The most fascinating coach in America seemed excited Tuesday. "It's one of those first games," Gene Chizik said, "where you get a lot of questions answered."
No, Auburn's season opener against better-than-advertised Louisiana Tech will not prove anything definitive. It will, however, begin to answer the question that makes the Tigers' first-year coach so fascinating.
Is Chizik a Peter, or is he a Pete?
In 1969, a Canadian teacher named Laurence J. Peter teamed with journalist Raymond Hull to pen The Peter Principle. That principle, according its namesake, is this: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." In other words, any competent worker will continue to be promoted until he eventually reaches a job he isn't capable of performing.
Chizik's 5-19 record in two seasons as Iowa State head coach led many underwhelmed Auburn supporters to suggest he was the living embodiment of the Peter Principle. Maybe Chizik reached his ceiling as the defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas. Maybe his next job, as Cyclones head coach from 2007-08, was above his level of competence.
But before anyone throws in the towel on the Chizik era, consider another possibility. Sometimes an employee doesn't fit in one job, but fits perfectly in a slightly different one. Let's call it the Pete Principle.
In 2000, USC fired Paul Hackett after three lackluster seasons. A nationwide search for Hackett's successor commenced, but it didn't take long for USC officials to learn decades of beautiful tradition weren't enough to lure the hottest candidates. Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson turned down the job. So did Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. San Diego Chargers coach Mike Riley, in the midst of a 1-15 season, wasn't sure he wanted the job.
After failing to hire nearly every coach who had worked or would work in the state of Oregon, USC athletic director Mike Garrett turned to Pete Carroll, who had been fired after leading the New England Patriots to an 8-8 season in 1999. The Patriots, who made the Super Bowl in Bill Parcells' final season, slid a little further in each of their three seasons under Carroll.
The reaction to Carroll's hiring came swiftly and decisively. Writing for The Orange County Register, reporter Janis Carr painted a vivid picture of the vitriol.
"In the days leading up to Carroll's appointment, the athletic department was inundated with an estimated 2,500 similar phone calls and e-mails -- thanks to someone who posted Garrett's e-mail address on a variety of USC-linked Web sites -- mostly blasting Garrett's decision to hire Carroll," Carr wrote. "Some even went so far as to threaten to donate their money to academic programs rather than the football team."
Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times published several letters similar to the one submitted by reader Ron Chandler. "USC hires Pete Carroll, a former small college assistant who has been fired from two pro teams," Chandler wrote. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that this appears to be a net loss, but then Mike Garrett is not a rocket scientist. A rocket scientist would at least make sure the rocket was pointed up, not down, before lighting the fuse."
If that sounds familiar to readers in Alabama, it should. The tone is nearly identical to the reaction from Auburn fans after the Chizik hiring. Only this time, the fans had blogs. At the Joe Cribbs Car Wash, author Jerry Hinnen filed a post titled "No Words" within hours of the hiring. "I don't know how to react," Hinnen wrote. "It doesn't seem real. It doesn't seem like they could possibly be so shortsighted. I'm going to spend tonight trying to figure out how to react. That, and drinking."
One respected former Auburn player was equally mystified. "I have a lot of respect for the guy," Cole Cubelic told The Birmingham News in December. "But you look at his record as a head coach and you have to scratch your head and wonder what Auburn was doing and why they think it's a good move."
We now know Carroll was the ideal hire for the Trojans. He has gone 88-15. His teams have won a BCS national title, an Associated Press national title and seven consecutive Pac-10 titles. While serving as the CEO of an NFL team was beyond Carroll's level of competence, coaching a major college team situated in one of the nation's recruiting hotbeds was right in his wheelhouse.
What's most peculiar is that, during the search that resulted in Chizik's hiring, fans and pundits alike professed Auburn would be best served hiring Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. A former Auburn defensive coordinator who left for Austin after the 2007 season, Muschamp was the hottest assistant coach in America. This is odd only because the hottest assistant coach in America after the 2006 season also was a former Auburn defensive coordinator who had left for Austin. His name was Gene Chizik.
The difference between post-2006 and post-2008 were the quality of the job openings and the applicant pools. When Chizik reigned as the trendy coordinator of the moment, the available BCS-conference head-coaching jobs were at Alabama, Arizona State, Boston College, Cincinnati, Iowa State, Louisville, Minnesota, Michigan State, NC State, North Carolina and Stanford. That list includes several quality jobs, but Chizik was underqualified for Alabama and Michigan State, and the jobs at Cincinnati (Brian Kelly), Louisville (Steve Kragthorpe) and NC State (Tom O'Brien) went to trendy head coaches, because trendy head coach trumps trendy coordinator. Boston College hired Jeff Jagodzinski, because trendy NFL coordinator trumps trendy college coordinator.
In 2008, jobs opened at Auburn, Boston College, Clemson, Iowa State, Kansas State, Mississippi State, Purdue, Syracuse, Tennessee and Washington. Muschamp wasn't considered underqualified for any of these jobs because there were no Nick Sabans, Brian Kellys or Mark Dantonios sending out resumes. The plum jobs went to trendy coordinators (Dan Mullen to Mississippi State and Steve Sarkisian to Washington) an assistant-turned-interim coach (Dabo Swinney at Clemson), a trendy coordinator-turned-NFL-washout (Lane Kiffin at Tennessee) and a hand-picked successor (Danny Hope at Purdue). Muschamp, meanwhile, secured the best job of all: coach-in-waiting at Texas.
The pessimists on the Plains will argue that unlike Carroll in 2000, Chizik already has had his chance at the college level. But has he? Maybe the only thing his tenure in Ames taught us is that Dan McCarney -- the man who preceded Chizik at Iowa State and the current defensive line coach at Florida -- is one hell of a coach for leading the Cyclones to five bowl games in 12 seasons. Bear in mind Iowa State has appeared in nine bowl games in its history, which dates back to 1892.
Maybe any coach short of Vince Lombardi was doomed to fail in Ames. In the past six recruiting classes, the state of Iowa has produced an average of 12.3 BCS-conference signees a year. Since Iowa State must fight Iowa for those players, the Cyclones must look elsewhere for talent. So, like other schools in talent-light states, Iowa State sought players from Florida and Texas. Unfortunately, so did almost everyone else, and most schools could offer a better chance to win, a better locale or both compared to Iowa State. Auburn, meanwhile, sits in a state that produced an annual average of 47.5 BCS conference signees during the past six years, and it's a two-hour drive from the recruiting goldmine of Atlanta.
Of course, if Paul Rhoads -- oddly enough, another former Auburn defensive coordinator -- wins in Ames, that theory is shot. But for now, Chizik can cling to the idea he didn't forget how to coach in Ames; he simply entered an unwinnable situation.
If Chizik is indeed an example of the Pete Principle, it should show in his recruiting. Carroll made an immediate splash by signing quarterback Matt Leinart and defensive end Shaun Cody. Chizik, who has the misfortune of recruiting against Saban in Alabama, had no such luck in his first month on the job. But he did sign Sulpher Springs, Texas, quarterback Tyrik Rollison, and he remains in the hunt for Temple, Texas tailback Lache Seastrunk, the top-ranked back in the class of 2010.
For all his early recruiting success, Carroll was not an immediate success on the field. His team lost four of its first five games. But the Trojans won five of their next six, and in spite of a loss to Utah in the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl, it was obvious Carroll was building something special.
Saturday, Chizik can start providing some answers in Auburn. Did his coaching mojo Peter out in Ames? For Pete's sake, the Tigers had better hope not.