I don’t know what to tell Auburn at this point. I spent half the damn 2008 season campaigning against Tommy Tuberville because he was dragging this team down into the pit of mediocrity that is the SEC West. As successful as he was, he no longer showed the same ability to strategize, recruit, or lead that he showed earlier in his tenure at Auburn. In short, he had to go. It was time.
Then Auburn spent ten days pretending Tuberville resigned and staging the most half-assed coaching search in history. Now Gene Chizik, he of the 5-19 career record at Iowa State, is the new head coach at Auburn University. Let’s just say this situation has exploded in the Auburn athletic department’s face like Peter North on an Arizona State sophomore.
First, Charles Barkley has alleged racism is the only reason Buffalo coach Turner Gill didn’t get the Auburn job. Now some other people are backing him up, and this racism thing seems to have legs, since Chizik is just as under-qualified as Gill. This isn’t a good image for the SEC to have on the heels of Sly Croom leaving Mississippi State. Not that the South has such a positive public image with regard to race relations as it is. Looking in your direction, LSU fan.
Here is where I disagree with Sir Charles. Race was only half the issue in this most glorious fuck-up in the SEC post-Lane Kiffin. The other half was something just as nefarious and pervasive in collegiate and professional football: safe, “conventional” thinking.
Auburn did not hire Turner Gill partially because he’s black. I think that’s clear to most people at this point. But the Auburn higher-ups didn’t look at his resume and decide, “well, there’s our token interview.” What they did was boil their decision-making process down to two choices: Gill or Chizik. Neither one was more qualified for the job than the other, and they were both a pretty big risk. It was an either/or situation. Each coach had their own set of issues coming in that had nothing to do with race, but everything to do with experience and qualification. But when it came down to a bad white head coach and black head coach with more success on a lesser stage (basically a wash record-wise), Auburn went with the “better fit” for Auburn: the white coach. Why? It’s what they were used to.
The message is clear. In order for a black coach to get a head-coaching job in the NCAA, he can’t just be even with a white coach because the white coach will win virtually every time. If we replaced Turner Gill with, say, Randy Shannon, the result would have been exactly the same. Apparently, black coaches have to be overqualified even for mediocre jobs. If this weren’t true, there would be more than the handful of black head coaches that there are today, given the amount of black position coaches and coordinators out there.
Universities are constantly willing to take chances on first-time and under-qualified coaches, but they all seem to be white with a few exceptions (see: Dorrell, Karl). Anyone wondering where UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker is going to be hired as the head coach? I sure am because it hasn’t happened yet even though he is one of the most qualified coordinators out there. He’s been ready for a head coaching gig for two years, and his resume is more impressive than Chizik or Gill.
But no, Tennessee, for example, went with a white guy who coached in the NFL for a year and a half, failed miserably, and made a mess doing it. Before the Raiders, Lane Kiffin was only a co-coordinator at USC. Mississippi State went with Dan Mullen, a white, 36-year-old career coordinator with the same amount of head coaching wins as Walker: zero. He has also been working with Urban Meyer the entire time, so God knows if he’s even that smart. Or if Meyer is. Clemson promoted Dabo Swinney, a white coach, from within after he produced the same amount of mediocrity as his predecessor, Tommy Bowden. Swinney has also never run a high-division one program. Three white coaches, all with the same amount of wins as college head coaches (0), but Turner Gill would have been “too much of a chance” ?
I’m not saying anyone at Auburn is a racist, but Gill’s race absolutely played a role, even possibly on a subconscious level. Turner Gill was an assistant at Nebraska for nearly ten years after he starred there himself at quarterback. He tutored a shit-ton of very successful players, including Eric Crouch and Tommy Frazier. Then he worked for the Green Bay Packers helping players get used to living in Green Bay, so he knows the NFL a bit. Finally, he landed at Buffalo where in three years he has won a conference title and turned one of the worst programs in Division I history around. 7-5 is a goddamn miracle at that school. But Gill didn’t get the job because Gene Chizik was the defensive coordinator for one successful season at Texas and a few successful seasons at Auburn before that. Apparently, that “experience” trumps anything amazing Gill could have done. Let’s all keep pretending it was Chizik making those guys good, not the talent and myriad of other good coaches associated with those undefeated teams. How have his Cyclones’ defenses been? Shitty. That’s how.
