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UK Already Has Lived Through the Race Controversy Gripping Auburn Football

This is the time of year when the football coaching carousel is spinning at top speed. Coaches go – they’re either fired, they retire, or they “get retired,” (see Fulmer, Phil).

Coaches come – they arrive on campus full of warmth and promise, undefeated at their newest school. Season ticket sales see anything from a bump to a spike.

Unless you live in the Prettiest Little Village on the Plains.

That would be Auburn, Alabama, where its newest resident arrived to a greeting by something far less friendly than The Welcome Wagon.

Gene Chizik, the new head coach of the Tigers, had to listen to an Auburn “fan” actually booing him as he got off the plane, chanting Chizik’s record at Iowa State (two years, 5-19), calling him a “loser,” pleading on behalf of Turner Gill.

Welcome back.

Chizik finds himself sharing the eye of this latest hurricane of emotion with Auburn’s most vocal ex-player, Charles Barkley. Never one to shy away from controversy, Sir Charles invoked the “R” word when it came time to explain the hiring of Chizik over Gill, an African-American who transformed the University of Buffalo’s football team from what could have been the worst in Division I to conference champion. Racism, Barkley said, had to have played a role.

"I'm just very disappointed," Barkley said. "I just thought Turner Gill would be the perfect choice for two reasons: He's a terrific coach and we needed to make a splash. I thought we had to do something spectacular to bring attention to the program. Clearly, if we'd hired a black coach, it would have created a buzz."

It’s a topic that always arises when the carousel is spinning, and the news is usually good or bad, with no in-between. When a Sylvester Croom is hired by a Southeastern Conference school, we take ample note. When the number of black head coaches dwindles, as it has lately, it’s headline news, as it should be.

The SEC, as the perennially strongest and one of the most tradition-laden leagues, often takes a brunt of the criticism. The University of Kentucky, first to integrate among the league’s football programs, is deemed guilty by association, even though it’s the only school in the conference, if not the BCS, with black offensive and defensive coordinators. The OC, Joker Phillips, already has been tabbed Coach-In-Waiting. But that usually goes unnoticed and unmentioned.

Croom broke the coaching color barrier only five years ago, and did it in Starkville – not at his alma mater, Alabama. And now that school’s arch-rival is the focal point of controversy.

The hiring of Chizik was puzzling, even if you throw out the two seasons spent at hapless Iowa State. Judging his head coaching ability based on his won-loss record there is pointless. Transition periods at schools with weak programs are never pretty, and they usually take a while.

Chizik is a known quantity; he was the Tigers’defensive coordinator in 2004, when they finished 13-0 but were denied a chance to play for a national championship.

Those were the good old days, when Auburn was at the top, and Bama was struggling with the fallout from NCAA probation. That situation has done a complete 180. And the boosters on the Plains aren’t happy.

But Auburn’s decision to make a coaching change was dictated on the other side of the state – in Tuscaloosa. By hiring Nick Saban, and then watching him lead the Crimson Tide to the number one ranking in college football, Alabama imposed its will on Auburn in a way it hasn’t been able to do since Gene Stallings was head coach.

Bama broke the bank to land Saban. Recruits, and victories, began to find their way back to the program Bear built. Auburn panicked.

Tommy Tuberville, who not long ago led his team to that undefeated season and the SEC championship, wasn’t necessarily “fired.” He was simply told, “You’re our head coach – for now.”

Nearly a decade ago, when some Auburn power brokers tried to sneak into Louisville and hire Bobby Petrino, Tuberville survived and thrived. Apparently, he saw little hope in this situation, opening the door for a new man.

Auburn needed to get this hire right.

Oops.

Chizik likely is a good football man. He recruited many of the players who contributed to the 13-0 team. And he knows what he’s getting into. But Auburn desperately needed to show its fan base, and more importantly, recruits, that it’s willing to go in a different direction. Turner Gill might have been the answer.

Emphasis on “might.” He did an incredible job at Buffalo, turning a hopeless team into a champion. Could he not only survive, but prosper, at Auburn? Could he sustain a successful program, win SEC championships and, most importantly, beat Alabama?

It wouldn’t have been easy.

Gill, it says here, would have been treated the same way Tubby Smith was treated at Kentucky. A majority of fans, as long as he was winning, would have embraced him. And a faction of fools immediately would have turned in their season tickets, vowing never to return to Jordan-Hare Stadium until a head coach with far less pigment in his skin was stalking the sideline. He would have received hate mail, venomous e-mails and threats.

But he also would have helped lead some people, inch by inch, to the realization that they were wasting their time and emotional energy on something so inconsequential as race.

One would hope the fact that Gill’s wife, who is white, did not play a role in the decision-making process. But we’d be fools to think it never entered the minds of some of the folks who made the final decision.

I shuddered when I read the comments of Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs, who spoke of Chizik being the “right fit” for the job. I desperately hope that had everything to do with football.

Prejudice equals ignorance. Think about the Kentucky fans who pre-judged Rich Brooks. They couldn’t get past his record at Oregon, with more losses than wins, and immediately dubbed him a “career loser.” Never mind what he had to overcome in Eugene, and how he developed a program built to last and prosper, which it has. You know what he’s done at Kentucky.

Like Chizik, Brooks’ name didn’t exactly send Big Blue Fans running to the season ticket line with their checkbooks in hand. But unlike probation-addled UK at the time, Auburn didn’t have a half-dozen candidates back away. It’s still a plum job, and it seemed ripe for an up-and-coming winner on the mid-major level to take over.

Gill? Perhaps. We’ll find out if he has what it takes to build a program that will last. Not at Buffalo – he might win another title or two, or he might never get his team back to the top. But he’ll get a chance somewhere else, somewhere with money, facilities and a fan base.

Chizik had all that at Iowa State, as well as players and an administration who believed in him, even after 19 losses in 24 games. Now, they’re calling him a liar, for saying he had no interest in the Auburn job shortly before he was introduced as the Tigers’ new head coach.

Hey – it worked for Saban, who ripped the media for asking more than once if he would leave the NFL’s Miami Dolphins for the Crimson Tide. That worked out well for both teams. The Fish are back in a playoff race, and Bama is back on top in the SEC West.

But the spectacle of race didn’t hang over Saban’s hire. It will over that of Chizik, who said, “That’s out there for everyone to mull over themselves. At the end of the day, if you win, that all goes away.”

Sadly, he’s right. If race was, indeed, a factor in his hiring, all he has to do is hang up enough victories – especially over Alabama – and it likely won’t come up again.

Unless somebody asks Sir Charles.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 20-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)


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