Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and what’s next for the Cyclones after a loss at Texas
Tommy Birch, email@example.com
AMES, Ia. — As Gene Chizik sat on an airplane 10 years ago leaving Ames, he looked down over the town and wondered what he was leaving.
Chizik had spent two seasons as the football coach at Iowa State, and that’s all there would be. He was leaving for a new job as the head coach at Auburn.
That night in December 2008, Chizik didn’t have any doubts that he was making the right decision. Auburn’s football bonafides are well-established.
That didn’t make leaving any easier.
Chizik had high hopes for the direction his Iowa State program was headed. The Cyclones finished 2-10 in 2008, but they were recruiting at a high level. Chizik thought rare heights for the program could be achieved under his leadership.
On that plane, the question gnawed at him … What if?
“It was so abrupt and so fast that it was just a whirlwind,” Chizik told the Register recently. “It was almost a blur. But I do remember feeling sad and disappointed, to a degree, because I didn’t really get to finish what I started. That’s just human feelings, and I didn’t feel great about that.
“But it was just a tough time and a lot of people were angry and a lot of people were upset, and I don’t like leaving people that way.”
Nearly a decade after that Dec. 14, 2008 flight to eastern Alabama, that nagging what If? remains.
Chizik, however, makes it clear he has no regrets. Even with the power of hindsight, knowing that Chizik’s tenure at Auburn would also be short-lived and his departure would not be his choice, it’s hard to argue with that. At Auburn, he coached the Tigers to a national championship, with Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton leading the way.
The coaches with a college football national championship is a small fraternity.
No doubt, the decision to leave Iowa State after two seasons made Chizik one of the villains in modern Iowa State sports history. The statement from Jamie Pollard immediately after Chizik took the Auburn job minced few words.
“I’m disappointed for our Iowa State fans and student-athletes that he has chosen to leave our program after only two seasons,” Pollard’s statement read. “I understand that it (Auburn) is a dream job for him, but the timing and the way it played out has been hurtful and disappointing. Although this is a significant setback, we will get through the challenge, because the Iowa State University athletics program is far greater than one person.”
But as acrimonious as Chizik’s departure was, his short tenure had an impact that helped Iowa State on its slow rise to respect. The athletic director who watched him go says as much today.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but we were on the cusp of actually being a lot better,” Pollard said recently.
“Now, we didn’t know that the day he left.”
‘I really felt the conflict’
The Auburn job wasn’t something for which Chizik even planned to interview.
The job came open after longtime coach Tommy Tuberville resigned following a 5-7 season in 2008. Chizik, who worked as a defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach for the Tigers from 2002-04, was one of the early names floated around. But he was 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State.
It seemed like a longshot at first.
On top of that, before the job opened up, Chizik adamantly shot down rumors he was looking to leave. He told reporters in November 2008 that he and his family were “firmly entrenched here in Ames.” He also held a team meeting over Thanksgiving break to assure players he was not leaving.
When the Auburn job opened up and the school first contacted Chizik, he wasn’t going to interview for it. But as crazy as it sounds, Pollard helped talk him into it.
“I felt like he should do that,” Pollard said. “If he was going to be successful at Iowa State, I didn’t want him to be here thinking that ‘I should have gone and done that.’”
After the interview, Chizik called Pollard. Chizik didn’t think Auburn would hire him, so he was going to withdraw his name. When he went to Auburn officials, they told him he couldn’t: They were going to hire him. Many of Iowa State’s players learned the news from outside reports.
Before Chizik left for Auburn, Pollard texted the entire team to inform them they had a meeting that night. Chizik briefly met with the team in the Jacobson Building to say his goodbyes.
“I feel like I was tricked, I was misled,” former Iowa State kicker Grant Mahoney said. “I was really happy I played for coach (Paul) Rhoads but going to Iowa State, I was expecting to play for coach Chizik all four years.
“I felt like he lied to our faces. He didn’t really care about us.”
Chizik understood that anger.
“It was bittersweet,” Chizik said. “I really felt the conflict. … I was only here two years, and the players were very disappointed I was leaving them. Because the players always came No. 1 to me.
“And it was just so hard. I remember literally taking off in the air from the airport in Ames and looking down and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’m really going to miss the players. I’m really going to miss the people. I’m really going to miss the environment.'”
It was hard for Iowa State fans, too. Chizik became persona non grata in Ames for a fanbase that wanted loyalty and success. It felt it got none of that from Chizik.
They felt burned, and Chizik knew it.
Two years earlier, he watched fans flock to Hilton Coliseum to welcome him during his introductory press conference. Now, he saw another side of their passion.
“Fans are passionate when you win. They’re passionate when you lose. They’re passionate when you stay. They’re passionate when you leave,” Chizik said. “That just goes with the territory. I understood their anger and their disappointment. I totally understood it. What I never got to tell anybody was that it wasn’t my aim to leave.
