If you’re anything like us, chances are you’ve been eagerly awaiting the start of the college football season, which kicks off on Thursday. And if recent history is any indication, the SEC, winners of the last five national championships, will more than likely be in the mix for yet another title come January. We recently caught up with Coach Gene Chizik—of last year’s national champs, the Auburn Tigers—to find out what it’s like to win on the big stage and what this Florida native likes to do when he’s not on the sidelines (hint: you’ll often find him on the water).
Head coach Gene Chizik talks football and fishing
By Monte Burke
When Auburn football coach Gene Chizik was hired at the end of 2008, the move was roundly criticized. His only head-coaching experience to that point had been at Iowa State, where he had a two-year record of 5-19. But Chizik has proved those doubters wrong, leading the team to a perfect 14-0 record last year and its first national championship in more than fifty years, along with racking up four Coach of the Year awards.
Chizik, forty-nine, is a native Southerner, born in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and raised in Clearwater. He’s held assistant coaching jobs at, among other places, Clemson, Central Florida, and the University of Texas. He married the daughter of his high school football coach, and he and his wife, Jonna, have three children–identical twin girls and a boy. We caught up with Chizik to find out what it’s like to win a national championship and why, when he’s not on the sidelines, you’ll usually find this former linebacker on the water.
You were a linebacker at the University of Florida. What made you want to get into coaching?
I didn’t make it the full four years as a player at Florida. I started coaching high school teams. Football has always been in my blood. I felt like this was a way to have an opportunity to stay around the greatest sport in the world, the ultimate team sport, where you’re trying to get eleven people on one side of the ball all on the same page. To me it’s the epitome of learning how to cooperate. I’ve always loved that idea. I have the opportunity to change a lot of people’s lives.
Do you still feel the glow from winning the national championship, or have you moved on?
You’ve gotta move on in college football pretty fast. It’s really just one big circle with no beginning and no end. When you complete one cycle, you move on to the next. It’s just the way it is. I’m not making light of what we did. I’m certainly very proud of the many people who were involved. Some people work their entire lives and never get an opportunity to even come close to playing in a game like that. It was awesome for our fans, our players and coaches and administration, and everybody who is proud to call themselves an Auburn Tiger. But you’ve got to move on to the next year, and we did that fairly quickly.
We all know about the heated rivalry between Auburn and Alabama, but is there any part of you that’s proud that the state has won the last two college football national championships?
I just think it’s a barometer for everybody that indicates just how good the football is in this state. Particularly the high school football. There are so many homegrown high school players on both of our rosters. People from the state are very proud, and certainly I was extremely proud. It’s good for the state.
What do you do when you’re not coaching football?
We’re beach people. Whenever we get a chance, we always go down to the beach. We like to fish. We do some inshore and deep-sea fishing down in Gulf Shores. Inshore, there are so many different things in the water, like redfish and black drum. When the kids come with us, we fish with shrimp. And whatever comes up on the hook, we get excited.
What is it about fishing you like?
I just love being on the water, being out in a peaceful, serene environment. It’s a great family sport. My girls even love it. The thrill of watching them catch a fish is really cool.
Do you hunt?
I do, periodically. I’ve been quail hunting a few times since I’ve been back here at Auburn. I really enjoy it. My next goal for my kids is to take them quail hunting. They all want to go.
And you don’t play golf, right?
I don’t pay to do anything I’m bad at.
I understand you’re a military history buff.
Our history is very interesting to me. We have it so good now because of all of the people who fought for us in the past and all of the people who fight for us now. I have a high level of respect for those people. My father was a Marine in World War II.
You’ve spent your entire professional career in the South, save for your time at Iowa State. Did you miss the South when you were there?
When we were at Iowa State, we were really submerged in the job with all of our focus. We didn’t really dwell on what we might have missed or what we didn’t like. We had a two-year run up there that I wouldn’t change in terms of experience. It was a great community for the kids. And the thing is, every opportunity we got, we headed for the beach, for somewhere that was warm and had lots of white sand.
How about Southern food? Do you have a favorite restaurant in town?
I can’t say one over the other or I’ll get in some big trouble. But I do love catfish and barbecue. I’m a catfish and barbecue man.