HOOVER, Ala. -- For the fifth consecutive July, the coach of the defending national champion stepped onto the podium at SEC media days. But for the first time, the coach of the defending national champion didn't sound like a man describing the greatest achievement of his professional career.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik has charisma. He will show it in one-on-one interviews. His team has seen it. You can read it in the book he recently published, "All In," about the Tigers' improbable run to the BCS national championship last season.
But Chizik brought no joy to the microphone Thursday -- no joy, no buoyancy, no ebullience. If you read the transcript of his 40-minute presser Thursday, you will see that Chizik said the right things.
"The journey from this point in time last year to now has been incredible for us.
"I've had a blast. Our players have had a blast."
But if you watched Chizik on ESPNU, you saw that the words being spoken didn't match the guy on the screen. He rarely smiled. He sounded as if his larynx had been Botoxed -- his tone never varied. The words coming out of Chizik's mouth paired up with his body language as well as the English dubbing of a Japanese film.
That's probably because he knew what he would be asked about. Until the NCAA gives the all-clear on the recruitment of Cam Newton and other rumored Tigers transgressions, Chizik is going to be confronted with a raised eyebrow.
The Newton case, dormant for several months, arose again recently when The New York Times reported that, in a gathering of coaches and administrators at the SEC spring meetings, Chizik pressed NCAA enforcement chief Julie Roe Lach about when the NCAA would finish its investigation of the Tigers. She pretty much told him when the NCAA was good and ready to finish and not before.
"I thought there would be nobody better to ask," Chizik said Thursday. "To be honest with you, it was very informative. There were some clarifications that were made that had to do with process … . She was very willing to clarify for me, and I appreciated that."
Chizik rope-a-doped several more questions. Muhammad Ali used the rope-a-dope to take back the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali let George Foreman swing at him until Foreman couldn't swing anymore.
Questions are thrown more easily than right hands wearing 16-ounce gloves. And fielding those right hands took a toll on Ali, too.
Hey, we get it. If I were Chizik, I wouldn't want to discuss this investigation, either. He tried to talk about the mixture of youth, inexperience and enthusiasm that is the 2011 Tigers. Chizik's basic strategy since the outset of the investigation has been to withdraw into the loving arms of "the Auburn family," a construct that he used again Thursday.
Auburn fans haven't stopped celebrating the national championship, one for which they waited patiently and lovingly for 53 years. Auburn fans alternate between frustration and anger when they hear the media continue to ask questions about Newton. The only corroborated misdeed regarding Newton, they say, took place at Mississippi State, not Auburn.
They are right. But the investigation remains open. And even if the NCAA clears Auburn, that won't be the end of it. The court of public opinion has ruled on Roger Clemens and Jim Tressel, neither of whom has had his case heard by the appropriate body. The court of public opinion will rule on this investigation, too.