Kicking it with Gene Chizik, Part I

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

AUBURN, Ala. -- It's been a no-frills, no-nonsense approach by Gene Chizik.

And why not? He has a no-frills, no-nonsense job.

Coaching football right now at Auburn is like taking on Lance Armstrong in a bike race and giving him a head start ... on his favorite course.

The Tigers have a lot of catching up to do, maybe even more than Chizik could have realized back in December when he emerged from the shadows in what had been a surprisingly public coach search to take over on the Plains.

Battling Alabama in this state has never been easy. But with the recruiting machine Nick Saban has assembled about 150 miles west of here, it's as daunting as it's ever been.

Chizik, who was Auburn's defensive coordinator from 2002-04, has his hands full for sure. There's no depth to speak of on either side of the ball. It's the second year in a row that the Tigers are putting in a new offense, and the power in the league has clearly shifted to the Western Division.

Only rarely has Chizik come up for air since submerging himself in this pressure cooker of a job eight months ago. But he took some time Thursday to sit down and discuss, among other things, his vision for the program, why he thinks he was the right man for the job and the uniqueness of Auburn.

Here's Part I of my Q&A with Chizik:

How advantageous has it been for you that you'd coached here previously, knew the way this place runs, knew the Auburn people and weren't coming in here for the first time?

Gene Chizik: It's been huge. I've been to a lot of places and seen a lot of different things. But you hear the term 'Uniquely Auburn,' and that's right. The people here are a special type of people. It's just unique, and I've had a chance to get a dose of three years of it, so I understand what this place needs to recruit. I understand how to recruit it. I understand the people here. I just get it, and I'm not only talking about being at Auburn, but being in this state. I can promise you that I get it.

How big a challenge is it to go up against Alabama and its presence in this state and what Nick Saban has going there right now?

GC: I'd first start and just say that the league itself is a daunting task, because everywhere you look there are great teams. So I start there, and then this state is unique because of the Auburn-Alabama rivalry. I've been in it for three years, and I do understand it. This state is very passionate about football -- period. It's challenging not just with this state, but the whole league.

Where does recruiting fall in that equation?

CG: Certainly, recruiting in this state, recruiting the state correctly and getting ourselves back on track here is going to take some work. That doesn't happen with one recruiting class.

How do you weigh the importance of getting your share of the talent in Alabama and also being able to go over into Georgia and get players, go into Florida and any other surrounding areas you might target?

GC: If you go back and look at the years where Auburn was great, they had great players from this state. That's not to say they didn't have great ones from other ones, too. But they had great players from the state of Alabama and the state of Georgia. Again, that's not to slight others, because there's been great ones from all different states here. But when you go back and look at the rosters of those teams that were very good, they're laden with Alabama and Georgia kids.

Isn't the 2004 team an example of that?

GC: We had four first-rounders that year, and the majority of our kids were from Alabama and Georgia. Go down the list. Carnell Williams was from Alabama, Ronnie Brown was from Georgia. Carlos Rogers was from Georgia. Marcus McNeill was from Georgia. Our whole offensive line were Georgia and Alabama kids. Linebacker was the same thing. D-line was the same thing.

That 2004 defense didn't have a lot of All-Americans or household names, but was overflowing with speed and played so well together. Is that your model for how defense should be played?

GC: That's it. Speed. Get in a system they know. Get them to play hard. Get them to play with the right mentality. Get them to play violent. Get them in a system they can hang their hat on. Don't try to create things that are different every week. Do what you do, and recruit kids for that system. If you look at the year before, we lost all our first- and second-rounders, our linebacker corps. It wasn't laden with a lot of high-round draft picks, but they were very good college football players.

A lot of people were caught off guard by your hiring at Auburn, in part because of your 5-19 record at Iowa State. Did you feel like you were right in the middle of that process all along?

GC: No question about it. It's unique how things work. If I was the defensive coordinator at Texas and the assistant head coach at Texas, then it wouldn't have caught anybody off guard. Let's be realistic about it, and I understand that.

Even though your record at Iowa State wasn't very good, the fact that you'd been a head coach had to work in your favor, didn't it?

GC: For me personally, as far as what kind of head coach I am, those two years at Iowa State were invaluable to me. Auburn hired a better coach after I'd been at Iowa State for two years trying to rebuild a program that was way down than they would have if they had hired a defensive coordinator from Texas. It's not even close, not even close.