CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Ten years had passed between defensive coordinator jobs. Admittedly, Gene Chizik needed to relearn the game for one pretty big reason: Offenses today look nothing like offenses did in 2006.
So when he arrived at North Carolina in January, he got to work, putting in 18-hour days studying, learning and improving. When coaches left the office in time to have dinner with their families, Chizik stayed past 11 p.m.
All that meant something else, too. Chizik had to relearn how to live a coach’s life, after two years of much less stress as a television and radio analyst.
What he could fall back on was one of his best attributes: an attention to detail that has translated into success at nearly all his stops, from national championship-winning defensive coordinator at Texas to national championship-winning head coach at Auburn.
At his first team meeting, Chizik spelled out a plan for his defensive players. “He didn’t come in with abstract ideas,” linebacker Shakeel Rashad said. “He didn’t stand up there and say we’re going to do good next year. He came in with a specific plan and told us, ‘We’re not going to leave anything to chance.’”
Through eight games, the defensive transformation has been the story of the season for North Carolina. It’s why the Tar Heels (7-1, 4-0) control their destiny in the Coastal heading into their game Saturday against rival Duke (6-2, 3-1). They have gone from awful to respectable, moving up from No. 117 in the nation in total defense (497.8 yards per game) to No. 43 (358.0 yards per game).
The metric Chizik uses most to measure progress is scoring defense. The Tar Heels are giving up 22 fewer points per game this season than last, and they’re doing it with the same core group of players.
“Our standard and expectation is to win games defensively,” Chizik said. “We’re not here to outscore everybody and hope the offense scores 40 points per game. We’re here to try and win a championship because we play well enough on defense to do so. I think when we first embarked on this, they looked at me like I had 10 heads, but I think as time unfolded and they understood the means to the madness in everything we do, they started to understand, ‘Wow this stuff really does work.’”
Head coach Larry Fedora saw something different.
“Confidence,” Fedora said. “That day I announced we were bringing him in, I saw it. Everybody’s face brightened up, everybody’s eyes brightened up. That told me they were excited, and to them, it was, ‘You’re doing something to help us be better.’ It doesn’t mean that from day one they had it made. They didn’t. They put a lot of work and effort and sweat and blood into this. But you could see the confidence building on a daily basis.”
The success has led to something else, too: speculation about whether Chizik would consider becoming a head coach again with all the FBS jobs opening up.
To this, Chizik is quick with an answer.
“There’s some of that speculation out there I’m sure, but I think about it zero,” Chizik said. “I’m entrenched in what I’m doing right now. I’ve never been one to try to do this job while I’m thinking about the possibilities down the road. Coupled with the fact that’s not what I need to do anymore. That’s not what I need to be. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. As a head coach and as an assistant, I’ve done all you can do.
“When you’re younger and you’re chasing that dream, it becomes really important to you. It’s not important to me now. Am I fully 100 percent confident I could go to someplace and, with the exception of my last year at Auburn, take off from where I was at previously? Absolutely. I have zero doubt about that. Is that a goal or a huge desire of mine? No. I’m not going to go interview for jobs and be one of seven guys and hope I get the job. If somebody calls and says you’re our top guy or top two guys, would I listen? I don’t know, depends on where it is. But I’m in a way different place than I was. I’m very happy doing this, being a defensive coordinator.”
When Fedora picked up the phone in the offseason and called Chizik, he had no idea what he would say. Chizik had spent two years away from coaching after getting fired at Auburn. Chizik told him he would consider coaching again in the “perfect situation.”
So Fedora went about convincing him North Carolina was the perfect situation. But the two never discussed what Chizik might want to do in the future. Their only discussion was about fixing the Tar Heels.
“I’m sure he would want to be a head coach again, and I think he’s going to have that opportunity probably sooner rather than later,” Fedora said. “Gene’s a good football coach. ... I’m about everybody on my staff doing what’s best for them and their family. That’s important. I’d like to be able to promote that atmosphere, that guys can come in here and do a great job and if they want to stay here and love it, great. If they want to be a head coach, that they have that opportunity.”
For now, there are important games remaining in a season with North Carolina as the new Coastal favorite. Without Chizik, that might not be the case.
“From Day 1, he came in with a mentality this stuff is going to change, and we all just decided to buy in,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “Whatever we were doing last year wasn’t working and we were like, ‘Why not buy in?’ When we buy in and do what we’re supposed to do, you see results and we win games.”
That could end up taking them just a few hours down the road to Charlotte, for a first ACC championship game appearance.