AUBURN — With every additional notch in the loss column the proverbial hot seat for Auburn coach Gene Chizik gets warmer. Auburn (1-5, 0-4 SEC) is off to a historically bad season, the worst start since 1998 when then coach Terry Bowden lost his job. It hasn’t taken this long for the Tigers to win an SEC game since 1980, when Auburn went 5-6 and 0-6 in the SEC in Doug Barfield’s last season.
“1-5, let’s face it, it sucks,” defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “The absolute truth is we’ve got guys talking about firing coaches and the truth is, it’s a battle, it’s a fight.”
A loss this week at 7-point favorite Vanderbilt — yes, that Vanderbilt — would send the metaphoric thermostat rising on the Plains as the Tigers’ historic tailspin would reach depths not seen since starting 1-7 in 1952.
The role of a football coach is always more than the Xs and Os most fans get to see on a dozen or so Autumn Saturdays. But for Chizik, this year is forcing him to increasingly be more trauma counselor than play caller.
“Obviously our players are disappointed,” he said. “They’re in a place that’s been really uncharted waters for anybody that’s been here, including myself. But as coaches, that’s our job — to lead young men and lead them through the pits and valleys of tough times.”
It is difficult to fathom such a collapse only two years removed from defeating Oregon 22-19 in the BCS national Championship on January 10, 2011. Since that day in Glendale, Auburn is 9-10, including 1-5 this season, and the Ducks are 18-2.
Auburn’s .454 winning percentage since winning the title ranks third-worst over two years by a national champion since the start of the Associated Press poll in 1936.
More losing breeds more negative perception and chatter outside the program and Chizik and Athletic Director Jay Jacobs are most certainly the targets of most of the scorn from those looking for answers.
“There can be outside distractions whether you’re doing great or whether you’re doing not as well as you certainly would like to be doing,” Chizik said. “When you get into this, if you’re not strong enough to handle that, then you’re in the wrong business, both as a player and as a coach.”
Chizik said he tries to keep the players on point, focusing on the task at hand and tuning out all of the outside opinions. Though that approach, as Wright’s comments clearly show, has varying degrees of success.
“You have to be strong enough to be able to block out the positives when they’re telling you how great you are because you’re never that great,” said Chizik, who is 31-15 at Auburn and 36-34 overall as a head coach. “You have to be able to block out the negatives when they tell you how bad you are because you’re never that bad. That’s the message that I give to our team on a daily basis.
“How much they choose to listen and buy into what everybody’s opinion is, I can’t control that. But I can control while they’re here and try to educate them and teach them that that’s the way to do the rest of your life. For me personally, I don’t live my life that way. That’s just not how I live my life. I know exactly what I want. I know exactly what my direction is, and I don’t get influenced by the opinions of other people. That’ll never change with me.”
The losing has fans scrambling for answers but most players are clearly still on board and support Chizik. Senior tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said how the team does after the difficult start will help define his coach.
“He’s still a great coach. He’s been a part of three undefeated seasons in the past decade s there’s no doubt about it that he’s a good coach,” Lutzenkirchen said. “We’re in a hole and I think what he does from here on is going to continue to define him as a coach. He’s going to continue to fight and lead this team.”
For those players like Lutzenkirchen who were members of the 2010 championship team, the losing is even more frustrating.
Chizik said the distraction come during both good and bad times though, and he is working to improve just as the players are.
“We can all get better,” he said. “For me to stand up here and say that I’m doing everything right and everybody else is doing everything wrong, that would not be true and that would certainly not be the right message. I can improve as well as everyone else.”