SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- It wasn’t too long ago that they were roasting Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs for hiring a guy with a 5-19 career head coaching record.
They’re toasting him these days.
That’s what happens when you go from a losing season and coaching change to the brink of a national championship in two years.
As they say on the Plains, Jacobs is an Auburn man, and it’s been that way since he played football for the Tigers in the early 1980s.
His decision, though, to pull the trigger on Gene Chizik in December 2008 as Auburn’s coach was scoffed at and even laughed at in some quarters.
The only people laughing now are the thousands of Auburn fans in the Arizona desert getting ready for Monday night’s Tostitos BCS National Championship Game.
Here’s the first part of a two-part Q&A with Jacobs, who sat down with ESPN.com for an exclusive interview this week to discuss everything from the Chizik hire to the Cam Newton ordeal.
Chizik was obviously not foremost in fans’ minds when you started looking for a coach following the 2008 season. Where was he in your mind?
Jay Jacobs: When I started the process, I knew Gene was the guy to beat. I knew there were a lot of good guys out there. That’s why I talked to a lot of them. I talked to some great coaches, but I trusted Gene. I knew him. I knew what he was going to do. I knew how he worked. He understood Auburn. Having a history here and knowing the culture is huge, knowing what it takes to get it done in this state. He had that. He coached here. He’d been in the SEC. He’d coached at Auburn. I knew going in that he was the guy. The Iowa State record was what I knew would be tough for the Auburn people.
Did his 5-19 record at Iowa State not deter you at all?
JJ: We talked about that. I asked him, ‘How are we going to explain 5-19? He said, ‘Let me tell you this: I’m a better coach, having been at Iowa State for two years than I would have been had you hired me coming out of Texas because of everything that goes into being a head coach -- the alumni, the media, the organization of practice, everything.’ It was real easy. I knew where I needed to go. It wasn’t about who was right. It was about getting it right. I told those football players, ‘I’m going to have the best guy for you.’
There have been varying accounts of the role former Auburn coach Pat Dye played in Chizik’s hiring. What role did he play?
JJ: He didn’t have any role. I certainly value coach Dye’s opinion, but I’d worked with Gene when he was there in 2004. I had my own opinion. After I went through all the interviews and decided on Gene, I talked to coach Dye the next day and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ He paused for a minute and said, ‘I never thought about Gene,’ because there were all these other names out there. But coach Dye then said, ‘You’re getting a guy the Auburn people will embrace and you’ll always know where he stands.’
A lot of people, including some former coaches at Auburn, have said that high-level boosters have as much input in major decisions involving the athletic department at Auburn as anywhere else in the country. Is that exaggerated?
JJ: It’s very exaggerated. When we brought in (former) president, Dr. Ed Richardson, several years ago, he made it clear to everybody -- and he hired me -- that that wasn’t going to happen. He said, ‘If I ever find out in two weeks, two months or two years that you’re allowing anybody other than me to influence you, then you won’t be working here anymore.’ Now, we’ve got a lot of passionate people who care deeply about Auburn. But I guess, without being too cavalier about it, the best way I would answer that is this way: If a lot of different people were involved in making decisions in athletics at Auburn, we never would have hired Gene Chizik. My president (Jay Gogue) let me do my job, and that’s all you ever want, to be responsible for your decisions and not somebody else’s.
You were skewered pretty good, locally and nationally, when news first broke that Chizik was the guy. How braced were you for that backlash?
JJ: I knew it was coming. But here’s the thing: Just like any of our jobs, I want to be held responsible for my decisions, not what popular opinion is or anything like that. Having been an Auburn fan all my life, having played here as a walk-on, having coached here, having two degrees from here and having been around this program now for 30 years, I knew exactly what we needed, and Gene was what we needed.
During the search, did you ever say Gene Chizik’s name to any of your confidants or close staff members and get one of those “Are you kidding?” looks?
JJ: Oh yeah, oh yeah … by some of the guys with me. On that Saturday before we started interviewing on that Sunday, I said to one of my confidants, ‘Gene Chizik.’ He looked at me and gave me one of those looks. I said, ‘Hey, just think about it.’ Within an hour after talking about it, he said, ‘That’s exactly what we need.’
With the way Nick Saban had revived Alabama’s program so quickly and the way he was recruiting like gangbusters, you knew you had to get this one right, didn’t you?
JJ: Right, oh yeah. And even regardless of that, it was an impactful hire because of the way Tommy (Tuberville) left and the fragmented Auburn family. It didn’t matter what was going on anywhere else. Now, what Saban was doing at Alabama impacted everybody. Don’t misunderstand me. But everything else made it a big enough hire, and then you add (the Saban/Alabama) factor, it magnified it even more.
What about Chizik has impressed you the most?
JJ: When we visited with him that Thursday afternoon in Dallas, he laid out a plan about who he was going to hire, how he was going to recruit, what he was going to expect of his players, everything. And the thing about it is that he hadn’t changed. He wasn’t different when he was 13-0 at Auburn in 2004 (as defensive coordinator). He was no different when he only won those handful of games at Iowa State, and he’s no different today. He’s just a ball coach, and he’s a guy who invests his time and his family into these players, and that’s what important to the Auburn family. He’s stuck to his blueprint.