CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Gene Chizik built one of the nation’s top defenses as an Auburn assistant, worked as defensive coordinator during Texas’ national-championship run then returned to the Tigers to win another title as head coach.
That history explains why North Carolina is counting on Chizik to fix its woeful defense.
Approaching three years after he was fired from Auburn, Chizik is back in coaching as the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator. He inherits a defense that surrendered more points and yards than any team in program history as UNC opens preseason camp Monday.
“We can’t control everybody’s expectations,” Chizik said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I want people to be excited not because I’m here, but because we have a new defensive philosophy, we have a new defensive staff and I want them to embrace the fact that we feel good and we feel positive the defense will definitely improve.
“We don’t know how fast that will happen. But I hope that excites people.”
The Tar Heels have long talked about winning the typically wide-open Coastal Division in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That can’t happen unless the 53-year-old Chizik and an overhauled staff can get them to make opponents at least pump the brakes.
The move from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 base scheme began in spring drills, part of what Chizik called “an inch-by-inch” process instead of an overnight reversal.
“He didn’t rush it, he wasn’t worried about whether he won spring or not,” head coach Larry Fedora said during the ACC Kickoff media days. “All he wanted to do was make sure those guys . understood the base defense and had learned the fundamentals of the defense. That’s something he felt like he accomplished. That has given those guys confidence, and that’s something they lost.”
Plagued by blown assignments and missed tackles, the Tar Heels (6-7) allowed program records of 6,472 yards (497.8 per game) and 507 points (39 per game) last year. They gave up 11 touchdowns of at least 40 yards, according to STATS, and single-game records of 70 points and 789 yards at instate East Carolina.
Linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said the new staff emphasized taking better angles to ball carriers in the spring.
“We did a bunch of tackling every day of spring practice,” Schoettmer said. “We were very physical all spring, moreso than we have been in the past three years. I think that will be huge for us.”
It’s also a new start for Chizik, who worked as a college football analyst with Sirius/XM radio and ESPN since leaving Auburn.
He spent two years as Iowa State’s head coach before going 33-19 in four seasons at Auburn, including an unbeaten 2010 season behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton. He was fired in November 2012 after a winless Southeastern Conference season.
His tenure also had off-field turmoil, including an NCAA investigation of Newton’s recruitment and a report alleging academic fraud and payments to athletes. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs disputed that report in April 2013 after an internal investigation and defended the coach he had recently fired as “a man of the utmost character and integrity.”
“I feel like at times I got tarred and feathered erroneously, because I think a lot of people didn’t do their homework,” Chizik told the AP. “There were a lot of assumptions made that were absolutely false and incorrect. I stand by everything that I did. I have absolutely nothing to hide and I never will because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I always did it right.”
Firing Chizik cost Auburn a $7.5 million buyout paid in monthly installments, allowing him to be selective on his next job. He said he “needed to step back” to focus on his family, passing on offers to be a defensive coordinator and some head-coaching discussions.
His broadcasting stint allowed him to visit with coaches, and watch college and NFL practices in what Chizik said doubled as “career development.” Coaching at UNC under Fedora — the two had crossed paths several times previously — ended up being the right fit to lure him back.
“I’m not looking to be a head coach,” Chizik said. “I’ve been there and done that. If the opportunity arises again, then that’s great. I’ll look at it. If it doesn’t, I won’t bat an eyelash. I’m having a blast. I love right now getting back into having the defense fully mine.”