Sunday, June 19, 2011

Commentary: AU coaches take the money and stun

Auburn football coach Gene Chizik presents the Broyles Trophy to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn during the Tigers' national championship celebration at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Jan. 22.
Auburn football coach Gene Chizik presents the Broyles Trophy to offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn during the Tigers' national championship celebration at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Jan. 22. 
AUBURN -- A major step in the evolution of college football occurred last week at Auburn, where a new approach to coaching passed its second major test.
And Gene Chizik is looking like a genius once again.
The Tigers released documents last week relating to its 10 football coaches and how they'll be compensated during the next few years. The numbers, to some, were astounding: $3.5 million will flow into Chizik's account annually and his assistants will split a pot worth$4.085 million each year.
No staff in America, at least those working at public institutions, earns more.
Everyone received a raise. The smallest was worth 10 percent while offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, the most high-profile college assistant alive, watched his salary spike 160 percent.
Winning a national championship has its perks.
Yet lost in chatter about the sheer size of Auburn's financial investment is a clear justification of perhaps the most enlightened scheme ever hatched on the Plains.
Paying top dollar for top-rate assistants is worth the expense.Chizik was a losing coach at a losing program 30 months ago.
Yet watching best laid plans wobble and ultimately fail at Iowa State gave the coach a chance to understand what went wrong.
He didn't waste it.
Chizik, during his interview for the Auburn job, told athletic director Jay Jacobs the Tigers had a healthy program that simply needed better players. He mapped out a strategy to hire the best recruiters around, to lure Malzahn from his happy home in Tulsa, to find a defensive coordinator whose ideas complemented Chizik's.
The task would be expensive. Success would escalate the cost.
It was innovative thinking.
Sure, Lane Kiffin already had carved out huge paydays for his father and Ed Orgeron at Tennessee, but Chizik wanted to go deeper.
He wanted every guy on the staff to be an ace in some way.
Chizik's plan was hatched with little fanfare save for Malzahn, whose relatively modest initial salary ($350,000) belied a reputation that was expanding exponentially
Auburn quickly collected some A-list recruiters (Trooper Taylor, Tommy Thigpen, Jeff Grimes, Curtis Luper), a veteran defensive coordinator (Ted Roof), a veteran line coach (Tracy Rocker), a tenured Alabama high-school coach (Phillip Lolley) and an up-and-coming strategist in Jay Boulware.The total bill for assistants was $2.7 million, a huge investment at the time.
Two years later, of course, Auburn won its first Bowl Championship Series championship. Merchandising is up, enrollment is up, national interest is up, recruiting is up.
These will be the halcyon days two generations from now and the road from Tommy Tuberville's demise to here followed a path never before considered at any school.
Chizik put the focus on his staff at a time when head coaches were the rock stars. When rival programs came calling for those assistants, Chizik and Jacobs found ways to keep almost all of them on board.
Assistants remain the featured elements at Auburn. Malzahn is now the most highly paid assistant alive at $1.3 million per season. Taylor, whose towel-waving antics on game day fuel detractors and supporters alike, now receives a $50,000 bonus each Monday after National Signing Day if he's still employed by the university.
How's that for professional affirmation? Simply arriving on the job is worth a new sports car.
Taylor, Luper, Grimes and Thigpen remain the face of the program's recruiting push, which has netted some indisputably strong signing classes.
Auburn once again is a thriving program with championship designs.
Still, is the investment worth the yield?
It netted a Heisman Trophy, a glass football, an ecstatic fan base and a belief that the team's 2010 championship run wasn't an aberration.
The Tigers probably won't be great this season -- no program is safe from the developmental curve -- but serious potential remains.
This coaching staff has given Auburn reason to believe anything is possible.
Seven million dollars looks like a steal.

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