers behind the curtain) is one of up-and-comers, of former assistants and lower-level coaches getting a chance to climb to the next level. Why should this coaching search be any different?

Auburn’s power brokers remain in power, among other reasons, because they have gone to great lengths to maintain that power. Part of that has been hiring coaches that don’t fight the system, go along with the program, and keep their mouths shut. A guy with a closet full of skeletons like Bobby Petrino might finally be a perfect fit.

Auburn fans hoping for a home-run hire need to understand that as long as the current power structure is in place on the Plains, the best they can hope for is a Double-A manager who is just excited to be in The Show.

Whomever is hired, you can expect the state media to report dutifully on Chizik’s replacement, noting the good character and upstanding principles of the man in question. He will be hailed as a good Auburn Man, and a loyal member of the Family.

Until such time as the local media are told he is no longer useful to the Party.


*Kevin Scarbinsky has twice agreed to be interviewed by us over the last couple of years, only to later ignore our requests to schedule a time.

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