When Auburn finally fired Gene Chizik on Sunday, I couldn't help but think of Reuben Foster. Who is Foster? He's the star high school linebacker who originally committed to Alabama but flipped to Auburn in July. How did Foster celebrate his decision?
By getting an Auburn tattoo that spans one of his forearms.
Few things in college football should ever be commemorated with permanent ink. Not verbal commitments. Not conference affiliations. Certainly not coaches. Foster loved the coaching staff at Auburn so much that his affection for the group played a major role in his decision to have the school's logo inked into his skin. But no amount of love can overcome 0-8 in the SEC.
Less than two years after Chizik hoisted the Waterford crystal football in Glendale, Ariz., and spoke of his affection for the All In Auburn Family, he and his assistants are jobless. Back in the good old days, when Gus Malzahn called the plays and Cam Newton ran them, Chizik loved the Family and it loved him right back. If anyone -- a rival fan, an out-of-line columnist, a certain oddsmaker for a major newspaper -- dared suggest that Chizik or anyone on his staff did anything untoward to land Newton after it was revealed that Newton's father had tried to sell the quarterback to Mississippi State, the Family swarmed in with a sound rebuke. But as this season spiraled further out of control and it became apparent Auburn had become the laughingstock of the SEC, members of the Family began to rip the man they defended so staunchly only two years earlier. A few losses turned into a bunch, and suddenly Chizik wasn't All In and needed to be shown out.
"Despite substantial investment in personnel and facilities made possible by your support, the football program did not live up to our expectations," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs wrote in a letter to season-ticket holders on Sunday. "The results of the 2012 football season are simply unacceptable at Auburn. ... After suffering some tough losses in a transition year in 2011, we had hoped our team would show improvement this season. Unfortunately, it has not. The competition in our league is fierce and is currently at an all-time high, and we cannot risk falling further behind by waiting another year and hoping for improvement."
Jacobs went on to write that Chizik and his staff would always be part of the Auburn Family, but that isn't really true. To say the Family disowned Chizik wouldn't be correct. He was never really a part of it. He was the just the help. He was -- and still is -- handsomely-paid help, but help nonetheless.
The players earn their way into the Family with their sweat and their blood. The fans buy their way into the Family with their time and their sanity and with every hard-earned dollar that pays for a ticket or a T-shirt. The coaches? They stay as long as they can, but they usually get booted as soon as things go sideways. Chizik and his staff are owed a staggering $11.09 million in buyouts. Chizik himself is scheduled to receive $7.5 million, which probably made Chizik's gracious exit that much easier. "I have said this many times, but the Auburn fans are the best in college football," Chizik said Sunday in a statement. "They have an incredible passion and love for their school and I want to thank them for their support in good times and in bad times."
A word about buyouts. While it sounds great to get paid millions to not work, superachievers such as Chizik who claw their way up to multi-million dollar jobs have no interest in not working. Chizik probably wants to go back to work somewhere else tomorrow to prove this season was an anomaly. Still, the buyout ensures no one will cry for Chizik. He was paid well to do a job, and he failed to do it. Still, his situation remains curious. Rarely outside of reality television has a person gone from being disliked to beloved to reviled so quickly.
On the day Chizik was hired, an Auburn fan went to the airport and booed Jacobs as he walked across the Tarmac. That guy had a point about Chizik's 5-19 record at Iowa State. Later, we all laughed at the naysaying fan as Chizik rode Malzahn and Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley to a title. Now, that lone, booing fan looks like a prophet. A prophet who wanted Turner Gill instead of Chizik. This is probably why Jacobs left the man off the search committee that includes Jacobs, Mac Crawford, Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan.
Jacobs and Heisman Trophy winners Jackson and Sullivan are familiar names, but Crawford probably isn't. The former Auburn fullback is a private equity investor who previously served as chairman of the board of the CVS Caremark pharmacy company. "He is a CEO turnaround expert," Jacobs told reporters Sunday night. "We probably need a little turnaround here. He is very objective. He's not an emotional guy. He's very business-oriented, with business sense and business savvy."
The Tigers will enter a seller's market as they seek their next football CEO. There are few hot coaches and a number of high-dollar jobs. In the SEC alone, Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee will offer big bucks to go along with outsize expectations for the next coach.
Auburn could go after former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino. Heck, the Tigers already tried to hire Petrino once. That whole already having a coach thing was all that stood in the way. Auburn could try to swipe defensive coordinator Kirby Smart -- a frequently rumored head-coaching candidate -- away from rival Alabama. Auburn could pursue Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who accomplished the near-impossible and led the Commodores to eight wins this season. The Tigers could pursue Louisville's Charlie Strong, whose program should learn soon whether it will move to the ACC or be left behind in the increasingly irrelevant Big East. They could also hire Malzahn -- who probably deserves a healthy share of credit for Chizik's success at Auburn. Malzahn is 8-3 in his first season as Arkansas State's head coach. Or maybe Auburn will hire a younger up-and-comer such as Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart, a former Stanford assistant who has done wonders with scant resources.
Of the four SEC openings -- I didn't mention Kentucky earlier because it isn't on the same level as the others -- Auburn is the easiest from a recruiting perspective. The Tigers are closer to more elite players than any of the other three. One drawback is the NCAA's current investigation into the recruiting practices of Chizik assistants Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper. Since 2010, Auburn has been the white whale for the NCAA's enforcement staff. The next coach needs to make sure he won't have to clean up an even bigger mess. Another issue, as Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville have been more than happy to tell people since they left the employ of the Family, is that Auburn coaches often aren't sure from whom they take their marching orders. At Arkansas, athletic director Jeff Long has a firm grasp on the reins. That also seems to be the case with Dave Hart at Tennessee. Jacobs is another story. As Auburn's season went down the drain, the biggest question on the Plains was whether Auburn president Jay Gogue would fire only Chizik or Chizik and Jacobs.
As of Sunday, Jacobs remained with the Family. Chizik will still get checks but nothing more. Meanwhile, the fallout continues. As Chizik was getting creamed 49-0 in his final Iron Bowl, Foster, the recruit with the Auburn tattoo, was checking out Georgia on an unofficial visit. Later, Foster told ESPN.com that he needed time to sort out his options after he learns the identity of Auburn's new coaches. The Tigers will still have their chance with Foster, but maybe nothing is permanent. Not coaches. Not the love of a Family. Not even ink.