Chizik em­braces life away from foot­ball

Long­time coach puts fam­ily first

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Ge­orge Schroeder @Ge­orgeSchroeder USA TO­DAY Sports

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.

GERRY BROOME, AP

“It’s an in­ter­est­ing dynamic to wake up in the morn­ing and not feel the stress that never ends,” Gene Chizik says.

2011 PHOTO BY TODD J. VAN EMST, AP

Gene Chizik won the 2010 na­tional cham­pi­onship but was fired two years later.

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