Chizik embraces life away from football
Longtime coach puts family first
If you pull out a calendar, Gene Chizik can provide a pretty good guesstimate of his schedule for any date. For 30 years, it’s been set to the grinding rhythm of college football coaching.
“I can tell you year-round what I’d be doing, to the day,” Chizik says.
Which is why the last week has been a fantastic shock to the system.
Earlier this month, Chizik announced his resignation from his position as North Carolina’s defensive coordinator, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. After wrapping up a few loose ends, he moved home to Auburn, Ala., and officially launched into unemployment last Monday.
Instead of — well, let’s see, he’d have been watching video of third-and-long, reviewing the 2016 season in order to prepare for spring practice — Chizik awakened each day without an agenda. He went for long walks. He worked out. He went to breakfast with his daughters and then had lunch with them, too. He played with their 21⁄2- year-old foster child.
Last Monday he watched his son’s first high school baseball game of the season. Last Thursday afternoon, he and his wife, Jonna, spent time picking out outdoor furniture for the house they’ve recently built. Yeah, it feels weird to him, too.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Chizik says, “to wake up in the morning and not feel the stress that never ends.” LONG DISTANCE TAKES TOLL The move is unusual, at least at the highest levels of college football. Chizik won the 2010 Bowl Championship Series national ti- tle as Auburn’s head coach but was fired two years later and spent two years out of the business. But this time he left the game on his own terms.
After months of conversations and prayer, Chizik says it came down simply to this: He spent his coaching career trying to mentor boys to become men and telling them family came first. Now he wanted to do the same with his son and to show him family was more important than football.
“It was time for me to walk the walk,” Chizik says.
And that meant quitting the business and moving home — which is Auburn.
When Chizik became Auburn’s head coach in 2008, moving from Iowa State, he and Jonna promised their children — twin daughters Landry and Kennedy and son Cally — who were moving for the fourth time, “This is your last move.”
The hope, of course, was that Chizik would settle in for a long run on the Plains. But in 2012, just two years after winning it all, Chizik was fired after the Tigers went 3-9 that season. Still, they remained in Auburn. Gene worked in TV and radio, but he still had the itch to coach.
Two years later, when he took the job at North Carolina, they discussed moving but decided the family would stay behind at least until the twins finished high school. So dad moved. The family regularly visited Chapel Hill, N.C. He occasionally visited Auburn, flying in whenever possible — which wasn’t all that often — for long weekends.
The long-distance relationship was difficult. In a letter explaining his resignation to North Carolina fans, Chizik noted that he “missed my twin daughters’ entire senior year of high school” and that he’d only seen two of Cally’s baseball and two football games. Landry and Kennedy are now freshmen at Auburn. But those initial tentative plans to move changed; Cally, a high school sophomore, had lived in Auburn since the second grade and didn’t want to leave.
“As every parent can imagine,” he wrote in the letter, “being a long-distance dad to my children has been extremely difficult on everyone.”
Even before the move to North Carolina, he and Jonna had talked about how the typical coaching lifestyle, even when living in the same house, made it difficult to find a semblance of balance. Almost every day, Gene was up and off to work before the rest of the household and typically returned long after the others had gone to bed. And during those times when they were together, football still retained a firm grip on his focus. The challenge, Jonna says, was always “to be present when you’re present.” INJURY WAS TIPPING POINT His absence the last two years was never more evident than last August. As a sophomore, Cally was practicing as a first-team cornerback at Auburn High when he took a hard hit and cracked a vertebra. It was, both Gene and Jonna say, scary. And even though it was quickly apparent the injury would fully heal in a few months — Cally returned to play late in the season — it highlighted the imperfection of the Chiziks’ family arrangement.
“I wasn’t there,” Gene says. “Football’s really important to him, and he virtually missed the whole year. It got me to thinking: What is the most important thing?”
Says Jonna: “It was a tipping point, for sure.”
But if the injury and its aftermath only amplified the couple’s ongoing discussions about what was best, and even though the family is financially secure — he made $3.5 million in his final year at Auburn and received a $7.5 million buyout when he was fired — leaving behind football still wasn’t an easy decision.
“When you do something for 30 years and decide you’re gonna step away, it isn’t just a moment when you go, ‘OK, I’m tired of this,’ ” Gene says. “It’s what you do. It’s what, on a daily basis, your life becomes and revolves around is your job.
“To step away from that is a tall order because it’s just what you know. But for me, the decision was all about my family. All about my son, about getting some more time with my daughters. It was about being home together again with my wife.”
He arrived last week. On the first day of the rest of his life — maybe, we’ll see, but at least for now — Chizik watched Cally’s first high school baseball game of the season. He doesn’t plan to miss many more. Later in the week, he attended a meeting for the parents of Auburn High football players.
“It was really kind of neat, to be honest with you,” he says, and he half-jokes that the new role of involved parent means it might not be long before Cally’s dad is grilling hamburgers for other fans.
“I can’t wait to see what that looks like,” Jonna says, “Coach Chizik in the concession stand.”
The point is, he’ll be there. Jonna says she’s heard from other coaches’ wives — Gene has heard from fellow coaches — applauding the move and wishing they could do the same. But she’s most excited about what coming home has meant at home.
“It has made a profound difference in our son’s world, that (Gene) chose his son,” Jonna says. “It’s a huge, huge statement to any child: ‘I’m willing to step away, I’m willing to focus on you.’ ”
What happens in two years, when Cally graduates? No one’s sure. Gene is 55. He plans to fill some of his time studying football — it will come in handy if TV and radio opportunities arise again. He’s certain that, if he wants, he can return to coaching. But he’s not sure he will.
“Never say never,” Jonna says. “But he’s stepping away with the idea of retiring. What the future looks like, I don’t know. … But he left with the idea that this could be it.”
After two years’ absence, Gene Chizik’s only plan for at least the next two years is to be more present than he’s ever been.
“It’s an interesting dynamic to wake up in the morning and not feel the stress that never ends,” Gene Chizik says.
Gene Chizik won the 2010 national championship but was fired two years later.