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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

As Chizik quiets critics at Auburn, uncertainty looms


AUBURN, Ala. -- Which way do you want to go with this Gene Chizik story?

The man is one of only four undefeated coaches in Division I-A. He gives up next to nothing in terms of anecdotes, details or color. His own story isn't even in the top five on his own campus this week with Alabama looming. There is an SEC title game coming up. The BCS hurt still lingers from 2004. There is the small matter of his quarterback whose mere presence on the field has become breaking news. NCAA. FBI.

Which way, then?

We could go out to the Auburn-Opelika Regional Airport two years ago for the now infamous YouTube video of a fan heckling Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs.

With thumbs pointed down, the fan reacted to the imminent hiring of Chizik shouting, "Booo, we want a winner, not a loser. Give us [Turner] Gill, not Chizik."

Or we could go to former Tiger Charles Barkley, who took the debate to a new level by playing the race card. He, too, wanted Gill.

"I think race was the No. 1 factor ...," Barkley said. "Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé."

Or we could go to Bill Oliver, a former assistant at both Alabama and Auburn -- a man of substance and knowledge familiar with both schools.

"I'm ashamed of him for one thing," said Oliver, who hired Chizik as a grad assistant at Clemson 22 years ago. "Since he's been at Auburn he has not called me."

We could go any of those directions as this wonderful, controversial, confusing Auburn season winds down. It is a season that has The Plains on edge for more than one reason. But we have chosen to drop in on a scene recently in Chizik's office.

Thirteen-year-old Landry came into her daddy's office to ask when he was going to be done.

"Are we going to go down to [eat]?" she said.

"Yes, can you give me a couple of minutes?" Dad said.

"A couple of minutes to you is a lot of minutes," Landry countered.

There were a couple of "babys" and "sweeties" thrown in by Dad and Landry, for the moment, was placated. Hungry, but placated.

There are a lot of minutes to go to for Chizik -- to the Iron Bowl this week and beyond. On his list of things to do, winning national coach of the year probably ranks somewhere beneath memorizing Lord of the Rings and a spa treatment. But it is becoming an increasing reality as various lists of national finalists begin to pop up. Chizik is attempting to become the fifth coach since 2000 to win a national championship within his first two seasons at a school. He knew when he arrived that there wasn't the luxury of a five-year plan. Auburn was hiring him for organization, his defensive background, his urgency. In back-to-back seasons Chizik had been the defensive coordinator for an undefeated Auburn in 2004 and national champion Texas in 2005.

Had he taken the Auburn job then, Chizik would have been the hottest coach alive. His biggest sin may have been his choice of starter jobs. Chizik came to Auburn after two years at Iowa State during which he went 5-19. Hence, the heckler, Barkley and the outcry.

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"It seems like an eternity ago," said Chizik, relaxing in his office wearing a light blue sweater and freebie cowboy boots given to the Texas staff five years ago, proclaiming the Longhorns national champs. "But you know what? That's not how I live my life. Usually, the loudest is usually the minority."

Here's what the minority saw: 3-9 and 2-10 at Iowa State. The previous coach, Dan McCarney, had performed near miracles -- winning at least seven games in five of 12 seasons. McCarney read the tea leaves, felt the pressure and resigned in late 2006. Seeing what he had inherited, Chizik chose to take the long route, starting with the infrastructure and building out. The 2008 Cyclones lost their last 10 games, four by eight points or less.

"If you look at the games, he wasn't getting blown out totally in those games," said David Irons, Sr., who is close to Chizik. Two of his sons, David Jr. and Kenny, played at Auburn. "He did that with no talent."

The Auburn offer, then, seemed like a gift from the heavens. To some War Eagles, it was perceived as settling.

"That was the passion of an Auburn person coming out," Jacobs said recalling the yahoo at the airport. "It took some a little bit longer than me to get behind him."

Gill was the hot candidate at the time after Tommy Tuberville had resigned. The former Nebraska quarterback had taken a bare-bones Buffalo program to a MAC title. Choosing between Chizik and Gill seemed like a no-brainer. Look back today and criticism seems silly. Gill is 3-8 in his first year at Kansas, having lost to I-AA North Dakota State. You haven't heard much comment on that subject from Airport Guy or Barkley.

"Vindication doesn't inspire me at all," Jacobs said. "It's not about who's right. It's about getting it right."

Let's be honest, the minority wasn't fully converted until salvation arrived in the form of a 6-foot-6, 250-pound superstar.

