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IT FEELS LIKE A LIFETIME AGO, THAT MILD WINTER DAY IN CENTRAL Alabama when everything changed at Auburn. Turn the clock back to Dec. 13, 2008. Coach Tommy Tuberville had just resigned after 10 years, following a disappointing 5—7 season that ended with a 36—0 loss to Alabama. Tigers athletic director Jay Jacobs had flown into Auburn-Opelika Robert G. Pitts Airport after meeting in Ames, Iowa, with the leading candidate to succeed Tuberville: Gene Chizik of Iowa State. As Jacobs stepped off the private jet, a red-faced Auburn fan began to yell at him, unleashing a river of verbal frustration. "Boo! We want a leader, not a loser!" he shouted. "Five and 19! Five and 19! That's not what we need!"
The heckler wasn't the only Auburn backer who didn't want Chizik, who had indeed compiled a 5--19 record over two seasons at Iowa State. According to a poll in The Birmingham News conducted shortly after Chizik was announced as the Tigers' 26th head coach, 67% of Auburn fans who responded labeled the hiring as either "bad" or "disastrous." The school's most famous alum, Charles Barkley, also gave Chizik two thumbs down. "Of all the coaches they interviewed," Barkley said, "Chizik probably had the worst résumé."
Yet Jacobs had faith. As a defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas between 2003 and '06, Chizik had been a crucial part of teams that had won 29 straight games. Jacobs believed that Chizik's struggles at Iowa State stemmed more from a lack of on-field talent—the Cyclones had ranked 102nd in the nation in total defense the season before Chizik arrived—than a lack of coaching acumen, and clearly Jacobs was right. Because now, just 25 months after Jacobs handed over the keys to the Auburn program to the now-49-year-old Chizik, Mr. 5--19 stands at the summit of college football.
His ascent began immediately after he was hired. Chizik quickly cobbled together a consensus top 20 recruiting class that featured gems such as Nick Fairley and Demond Washington. In his first year Chizik led the Tigers to an 8—5 season that ended with a heart-pounding—and portentous—38—35 overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. Brick by brick he was building a winner. And in 2010, with a season of tinkering and another strong recruiting class, Chizik guided the Tigers to a 13—0 record in the regular season and to the school's first SEC title since 2004. In December he was named the Home Depot Coach of the Year. Then, after Auburn defeated Oregon in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 10, Chizik achieved something that no coach at Auburn has since Ralph (Shug) Jordan in 1957: He won an undisputed national championship.
"It really does seem like it's been a long time since I was hired here," Chizik said this October as he sat in his office overlooking the Tigers' practice field. "We've been able to accomplish some things in a relatively short amount of time. We believe in each other. And we've got terrific coaches. That's been a key, both in our play on the field and in our ability to go and recruit and build the program."
Indeed, if Chizik has one signature quality, it's this: his ability to surround himself with a staff that is second to none. Among Chizik's first hires were defensive coordinator Ted Roof, whose defense held Alabama to three points in the second half of the Iron Bowl this season to keep the Tigers' national title hopes alive, and wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor, widely recognized as one of the nation's top recruiters. But without question Chizik's most important move was bringing in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who in December won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. (Chizik won the award as Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2004.) Malzahn's offense is part spread, part smashmouth and part single wing, and with Malzahn calling the plays this autumn Auburn finished seventh in the nation in total yards gained per game (499.2).
It was Malzahn's fast-paced, quick-strike attack that attracted a certain quarterback to the Plains. "My eyes lit up the first time I saw what Coach Malzahn was doing here because it's the absolute perfect offense for me," said Cam Newton, who accounted for a Division I-A--best 51 touchdowns this season and in December became the third Tiger to win the Heisman Trophy. "And this place is just so special. We really are one big family here."
And that, more than anything, explains how Auburn was able to amass seven wins over teams ranked in the final BCS standings—the most of any program in the country. Once allegations were levied in early November that Newton's father, Cecil, had sought money in return for sending his son to Mississippi State in November 2009, reporters from around the country began digging into the story. Newton quit speaking to the media, and Chizik eventually refused to discuss the subject. But the Tigers' focus never blurred. "We can persevere because we believe in each other," says senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba. "We especially believe in Coach Chizik. He's taking us to places that most college football players never get to go."
Turns out, Mr. 5—19 was exactly what Auburn needed.