Auburn's Chizik returns to where it all began
TAMPA - Long before he was the hottest college defensive coordinator in the country - and now Auburn's head coach - Gene Chizik was, well, the "Kindergarten Cop" at a Pinellas County elementary school. You remember the movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a detective who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher and the kids all take to him. That was Chizik some 23 years ago, minus the bad guys and the $12 million Schwarzenegger got for playing the role. Chizik taught third grade at Bauder Elementary so could he start his coaching career across the street at Seminole High."Yeah, it was great," he recalled this week. "You know, you're just out of college. You have a lot of energy, and you're really excited about what you do. It was really neat for me to be a young guy and have that opportunity." A Pinellas native and son of a former prominent area high school coach and principal, Chizik, 48, has returned home to coach his 7-5 Tigers against 8-4 Northwestern in Friday's Outback Bowl. The trip is about the business of winning a football game, a guarded Chizik makes clear, but there was time Monday night for dinner with his mother, Rita, who lives in Clearwater, and he will squeeze in some more visiting. Father-in-law John Nicely, Chizik's coach at Clearwater High in the late 1970s, and good friend Sam Roper have attended practice at least once this week. It was Roper, the longtime Seminole coach (and an assistant at Clearwater when Chizik played there), who gave Chizik his coaching start. The two ran into each other at a wedding after Chizik finished his education degree at the University of Florida. With no coaching experience, Chizik accepted a job coaching linebackers, and that quickly turned into the defensive coordinator post when another coach left. Chizik had a way with kids, Roper recalled, even the young ones at Bauder. "You get a guy like him, he was a studly looking guy coming out of college," Roper said. "So it was kind of like 'Kindergarten Cop.' He had that gift of gab, and the kids loved him." Chizik grew up in locker rooms and on sidelines, the son of an ex-Marine who became a coach at Tarpon Springs High and, later, principal at Largo. Gene Chizik Sr. earned a Bronze Star for World War II combat in Okinawa and began a 40-year career in the Pinellas County school system as an administrator and coach in 1948. He died in 2002, but not before imparting his football knowledge and coaching passion to his offspring. "I am my father's son," the younger Chizik said. "I'm just not as good as he was." Chizik also is connected to the area by his marriage to Nicely's daughter, Jonna, who was in middle school when Chizik played for the Tornadoes. They formally met after she graduated from Florida State and he came home for Christmas while coaching at Middle Tennessee. The couple have twin daughters, Landry Grace and Kennedy Danielle, and a son, Cally. The latter is named after Calloway "Cally" Belcher, a player Chizik coached at Stephen F. Austin who died of a brain aneurysm. Roper, the Seminole coach, joked that he didn't know his friend was coming to town. He then proceed to recite Chizik's coaching resume, boasting of how he went 13-0 as Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2004 and won a national championship at Texas in 2005. En route to becoming Auburn's 26th head coach in December, Chizik learned under Bill Oliver at Clemson, Monte Kiffin at Central Florida and Mack Brown at Texas. He went 5-19 in two years as head coach at Iowa State. "(Auburn) caught heat for hiring him, and the people at Iowa were mad that he left," Roper noted. "He was in a no-win situation there. But I think when he hired Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator, he won over a lot of people." Chizik wasn't so famous locally when he left the area in 1988 to take a graduate assistant position at Clemson. That has changed, as evidenced by the poster of his likeness hanging on the facade of the Clearwater Pete & Shorty's this week. The poster and message on the marquee were erected by Hooters and Pete & Shorty's co-founder Ed Droste, an Iowa State graduate who got to know Chizik after he became the Cyclones coach. "I had read in one of the stories that he grew up around the corner from the original Hooters, so I wanted to look him up," Droste said. "We became friends, and he would stop in when he came to the area. "He's a great guy with a wonderful family. We're all pulling for him."
Reporter Tony Fabrizio can be reached at (813) 259-7994.