“I did not call Auburn — they called me. I did not reach out for any other jobs when I was there. It never crossed my mind, because I was so laser-focused on getting that program to the point where people could really be proud of the product.”
In 2010, the Tigers went 14-0 and won a national title with Chizik. Nearly 1,000 miles away, Chizik’s old program was thriving as well, with the help of his past recruiting.
Rhoads, Chizik’s replacement, guided Iowa State to bowl games in each of his first two seasons. And even though Iowa State fans were still bitter at Chizik for leaving, Iowa State’s success those years may not have happened without him. Rhoads took over a roster stocked with Chizik’s recruits, including future Pro Bowl offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele and cornerback Leonard Johnson — both of whom still play in the NFL.
“Those were guys that Gene Chizik had recruited here, and we went to two bowl games in a row with those kids playing,” Pollard said. “Now, Paul gets the credit because Paul was the one that actually coached them to do it, and he should get the credit. But the foundation was laid and kind of the tough times you’ve got to go through — (Chizik) went through.”
Chizik was planning on being the guy that took Iowa State to those bowl games. He was rolling out a ton of young players during his second season with the hope of building for the future. At the time, Chizik was thinking about how the program might looking like even seven years down the road.
“I always wonder what that would have looked like,” Chizik said. “I always felt like coaches go to a place and if you leave after two or three years, for whatever reason, you always look back and wonder, ‘If I would have been there a little longer, what would it look like and would I have been able to accomplish what I set out to accomplish?'”
Chizik was fired at Auburn after four seasons. He went on to become the defensive coordinator at North Carolina for two seasons before retiring to spend more time with his family in 2017. He now works as an analyst for ESPN, often on Southeastern Conference-related broadcasts. Those two years in Ames remain special for Chizik. He even credits some of his success later in coaching to those two years at Iowa State.
In fact, he said it was in Ames that he discovered some of his biggest coaching lessons. Chizik said he learned about time management. He figured out a coaching style, leaning on his defensive expertise. And he even believes he developed a successful recruiting philosophy.
“It was two of my most enjoyable years in coaching,” Chizik said. “Obviously, it was my first two years as a head coach. It was a learning experience for me. There was a learning curve, which is true with all first-time head coaches. But I feel like we had everything on a trajectory that would have allowed us to win, and win for a while.”
‘The grass is definitively not always greener’
Time doesn’t just heal old wounds; perhaps more importantly, it provides perspective.
Case in point: Pollard said Iowa State is likely not where it is today without Chizik’s work. Pollard even compares his tenure to a relay race.
“Coach (Dan) McCarney was the lead-off runner, and coach McCarney did a lot of heavy lifting,” Pollard said. “And (he) kept us in the race and got us to a spot in the race that we had a fighting chance. And when coach Chizik took the job, a lot of people flocked to the race to watch. Our attendance went way up, which really helped. And coach Chizik got a lot of great recruits. So, he helped kind of take that next step.”
Rhoads then took it from there,helping revitalize an enthusiastic fan base, which was one of the big selling points in luring current coach Matt Campbell to Iowa State. Had Chizik not recruited as well as he did, Rhoads may not have had the success he did. And Campbell may not have come to Iowa State.
Chizik has watched it all from afar.
“These are some of the most loyal fans in the country,” Chizik said. “You can go to some other leagues and you go 2-5, there’s no one in the stands. It’s a ghost town. But they believe in their product and they believe in the boys and the coaches, and they show up and they cheer guys on. That’s why that place to me is so incredibly special.”
Chizik said in 2011 that he and Pollard hadn’t spoken since he left three years earlier. “Jamie is a quality athletic director, and I respect him for what he has done at Iowa State. But I wish he had handled my departure differently. It could have, and should have, gone so much better for all involved,” Chizik wrote in his book “All In: What it Takes to be the Best.”
But time has mended that relationship. The two have kept in touch in recent years, and they even had dinner during the spring, Pollard said. Pollard extended him an invitation to visit Iowa State.
Chizik has also been impressed by Campbell, who has helped bring Iowa State to national relevancy again. And like Chizik, Campbell’s name is being linked to openings.
“The grass is definitively not always greener, I will say that,” Chizik said. “So, it’s about you doing due diligence. … Really do your homework and really look at the facts.”
Now away from coaching, Chizik offered this final perspective on his career.
“I have not taken the wrong job yet, not one time, in 30 years,” Chizik said.. “It’s all been part of my journey, which has been a special one. And I’m very appreciative along the way of each stop, regardless of how it ended.
…The same thing with Iowa State: I’m just very appreciative of the opportunity that Jamie gave me.”
Source: Des Moines Register