Conversation with Gene Chizik, Part 1

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It looked like the office of a very busy man. There were stacks of materials covering the desk, and a pile of recently worn clothing spilling over a side chair. Gene Chizik apologized for the state of his office. UNC’s new defensive coordinator is in his third month on the job and has had little time to tidy up.

My immediate impression was of someone calm, relaxed, and comfortable in his own skin. As the interview progressed, the teaching side of Chizik’s personality dominated, as he answered my questions deliberately, taking his time to explain his answers, choosing his words carefully. Rarely do you meet a football coach that comes across like a professor. He didn’t duck any questions, though his answers were often diplomatic.

Though the condition of his office spoke to the hectic nature of his days at UNC to date, he never gave the impression that he was in a hurry, that he needed to be somewhere else, or that the interview was in any way an imposition on his schedule. He was, and I suspect often is, very much in the moment.

In reviewing previous articles, presentations, and other materials in preparation, I wanted to find out about Chizik’s emphasis on teaching, explore his philosophy of defense, examine the relationship between offense and defense, get his early impressions of UNC’s defensive personnel, and discover how he plans to field a defense competitive in the Coastal Division and the ACC.

The result is a three-part Q&A that I hope answers those questions and more.

In part one of the interview Chizik discussed his emphasis on teaching, and how terminology and wording - how you present information - can assist players to grasp what is being taught. Throughout the entire interview his belief in making defense simple to understand came through in point after point. He also discussed the importance of adapting defenses in ways that are consistent with one’s philosophy and not chasing trendy new concepts.

In 2008 you made a presentation to the Nike Coach of the Year Clinic, which subsequently was published in a manual. During that presentation, you mentioned “teaching,” or “teacher,” some form of “teach,” 26 times by my count in a 20-page presentation. Why has teaching been such an emphasis to you over your career?

I just believe, like anything, this game is about how efficiently, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, you teach the game because we’re, if you think about it, at a disadvantage from the jump.

If you just take the secondary, for example. Those guys in the secondary are moving backwards on the snap. That’s an unnatural movement. Then they are trying to react to guys that are moving forward at full speed and those guys know where they are going and the defensive guy does not.

Just take that as an example. You’re at a great disadvantage right off the bat. So, defensively, I’ve always been a big believer in that less is more, and the less has to be taught to the nth degree to get more.

Particularly as offenses have evolved these days, if it makes sense, there are so many things out there you have to defend, and so many types of offenses week-to-week, that you’ve got to build a foundation of defense that, for the most part, scratch off those different potential itches, meaning the different offenses that you’re going to see week-to-week, without creating a different defense every week.

So what you teach and how you teach it, the foundation of everything, literally can come down to you wording something correctly, so that a young man can get a visual of what you are saying, versus you not saying it correctly and he doesn’t understand it.

I have seen guys teach somebody something and they worded it wrong, and the young player probably could have picked it up three days earlier if you had retargeted how you said it. We spend a lot of time as a defensive staff talking about verbiage, how it’s communicated, visuals, all of those things are how people learn.

It’s very important with young guys to be able to teach them football and give them an opportunity for their football IQ to grow.

Because here’s the thing: You can’t just teach them defense. This day and age, they have to know offense. They have to know offense. It’s not just ‘where do I go,’ it is ‘how do I relate to people across from me, and what, based on what I am seeing, what am I anticipating,’ because great defensive players have great anticipation.

If they are taught right, and if they are taught well, knowing what they’re own responsibility is, and if they know enough offense to anticipate what they are going to do, then you have a very reactionary defense and the goal is to make sure that those guys are in position to make plays.

It all comes down to teaching; how you say it and how you teach it, in every way, shape, form or fashion, in my opinion.

You’ve said before in other articles about how the ‘Tampa 2’ was the foundation, what you learned from the Tampa Bay staff when you were at Central Florida, traveling back and forth from Orlando to Tampa, of the defense you prefer. But you also go on to say that football coaches may lose something by trying to be ‘X’s and O’s gurus. What did you mean by that?

I guess my point in talking about ‘not trying to be a guru,’ is that you want to be great at being a teacher and you want to be great at your trade, but you have to do and coach what you believe in terms of philosophy. So if I am not a ‘Tampa 2’ guy and I go and study ‘Tampa 2,’ I hope there is a reason why you’re doing it and why you feel like you need it, and if not, don’t do it because Tampa was great at it 15 years ago.

Tampa was part of the basis of what I did. It was not the starting point. Through the years I have kind of manipulated and massaged different fronts and coverages to fit what I believe in. Not just because structurally it is sound, but because I sort of formulated my own way to teach it and verbalize it so that is understandable to the players.

So when I say, ‘Don’t try to be a guru,’ I don’t mean you don’t try to be the best teacher and coach of what you believe in, but don’t try and go out there and get three or four things because it looks cool on TV and you hear that this team is a ‘So-and-so’ defensive coverage team because it sounds good.

I was never about that, I always had a core of what I believed in and piece by piece and nugget by nugget I would try to incorporate things that I felt that I needed that I felt I was missing, that I thought would help me and what we were trying to do big picture.

I would never, and never have, visited some place to wholesale change anything that I was doing. I wanted to, nugget by nugget, grow defensively the package that I had, that was going to be simple for the players, that was going to be conceptually needed, whether it was pressures or coverage that I didn’t feel I had enough good mixtures, or that this would be a great complement to something else.

There was always rhyme or reason to what we would add or delete based on where I felt like we were deficient. That’s really it. It’s not ‘oh, I want to go see this because I saw on TV and it looks cool and sounds cool.’ That’s kind of where I am in terms of you don’t want to go and try to be the guru and learn four or five different things just because you saw that it worked for them.

Do you need it, or do you not need it? I am very good with saying, ‘Oh, I love the way Seattle (Seahawks) play defense, I love that coverage element they have, it’s so simple, blah, blah, blah,’ that’s great, but that might not fit me. You have to be able to differentiate and know, does that fit into what I am doing or not?

I think when you try to be somebody else completely, you don’t have enough answers on how to fix things; and that’s not good. When you try to be somebody else, that’s not good.

Stay tuned for Part II, coming Tuesday.

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