Phillip Marshall Column: The Option Game

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the Auburn football program.

Will he stay or will he go? That's the question being asked among Auburn folks about defensive coordinator Gene Chizik today.

The answer might come soon, and it might not come for a few weeks.

Chizik went to Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday to look into a job as secondary coach with the Jaguars. He went to Austin, Texas, on Thursday to look into a job as defensive coordinator, or perhaps co-defensive coordinator, for the University of Texas.

How interested is he really? Only Chizik can answer that question, and he's not talking. How interested are the Jaguars or the Longhorns? Only Jack Del Rio or Mack Brown can answer, and they're not talking either.

Chizik, with help from an experienced and talented defensive staff, has done an outstanding job in his three seasons at Auburn. The Tigers have finished No. 5 in total defense each of the past two seasons. In 2004, they finished No. 1 in scoring defense, which is the statistic that matters most.

The driving force for Chizik is his desire to be a head coach. He's never made it a secret that running his own program is his No. 1 career goal. He will probably do whatever he believes is best to further his pursuit of that goal.

If Chizik leaves, it will certainly be a loss. He is beloved by his players and the numbers his defenses have put up speak for themselves. But it will hardly be a crippling blow to the fast-rising program Tommy Tuberville has built.

It's safe to say that Tuberville knows already who would be on his list of candidates, and there would be no shortage of talented defensive coaches waiting to take a job that will pay some $290,000 per year. If Chizik leaves, he'll soon be replaced by another coordinator with the potential to put a dominating defense on the field.

Gene Chizik

Fears that his departure would do severe damage to recruiting are unlikely to materialize. Recruits are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for being. They realize that, even if Chizik stays, he's not likely to be around for their entire careers.

Having said all that, Chizik certainly has earned his pay and the gratitude of Auburn people. He came in early 2002, at a time when things were shaky at best. A 31-7 loss to Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium had Auburn people questioning almost everything about Tuberville and his program.

After some bumps in the road in his first season, Chizik's defenses haven't been perfect, giving up more big plays than he would like, but they have been remarkably consistent week in and week out. Despite losing some key players, next season's defense could be his best yet.

Today, Chizik is perhaps the hottest assistant coach in the country. Winning the Frank Broyles Award last Tuesday night elevated his stock even further.

The NFL turns almost any coach's head. The opportunity to coach football all day every day, to be free of recruiting and the public relations part of college football, is very tempting to many. Also, there seems to be a trend toward coaches with NFL experience getting college head coaching jobs.

Just last Monday, Georgia's Brian VanGorder, one of the more respected defensive coordinators in the college game, went to the Jaguars to coach linebackers. He said one of the reasons was that he thought it would help him in his quest to become a head coach.

The trip to Texas is a different thing altogether. The Longhorns had co-defensive coordinators last season. One of them, Greg Robinson, was named head coach at Syracuse. Would Chizik be willing to share the coordinator's role?

Texas is an attractive place to coach. Money is no object. The facilities and the recruiting base are second to none. The question for Chizik, if he is offered the job, will no doubt be whether he believes he would be better positioned to become a head coach by moving.

But there is a whole lot to like about coaching at Auburn. Despite all its advantages, Texas has never matched Auburn's 2004 feat of going 13-0. A salary of almost $300,000 in a family-friendly town like Auburn has to be attractive for a man with small children. That presents a stark contrast with a city the size of Austin.

When the decision comes, Chizik will do what he believes is best for his career and his family. If he returns, that will be a very good thing for Auburn and its football program. If he doesn't, he will leave secure in the knowledge that he made his mark on Auburn football.


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