Sunday, December 28, 2008

Carry yourself with some dignity, Auburn!

By Rick Morris

Last year at this time we examined the state of college football coaching jobs. Who is on the top tier and who is on the next tier – clarity about where programs are realistically slotted is necessary in order to ascertain whether good hires or bad ones are being made relative to the value of the available jobs.

Right now, the top candidates to move up to a marquee job appear to be Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson and Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly. But with Johnson just having signed a big extension, a mere one year into his job in the A-T-L and Kelly also relatively new to his job and having sworn up and down that he’s staying in the Queen City, the timing is not right to woo either of these coaches. This explains why Notre Dame, who fired Ty Willingham before getting all their ducks in a row with Urban Meyer, has decided to hang onto Charlie Weis for one more year. Better to wait until a clear-cut top-tier candidate emerges as a realistic choice to be hired.

Auburn showed no such sense of planning when they “allowed Tommy Tuberville to resign” and replaced him with former Tiger defensive coordinator and Iowa State washout Gene Chizek. Awarding someone with a 5-19 record in the mediocre Big Twelve North a job we rated on the solid second tier a year ago should be beneath the dignity of the institution.

Charles Barkley went on another of his infamous belching rants when he accused his alma mater of racism for failing to hire Buffalo’s Turner Gill – a clearly superior choice – because he is a black man married to a white wife. There may or may not be truth to the accusation, but it’s a shame that it wasn’t raised in a more credible manner by a more credible person so that we would have a better chance of finding out the truth.

But right now, I’m about to do Auburn the dubious favor of defending them against accusations of racism by pronouncing them merely inept instead. I’d be much more inclined to believe the racial angle a few decades ago, before black faces became such a prominent part of the sports landscape even in the Deep South. No, my guess is that they are simply incompetent.

Faced with two coaching candidates who clearly didn’t impress them (Chizek because of his lackluster record in corn country and Gill probably because of his youth and lack of ties to the region), they settled for the one who at least had ties to the university. Chizek was the D coordinator a few years ago when the team went undefeated and doubtless, the school thought they’d at least get some credit for welcoming back somebody who’d had some success at the school. Wrong!

In the end they settled – and a school of their stature should never settle. I’ll take my theory a step further and guess that they looked across the state at their archrival Alabama and shuddered quite a bit at the fact that Nick Saban is having success ahead of schedule. With the next two years looking like a complete wipeout no matter what Auburn does, why lead with your best effort right now? Why not get somebody just to keep the seat warm until the next window to hire a coach comes about at that time?

If this is the strategy, it’s risky and ill-advised. I’ve never been a big Tuberville guy, but if somebody’s just going to fill the spot until they think Saban could be vulnerable again due to a down recruiting year (by the way, Auburn, good luck waiting on that!), why not keep the coach you had? Even with some of his tarnish gone, he still had more stature than his former assistant. And the job is likely to be more devalued after the Age of Chizek – meaning that the next time they hire somebody unworthy of a second-tier NCAA job they may no longer be on that second tier. That’s not the kind of self-perpetuating downward spiral that you want to perpetuate.

It’s clear that the alums are pretty cheesed off by this hiring. My advice to them is to start socking money away right now in a reserve fund. Chizek’s contract won’t cost much to buy out in two or three years, but a top-level coach isn’t even going to take a look at that mess unless there’s a mountain of caysh to entice him to put aside his better judgment and consider better offers. As expensive messes go, Tuberville’s buyout will be chump change compared to the eventual costs of fixing this mishandled situation.

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