But this isn’t just about Turner Gill and racism. Auburn also chose Chizik because he had a pre-existing relationship with the school. No matter how pathetic his teams were when he was the head coach at Iowa State, no matter how much or little credit he actually deserves for the successful seasons at Texas and Auburn, the Tigers went with the devil they knew. And that is equally pathetic as the race issues involved because it represents a larger trend in professional and college hiring that is just as bad for the game as the lack of black coaches.
Somewhere along the line, it became vitally important for NFL organizations and college athletic departments to hire head coaches who were unsuccessful or had no experience but had relationships with the organization/department (Charlie Weis, Cam Cameron when he was at Indiana, Gene Chizik, Norv Turner) and/or coaches who are re-treads with sketchy records and histories (Dennis Franchione, Bobby Petrino, Norv Turner, Wade Phillips, Dick Jauron, Pete Carroll). I only named one respectable head coach just now.
Hiring Gene Chizik wasn’t just about race; it was about fake changes. It was about keeping the status quo. It was about conventional thinking and risk management. And those last two are ruining football on all levels just as much as racism in hiring practices because it affects wins and losses much more directly. Race is a larger, more important social issue. Conventional, safe thinking is a winning and losing issue.
Auburn’s AD already put his job on the line by running Tuberville out of there. If his hire doesn’t work out, he’s probably gone too. So he went with a guy he knew and whom he could manipulate and control instead of a new coach he couldn’t. By thinking safely and conventionally, Auburn’s AD has made things worse, not better, for his department and his job security.
Chizik, “the better fit,” already has his legs cut out from under him. No one outside of the Auburn athletic department wants him there, and there is absolutely nothing sexy about this hire to recruits. The team now realizes their AD has hired a guy who will bail on his players at any moment. Lest we forget, Chizik swore to his Iowa State players he’d never leave, and they’re PISSED, according to Deadspin. Sometimes we take the move from program to program for granted, but clearly Chizik’s players were under the impression he was staying. The safe, conventional choice has already turned into a disaster.
Here’s another example: Norv Turner. The Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer in a fit of pique after losing in the playoffs a couple of years ago. Turner was never, ever a successful head coach despite having several opportunities at the NFL level. Yet the Chargers hired him because he had worked for them previously and because “he wouldn’t change the offensive system.” Two years later the guy is the exact clusterfuck we expected, and A.J. Smith’s reputation as a genius is on the line. He played it safe, went with a guy he could control, and it screwed the franchise.
Did anyone really think Dick Jauron would turn Buffalo into a winner? Does anyone really believe Dennis Franchione will be any different if he’s hired at a college again? Of course not, but teams hire these guys again and again. Why? They are scared to take any kind of risk with the unknown. These coaches are all very well traveled and have tons of contacts within the old-boy network that is NFL front offices and collegiate athletic departments. This is why they keep getting jobs.
Mediocre coaches create mediocre teams. That’s how Norv can turn the Chargers into a loser practically overnight, why Charlie Weis can’t win at Notre Dame, and the other reason why everyone is laughing at Auburn. Gene Chizik, Norv Turner, et al. were all hired by executives who were too scared to take any kind of a risk with a hiring. Ironically, nearly every time an executive or AD does this, the situation gets worse, not better. It’s become obvious now. Playing it safe and hiring coaches you can control screws up the team even more.
I wish Gene Chizik the best. I hope he wins a ton of games over there and proves everyone wrong. But he probably won’t. Even if he is the new Pete Carroll, another hire who was universally panned at the time, it will mean the chickenshit hiring practices in high-level football will continue unabated. That sucks. A lot.
And my Chargers will be stuck with goddamn, fucking Norv Turner until both he and A.J. Smith have to be run out of town by a mob holding torches and pitchforks.