Dec. 1, 2010
By JOHN ZENOR, AP Sports Writer
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -- Auburn coach Gene Chizik has been here before. That's a good thing because his players have not.
Chizik has the second-ranked Tigers in the thick of the national championship race, just two years after his criticized hiring. He doesn't hesitate to share with players lessons from his experience as defensive coordinator for national champion Texas in 2005 or with unbeaten, though uncrowned, Auburn the previous season.
"Quite often, too," offensive tackle Lee Ziemba said Tuesday. "None of us have been in this situation before and he has a few times. He does a good job of making sure our focus is in the right place, making sure we're not looking ahead to different things and we're focusing on the task at hand.
"He checks us frequently each week," Ziemba said. "That really brings us to the place we're supposed to be."
Chizik has kept the Tigers (12-0) rolling throughout a season that began with modest expectations and threatened to veer off-track when much-publicized allegations surfaced involving the recruitment of star quarterback Cam Newton that so far haven't implicated Auburn.
He will be the straight-laced, cautious-speaking and less famed counterpart to No. 18 South Carolina's Steve Spurrier in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game.
Chizik's resume -- including a rough two-year stint as Iowa State's head coach before Auburn brought him back -- hardly compares to Spurrier's six SEC titles with Florida. He doesn't offer folksy, clever digs at rivals and carefully toes a line with any public comments.
Plus, he's an old defensive coach not an offensive trendsetter, whose philosophies ranged more along the lines of Run 'N Stun than Spurrier's old Fun 'N Gun.
Chizik has experienced plenty of success, though this is his first foray into national title territory as a head coach.
"Coach Chiz has been there a lot," cornerback Demond Washington said. "He's used to these (situations) and some of us guys are not. He keeps our heads level. He tells us he's been here before and don't get distracted by the polls. Just keep going forward. Just keep fighting, clawing, and hopefully we'll win it all."
Chizik was part of 29 consecutive wins as a coordinator starting with Auburn in 2003. The Tigers went 13-0 the following season and finished No. 2 with the nation's top scoring defense and earned him the Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant.
Then he left to become the Longhorns' assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator. They went undefeated and won the title in his first season behind Vince Young, a quarterback cut out of a similar mold as Newton.
Chizik said being able to draw from those experiences has helped during the current perfect run.
"There's different challenges at different points in the year that you can pull from," he said. "As we all know it's extremely difficult to do. Just being blessed to have gone through it two other times, there's things that I'm able to pull from to help our coaches and team understand at that point in time what in my opinion are the important things to keep you undefeated."
But that Auburn team featured four first-round NFL draft picks the following spring. Texas had two first-rounders each of the next two years.
These Tigers have two really big stars in Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, along with perhaps Ziemba. Still they have beaten five teams currently ranked in the Top 25, more than any other team in the country. SEC West rivals Arkansas (four) and LSU (three) are the only others who have beaten more than two.
Chizik believes this group shares one trait with those two previous teams: strong team chemistry. For this team that might have been reflected in eight come-from-behind victories.
"At the end of the day, I don't feel like there's very many championship teams out there for anybody that doesn't have that chemistry," he said. "We've got that."