AUBURN – The transformation began in Gene Chizik’s first week on the job as Auburn’s head football coach.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik/Todd Van Emst photo
In December 2008, after being introduced as the face of Auburn’s football program, Chizik wasted no time going to work. He and Phillip Lolley, who now coaches Auburn’s cornerbacks, spent most of that first week flying around the Southeast and beyond in the school plane.
Chizik visited recruits. He called potential assistants. The building of a program had begun.
Lolley had coached cornerbacks for Chizik when Chizik was defensive coordinator in 2002-2004. They share mutual passion for their game and mutual respect.
“He and I got on the plane together, and I don’t know if we got off the thing that first week,” Lolley says. “He said ‘I’m going to assemble the best staff in the country.’ He said ‘We’re going to outwork everybody. Other people talk about it, but we’re going to do it.’”
As far as Lolley is concerned, Chizik has been true to his word.
Chizik inherited a reeling football team and dispirited fan base. Picked to win the Southeastern Conference West, the Tigers had gone 5-7. Their six-game winning streak over Alabama had died in a humiliating 36-0 loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Tommy Tuberville had resigned after 10 seasons as head coach.
The hiring of Chizik, who had gone 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State, had been widely criticized. But Lolley had worked with him closely for three years. He knew better.
“He told me, ‘Phillip, I promise you we’re going to get it done,’” Lolley says. “I didn’t doubt that. I knew what kind of coach he was, what kind of person he was, how hard he worked.”
Graduate assiostant Travis Williams knows about great teams/Phillip Marshall photo
Just more than 22 months later, Auburn is 8-0, 5-0 in the SEC, No. 3 in the polls and No. 1 in the BCS standings that decide who plays for the national championship. It’s been a dizzying ride.
In those early days, Chizik focused on holding together a recruiting class and hiring a staff. He had a plan for Auburn football, a plan that had impressed athletics director Jay Jacobs and the Auburn search committee looking for a replacement for Tuberville.
Graduate assistant Travis Williams knows what greatness looks like. He was an All-SEC linebacker on Auburn’s unbeaten 2004 team. When he finished playing with the Atlanta Falcons, Chizik called him home. What he found was very different than what he left, but things began to change.
“It was Coach Chizik and the coaching staff,” Williams says. “When he got here, he really wanted the kids to know the Auburn tradition. He’s brought former players back, NFL players back and things like that. A lot of the kids didn’t know the Auburn tradition. He did a great job of letting them know the foundation of what was built years and years ago. He’s done a great job of embracing former players and bringing them back.”
On the field, Chizik’s first Auburn team went 8-5. Then came a recruiting turnaround of epic proportions, a consensus top five class that included quarterback Cam Newton, now leading Auburn's football team and the Heisman Trophy race. And Chizik's second football team has answered every challenge. For Lolley, it’s been a refreshing change from the contentious final days of the Tuberville regime, when he was director of NFL relations.
“It’s just consistency in everything you do,” Lolley says. “Everybody comes to work. Everybody totes a lunch pail. It doesn’t matter how long we are here. No coach worries about that. They are spending all their extra time watching film, recruiting, whatever. We just all want to win.
“The players are doing the same thing. I think a lot of that comes from losing that year. A lot of those kids didn’t like that feeling. They are still fighting to get there. They know we’re not there yet.”
It all starts, Lolley says, with Chizik.
Cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley/Auburn University photo
“He’s relentless,” Lolley says. “He’s a relentless recruiter, and I mean relentless. Every coach on this staff works hard at recruiting. There’s not one coach on this staff that’s not hungry. Not hungry for notoriety. Hungry for victory. They all want to win, want Auburn to win. We’re not satisfied at any point. Nobody is.”
Chizik wanted his players to understand that playing football at Auburn would be hard, but the reward could be great. He wanted them to know each other as something more than teammates on the field.
Senior linebacker Craig Stevens saw the change almost immediately.
“I just think it’s the togetherness as a team,” Stevens says. “That year, once we lost that one game, it started to go downhill from there. You started to lose a little faith. That’s what it fell like, like the team wasn’t that close. Now, whether we are up or whether we are down, we always feel like we can come back.”
Chizik had the locker rooms upgraded, added video games, pools tables, Ping-Pong tables and other amenities. There were offseason outings to the water park, to go bowling, to movies.
“We spend a lot of time outside of football together,” Stevens says. “I feel like those types of events they have brings the team closer. It allows us to get to know each other a little better, not just out there on the football field but know each other man-to-man.”
Williams says it’s all about Chizik’s vision of what Auburn football should look like from the inside.
“We say ‘family, family, family,’” Williams says. “It’s really true here. He wants the kids to stay around here. We’ve got the video games, pool tables and everything. They can watch film all day and study. They can go upstairs and see their coaches. He’s really created a comfortable atmosphere.”
Auburn linebacker Craig Stevens
Leaving Bryant-Denny Stadium on Nov. 29, 2008, Lolley didn’t know what the future held for Auburn football, but he it was at a crossroads.
“Last season, to me, was a remarkable season, how far this team came in a year,” Lolley says. “The players started having fun again. Even though we didn’t have the depth most folks had, the kids were playing hard. That’s what they expect here at Auburn. I’ve been here long enough to know that.
“Our fans can accept a lot of things. One thing they won’t accept is not playing hard. That’s the way it should be. If you get beat and you’ve given everything you got, you can live with that. That’s an old cliché, but it’s the truth.”
Williams recognizes the obvious. For all its success, this Auburn team doesn’t have the depth and talent across the board his Auburn teams had. But that doesn’t mean, he says, it can’t accomplish as much and more.
“Our 2003 team was way more talented than our 2004 team,” Williams says, “but 2004 was a better team.”
The day is coming soon, Williams says, when all the pieces are in place again.
“We are on pace to really, really do some great things,” Williams says. “The coaches recruit so hard. They recruit guys that fit what they are looking for – great guys in the community, guys that have grades, guys that love football. At the end of the day, you need guys that love football.”
Williams was a key part in what some would say was the greatest season in Auburn history, but his team was never No. 1 – not in the polls, not in the BCS standings. This team got there last Sunday after beating LSU 24-17 a day earlier.
“Nah, it doesn’t make me jealous,” Williams says. “As long as it’s Auburn, that’s what matters.”