"If they didn't have Cam [Newton], I guarantee you, I think seven ballgames would be the very most they would win with [that] defense," Oliver said. "The thing that Cam has done, he's elevated every guy on that football team. I've never seen anybody like him before."

Every good thing for Chizik and the Tigers has sprung from that recruitment. For that alone, he could be named coach of the year. It's no disgrace that the Tigers, 11-0, may be a one-man team. Might as well own it.

Auburn was fractured after Tuberville's departure. Tubs had worn out his welcome with the school's power brokers despite 85 victories in 10 years that included that undefeated 2004. It was important to find someone who could set their watch to AST -- Auburn Standard Time. From Alabama to Afghanistan, it seems, two Tigers can recognize each other on the street and call out, "War Eagle." The phrase can mean "Hello", "Goodbye", "Nice pants" or "Look out, you're about to be run over by a semi." Only those warring eagles seem to know.

The Plains are a different place. It celebrates wins by throwing toilet paper in trees. Some say there is a certain inferiority complex too. Alabama has most of the championships. Auburn is no stranger to the NCAA infractions with seven major infractions cases in its history. Whether the Newton situation becomes No. 8 is an ongoing mystery. Whatever consequences exist by playing him, if any, it has become clear that Auburn will gladly live with them.

"I do know how things operate at Auburn," said Oliver, who was an assistant at the school in both the 1960s and 1990s. "I know how they've operated for many, many years."

He did not elaborate.

Which way now? Let's try Chizik's first team meeting.

"He didn't try to sugar coat things," senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said. "He loved this place and really wanted to come back. He said, 'I don't trust you and you don't trust me.' We're growing together."

Irons added: "He's not a Bob Stoops. He's not a celebrity, a rock star. Coach Chizik is a down-to-earth guy."

Defensive back Zac Etheridge said, "He always talks about not letting anyone see you sweat. No matter what the situation you'll never see him change."

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The coach's squared jaw that could cut glass is especially clenched this week for the former Florida linebacker. The Iron Bowl is waged down here 24/7/365. That meant Chizik using Alabama as the standard when he was hired. The new coach brought in Trooper Taylor, noted SEC recruiter. He convinced mad scientist Gus Malzahn to come as offensive coordinator. It has to kill Chizik, though, that in this magic season the defense is the team's weak point. Chizik produced three consecutive Thorpe Award winners (best defensive back) from 2004-06 at Auburn and Texas. In 2004 and 2005, Chizik assembled top 10 defenses. In 2004, he was named the nation's top assistant.

Auburn is currently 100th against the pass, 60th in scoring defense. That's one reason why the season feels like a fragile porcelain heirloom. Lose and everything is broken. Win and, well, the NCAA remains hovering over the program.

The "joke" hire who was 5-19 at Iowa State, is now 19-5 in his second season at Auburn. When Jacobs' jet touched down at that airport two years ago, Auburn was in danger of becoming Alabama's personal valet. Nick Saban and Tide were getting ready to take off and dominate the college football world. It hasn't quite happened yet. 'Bama won that 2009 national championship. Right now, at this moment, Auburn has lapped the Tide.

Friday is merely the latest, bloody, hateful battle in a never-ending race.

Jacobs and Chizik admit this season is somewhat of a surprise. That 2004 team had 30 players who were drafted or got into NFL camps. This one has only five players from a 2008 signing class of 28 who could be considered key contributors. Five others either do not play or have limited playing time.

"I feel like we're a work in progress, without question," Chizik said. "We haven’t arrived by any stretch of the imagination. We have to keep on this same path -- recruiting, developing players, recruiting the right guys."

Meanwhile, Oliver stews. The retired coach lives in nearby Lake Martin and says he still hasn't gotten that call from Chizik. The man they call "Brother" fondly recalls Chizik mimicking him during skits by grad assistants when Oliver was secondary coach at Clemson. Brother once coached under Bear Bryant at Alabama and was an interim coach at Auburn after Terry Bowden left in 1998.

"I'm a very honest person. I'm not a bull---- artist," Oliver said. "I don't appreciate Gene not picking up the phone. He says I was his mentor and all this stuff ..." First, understand that Chizik doesn't let you in. It's his nature, unless he wants you in.

"No matter what the situation, you never see a change," Etheridge said. "You'll never see something bothering him."

Second, Chizik is aware that Oliver lives close. If you pinned him down on it, he probably would admit he owes Oliver a call. But like a lot of us, he is consumed by his job.

Landry isn't the only hungry one.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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