DECEMBER 5th, 2008
I’m sitting at Johnny Brusco’s pizza in Auburn with some coworkers the Friday night before the SEC Championship Game. It was two days after Tommy Tuberville had resigned, been half-fired, whatever that truly was, and the Tigers were in the market for a new coach.
After that season, there’s hardly anything football-related that Auburn folks wanted to talk about. We’d had the worst season in a decade on the Plains, and it had been barely a week since the six-game winning streak against Alabama had been broken, so the wounds were still very raw. What’s worse is that the Tide were getting ready to play in the SEC Championship game as the #1 team in the country the next day. It was a fantastic start to December.
Despite the apathy toward the game of American football at the moment, there was still football on TV at the restaurant. The MAC Championship Game. Okay. I was aware of Ball State, who was undefeated under Brady Hoke (ha!), but still unlikely to become the next BCS Buster since both Utah and Boise State were ranked ahead of them.
However, it wasn’t BSU that caught everyone’s attention. It was the opposition. Little 7-5 Buffalo was taking it to the Cardinals and ended up winning the MAC that year under Turner Gill. Sure, I knew the name from seeing old clips of his while he quarterbacked Nebraska in the early 1980s. Hey, good for him, he was a successful head coach now. That’s cool.
Wait, Auburn needed a new head coach. Why don’t we go get Turner Gill?
DECEMBER 13th, 2008
It’s exam week, and I’m sitting at a table on the third floor of good old RBD, trying to figure out how to get through the next couple of tests before Christmas break begins. My phone buzzes.
That’s all the text said. Since Twitter was barely born yet and smartphones weren’t as widespread, I had to head to the most reliable source I could find — the old AUTigers.com forums. I was a poor college kid, I wasn’t ponying up to pay for the premium membership at the time, so I had to muddle with the plebeians on the free football forum as the news broke that our former elite defensive coordinator was coming back to the Plains as head coach.
Okay, he wasn’t great at Iowa State, but he’d led two straight fantastic defenses at Auburn and Texas and had coached three Thorpe Award winners. Who could win at Iowa State? It honestly wasn’t much of a concern for me.
Gene Chizik’s career trajectory was meteoric in its rise and fall. He hitched his cart to one of the more innovative offensive coordinators of the time, and the greatest college football player I’ve ever seen, and won Auburn an elusive national championship. It was awesome, and it ended as quickly as it began. Just two years later, we were looking for another head coach. Chizik’s run oversaw one heck of a time for the entire state of Alabama, as the Tide won titles in the years that Auburn didn’t during his tenure. Maybe Gene is good luck for Nick Saban.
But what if Auburn had hired Turner Gill? There are so many questions that it’s almost impossible to imagine. I think the one certainty is that there’s no national championship, and Alabama’s stranglehold on college football may be even tighter than it already is, if that’s even possible. There’s been one SEC team that’s even somewhat consistently fought against Alabama, and it’s been Auburn. Gene Chizik started that trend when he brought in Gus Malzahn.
What would have happened if Gill had been tasked with leading a program looking for an energy boost in an exceptionally tough climate? It’s hard to say, but there are some definite answers for sure.
WHAT DOESN’T HAPPEN
- If Turner Gill’s staff hires when he left Buffalo and went to Kansas are any indication, the Auburn staff may have included some of the following names: Chuck Long (OC), Carl Torbush (DC), Vic Shealy (former Auburn High star), J.B. Grimes (hey, we know him), and Darrell Wyatt (current UCF WRs coach). He definitely doesn’t hire Gus Malzahn to run the offense, and likely misses out on recruiters needed to get dynamic talent back in the program in Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper.
- Gill’s offense at Buffalo in 2008 and 2009 was a pretty standard attack. No dual-threat quarterback, nothing too crazy. There’s a very high possibility that the staff doesn’t even look at Cam Newton, and Cam goes to Mississippi State in the end. That means we’re dealing with Alabama, LSU, and a Bulldog team that’s got the best player in the sport.
- Auburn’s recruiting in general takes a hit. Gene Chizik’s staff salvaged a top 25 class in 2009 before having the 6th-best class in 2010. That staff included a ton of guys who were pretty familiar with the area already, and it’s unlikely that Gill’s staff does quite that well.
- Auburn doesn’t take a hit for not hiring a black head coach.
“I think race was the No. 1 factor,” said Barkley, who played basketball for three seasons at Auburn during the early 1980s. “You can say it’s not about race, but you can’t compare the two résumés and say [Chizik] deserved the job. Out of all the coaches they interviewed, Chizik probably had the worst résumé.”
WHAT DOES HAPPEN
- Gill takes a program that was trending downward and isn’t able to right the ship immediately. Auburn’s problem with Tommy Tuberville toward the end was a mixture of things, including Tubs getting whacked in recruiting and staying true to his old ways a little too much. Every year since 2004, Tuberville’s teams had gotten worse before the losing season in 2008 finally did him in. The only evidence we have of Gill’s ability in the same situation is when he went to Kansas, where he took a 5-7 team from the year before and turned it into a 3-9 team in his first season. This was also a Jayhawk team just a couple years removed from a 12-1 record. Now, of course it’s easier to win at Auburn than it is at Kansas, but the pilot light was still lit in Lawrence at the time, and it just got worse and worse.
- Auburn becomes to Gill as Iowa State was to Chizik, only there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for Gill. Chizik started small, took a program that wasn’t winning, continued to not win, but made things more competitive and found the right fit as a head coach at a place where he was familiar. Chizik worked out the kinks in Ames and learned how to be a big-time head coach before coming to the Plains. Gill would’ve been using Auburn as the learning ground for big-time football. If things had gone south, then he would’ve ended up at another small school or as a coordinator somewhere.
I’m fairly confident that Auburn doesn’t win a national title and two SEC Championships over the past decade if Turner Gill is the hire in December 2008. As for Barkley’s comments during that time that Chizik had the worst resume of all candidates, Gene would’ve been a can’t-miss prospect if he had been hired straight from his job as defensive coordinator at Texas. Gill’s resume as a championship coach was a bit shaky, because they snuck in to the MAC title game despite losing their final game of the regular season, beat a Ball State team thanks to a ton of turnovers, and then got smashed by UConn in their bowl game. 8-6 in the MAC isn’t exactly the recipe for a surefire winning coach at the next level.
It’s also slightly ironic that in Gill’s two seasons in his next stop at Kansas, his record was... 5-19.
After the 2010 season and the success of Chizik’s early tenure at Auburn, I don’t think that anyone truly argues that Jay Jacobs made the wrong choice in bringing Chizik to town instead of Turner Gill, but it’s always interesting to think about the what-ifs in that situation. The bottom line is that Auburn doesn’t establish itself as the top contender to Alabama in the SEC West, and the gap between the Tigers and the top of the SEC widens. Let’s just hope that Gill doesn’t harbor any sore feelings toward Auburn when he brings his Liberty team to town on Saturday.