Auburn hire: More incompetence than bad intent

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Whether Charles Barkley was right when he said “race was the No. 1 factor” why Auburn chose Gene Chizik over Turner Gill is something only a few higher-ups in the athletic department and the administration at his alma mater will ever know.

But Barkley may be giving them too much credit. Judging by the process that led to Chizik’s selection as the Tigers football coach, incompetence appears to have trumped any questions of bad intent.

“I just thought Turner Gill would be the perfect choice for two reasons: He’s a terrific coach and we needed to make a splash,” Barkley said. “I thought we had to do something spectacular to bring attention to the program. Clearly, if we’d hired a black coach, it would have created a buzz.”

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs created a buzz, all right — just not the kind he hoped for. Polls show fan sentiment running 2-to-1 against his new coach, something Jacobs might have suspected after being heckled mercilessly by some Auburn fans upon returning to the university’s airport with Chizik’s deal in his briefcase.

After first declining to confirm the hiring, Jacobs later issued a statement saying, “I’m confident that Gene can build upon the foundation that has been established and make this a program that competes for championships on a consistent basis.”

Those remarks make you wonder what program Jacobs was watching.

Auburn consistently competed for championships under Tommy Tuberville, who went 85-40 in 10 seasons at the school, including a perfect season and Southeastern Conference title four years ago and six straight wins over archrival Alabama — and whose contract ran through 2013.

Maybe that’s why early reports labeled his departure a “surprise.”

But soon enough it became clear Tuberville agreed to resign in exchange for a $5 million payoff, because the university was under no obligation to buy out the deal if Tuberville quit. There was no evidence Tigers fans wanted him gone, either, since six dozen protesters marched in front of university president Jay Gogue’s mansion to protest their former coach’s ouster.

Tuberville’s 5-7 record, after all, was only his second losing season; he went 5-6 his first year in charge. And while Alabama’s resurgence under Nick Saban made some Tigers fans nervous, few see the sense in paying a proven winner $5 million to go away and hiring a one-time defensive coordinator at $2 million per year — especially since Chizik went 5-19 at Iowa State in his only stint as a head coach.

Neither Jacobs nor Gogue was around the last time Auburn’s athletic aristocracy tried to kneecap Tuberville. Just before the Alabama game in 2004, a few of them climbed in a private jet to meet with then-Louisville (and now Arkansas) coach Bobby Petrino and gauge his interest in Tuberville’s job.

But Jacobs’ fondness for flying was the equal of his predecessors. In a 10-day span, he met with a near-record number of candidates — rumored to include Texas Christian’s Gary Patterson, Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe, Tulsa’s Todd Graham, Ball State’s Brady Hoke, Buffalo’s Gill and Georgia assistant Rodney Garner.

Gill and Garner, an Auburn graduate, are believed to be the only two blacks on Jacobs’ list, and Barkley may have overstated the case when he said, “Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé.”

In truth, plenty of smart football people vouched for Chizik’s talent as a defensive coordinator, including former Tiger and current Redskins defensive back Carlos Rogers, who flew to Auburn following his game Sunday to lend support in person at Chizik’s news conference.

Former Auburn coach Pat Dye also contributed an e-mail addressed to the “Auburn family,” in which he wrote, “Nobody is more qualified to make this decision than Jay. He is a true Auburn man to the bone and understands better than anybody the kind of man we need to lead our football program into the future. Gene Chizik is that man.”

If that’s true, Jacobs has done his man very few favors. Because of the way Tuberville was deep-sixed, and the sloppy, frenetic search for a successor, those already notoriously impatient Auburn fans will begin Chizik’s tenure in a very bad mood.

Gill was the favorite not just of Barkley, but apparently a majority of the Tiger faithful. His resume at Buffalo was short, but substantial. After taking over one of the worst programs in the country, the former Nebraska quarterback led the Bulls to an 8-5 record and their first MAC title, upending previously unbeaten Ball State 42-24 for the conference championship.

Gill might have been overmatched at Auburn, of course, but he almost certainly would have been granted a longer grace period. More fascinating, still, would have been the chance to watch a black coach take over a strong, stable college program in need of some fine-tuning, as opposed to the wrecked, wretched ones they usually get hired to turn around.

That may be what angered Barkley most.

The number of black coaches running major college football programs is abysmal: four of 119, the same number as 15 years ago. Of the nearly 200 head-coaching jobs that have opened up since 1996, a dozen have gone to blacks, who make up half the players.

“They’re not getting good jobs. They’re not getting jobs where they can be successful. That’s why I wanted Turner to get the Auburn job,” Barkley said. “He could win consistently at Auburn. You can’t win consistently at New Mexico. You can’t win consistently at Kansas State. He could have won at Auburn.”

Now we’ll never know.