SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Gene Chizik won five games in two seasons at Iowa State before becoming Auburn’s head coach in 2009.
Oregon’s Chip Kelly can top that. He had never even been more than an offensive coordinator — and had only been working in major college football for two seasons — when he was promoted to top Duck, also in 2009.
Now Chizik and Kelly each are a win away from a national championship, with only the other in the way. Whichever coach leads his team to victory in the BCS title game on Monday night will join an elite club.
Only eight active FBS coaches have won national championships. The group includes Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Les Miles, Texas’ Mack Brown, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, Penn State Hall of Famer Joe Paterno and Florida Atlantic’s Howard Schnellenberger.
Compared to those guys, Chizik and Kelly are practically unknowns to the casual sports fan.
The 49-year-old Chizik’s return to Auburn, where he had been defensive coordinator for the undefeated 2004 Tigers, was not — at first — triumphant.
He had spent 19 years as an assistant, the final two at Texas where he helped the Longhorns win a national championship in 2005 and became rising star within college coaching.
Iowa State, a program with little history of success, gave Chizik his first head coaching job in 2007. He won three games that season and two the next, and it seemed as if his star had dimmed.
“Iowa State was a rebuilding situation for myself and our assistants,” he said. “I had a great two years there, learned a lot, did a lot, made a lot of strides.
“Obviously, along the way we would have liked to have had more wins.”
When he was hired to replace his former Auburn boss, Tommy Tuberville, who was ousted with a 85-40 record, many Tigers fans and alum were outraged. A YouTube video of athletic director Jay Jacobs being heckled by an upset fan exemplified the anger. To compete against Saban, Auburn had hired a coach that was 5-19 at Iowa State.
Of course, not all the Auburn fans wanted to run Chizik off before he even moved into his office.
“When I came to Auburn, I got off the plane, there was about 800 people waiting for me and it was an awesome reception, and it has never changed,” said Chizik, a native of Clearwater, Fla. “There’s always going to be a few people that disagree with anybody’s hire.”
Knowing you’re only as good as the people around you, Chizik assembled a strong staff, led by offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and assistant head coach and lockdown recruiter Trooper Taylor.
It was Malzahn and Taylor who Chizik credits with helping Auburn land Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton out of junior college. With Newton leading the way, Auburn went from 8-5 last season to 13-0 and in position to win the school’s first national title since 1957 this season.
“He can look at a team — and I don’t know how he does it, I’m trying to figure it out because I want that ability — but he can look at a team and he can say, ‘This is what this team needs,’” Taylor said about Chizik. “He came in before the season started and said, ‘This year we’re going from good to great.’”
It’s the Southeastern Conference, so there will always be skeptics, but it’s safe to say many of the doubters have changed their tune about Chizik.
Kelly’s arrival at Oregon was not nearly as volatile.
Then-Ducks coach Mike Bellotti, on the recommendation of former Oregon offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, hired Kelly in 2007 away from New Hampshire, an FCS program where he had been running the offense.
Kelly’s lightning-tempo spread was an immediate hit, setting Oregon records for points and total yards.
After the 2008 season, Bellotti stepped aside to become full-time athletic director at Oregon and Kelly was promoted. He inherited a staff with five coaches who had been at Oregon for more than 20 years, including strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe.
Radcliffe said when Kelly first arrived in Eugene he was “hard to read.”
After becoming head coach, Kelly won over his staff by asking questions and listening to the answers.
“He’s kind of an outside-the-box thinker,” Radcliffe said. “He said if you were to change something (about) how we do things what would you do. He was asking me those questions and other people those questions then he. And he would say, ‘OK I think we should go that way,’ which is different from normal football coaches.”
While Chizik has restored his reputation as a coach in two years at Auburn, the 47-year-old Kelly has zoomed to genius status with the Ducks, following up a 10-3 season with a 12-0 one.
Outwardly, they couldn’t seem more different.
During media day Thursday, Chizik spent his 30 minutes at the podium answering questions with a heavy dose of coachspeak and cliches.
Kelly, a New Hampshire native with a passion for books about motivation, spent a good portion of his time rattling off sarcastic one-liners and quips. He talks about as fast as his team plays.
Asked if he had to pinch himself every once in a while to know that his whirlwind rise to the top of his profession was real, Kelly responded: “I am not a pinch myself kind of guy.”
Asked about the high prices being paid by some fans for tickets to the big game, Kelly said: “I’m unaware of the ticket prices. I don’t have to pay for mine.”
Why doesn’t he like to talk about himself? “Because I know about myself.”
Is their a cultural difference between the Northeast and the Northwest? “Yeah, they don’t drive fast enough in Oregon. I can’t get to work as quick as I would like.”
It’s been a quick road to the top for both men. For one of them, it’s about to get even faster.