CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There are two things immediately apparent about Gene Chizik when you visit him in his Carolina blue surroundings at North Carolina’s Kenan Football Complex. One, this is clearly a man who is relaxed and content with his current situation. And, two, he doesn’t mind telling it like it is.
Both are likely a byproduct of the two years he spent outside the game he loves. Before returning to college football as North Carolina’s defensive coordinator in 2015, the former Auburn head coach worked for two years as a football analyst for radio and television. In that span, Chizik learned to call ‘em like he sees ‘em. Meanwhile, the year back in the game was invigorating and inspiring for Chizik. The fact that the Tar Heels won a school-record 11 football games didn’t hurt either.
“I love it. I love the challenge,” said Chizik, leaning back in the leather chair of his spacious fourth-floor office overlooking the stadium. “I love coming in and trying to establish a whole new foundation and a whole new set of beliefs. And I craved that in the two years that I didn’t have it. That’s why I came back, it’s really that simple.”
It’s not like he had to. Chizik made a lot of money in the game, especially during the four-year stretch he served as Auburn’s head coach. In fact, he was only 17 months removed from signing a new contract with the Tigers when he was fired following the 2012 season.
As a result, until the end of this month, Chizik has continued to receive monthly checks of $209,000 apiece from Auburn. That amount has been prorated from the $700,000-a-year salary Chizik receives now from the Tar Heels to coordinate their defense.
But Chizik insists money is not his motivation. He said he had many opportunities to return to football during his two-year hiatus, some of which may have paid him even more than North Carolina has. He said it was the intangibles that lured him to Chapel Hill.
“Here’s the thing for me now: Every decision I make from here on out, because of where I am in my career and my life, is going to be a quality-of-life decision,” said Chizik, who has a son and twin daughters with wife Jonna. “It’s not going to be about money. It’s not going to be about climbing the ladder. It’s going to be about me presenting myself and my family with a situation that’s fun, that I enjoy. I don’t have to do this and I’m blessed to be in that position. I choose to do it. When I’m not happy and I feel like I’m at the end, I’ll ride off into the sunset.”
Chizik found plenty about which to be happy this past season with the Tar Heels. He took over a moribund defense that the year before was the fourth-worst among Power 5 conference teams, giving up a staggering 497 yards per game. Chizik’s crew had that number below 400 before getting lit up by two of the best offenses in football — Clemson and Baylor — in the final two games of season.
Still, the final tally of 435.9 yards and 24.5 points represented marked improvement. And they scored 111 points off turnovers. It’s a trend the Tar Heels are confident they can build on.
“Gene delivered on the promises that everybody was making when he came,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora told reporters earlier this year. “All the kids out there see that. They see the improvement. They’re like, ‘Well OK, let’s make the same improvement next year.’”
Seven starters return on the defense, including three-quarters of the defensive line and three-quarters of the secondary. Meanwhile, 16 of UNC’s incoming recruits play on that side of the ball. So shortcomings are continuing to be addressed.
Meanwhile, there is a strong belief in Chizik inside the Tar Heels’ defensive meeting room. While Chizik was only 38-38 overall as a head coach, that 14-0 national championship season with Auburn still carries a lot of weight with his charges.
“Whenever he walks in the room, you know you have to lock in and focus and get serious,” said Mikey Bart, a senior defensive end from Buford. “… People didn’t respect (the previous defensive coordinator) like they do Coach Chizik and didn’t want to play for him. We want to play for Coach Chizik. He gets a bunch of respect. Coach Chizik is definitely working out.”
Chizik said he’s not necessarily out to prove anything at North Carolina. He’s simply there to do the work, enjoy the process and build new relationships.
“I’ve done everything that you can do in this business at one point or another,” Chizik said. “But I love it. I love the everyday grind. I love the influence that we all as coaches have on young guys. I missed that. I didn’t have that, and I had it for 27 straight years. And so, those are the things that I missed.”
His friendship with the easy-going Fedora is another benefit. Though the two had never coached together until this current stint, they have been in a lot of the same coaching circles over the years. They first met when Chizik was at Stephen F. Austin and Fedora was at Baylor in the early 1990s
“I’ve always had a high level of respect for him,” Chizik said. “We’ve either played against each other or crossed paths in other ways. But I just felt like the circumstances here were really good in terms of us being able to come in as a new defensive staff and make a difference here. It was a challenge, and I wanted a challenge.”
More challenges await Chizik and the Tar Heels this season, starting with the season opener against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Classic at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome on Sept. 3. The Bulldogs represent a difficult task on several levels. Not only is it the first game of the season under a new head coach, but also a new offensive coordinator, questions at quarterback and uncertainty about the status of tailback Nick Chubb.
Chizik believes he’ll have at least some idea what Georgia’s offense might look like.
“The good news is we played Jim Chaney last year at Pitt,” said Chizik, whose defense gave up 415 yards but won 26-19. “So at least we have a little bit of knowledge. Now how that changes based on the personnel that they have, I don’t know. And then I’m sure Kirby’s going to do defensively the things they’ve done when he was Alabama. I assume Jim Chaney’s going to do what Jim Chaney’s always done when he’s been at Arkansas or Tennessee or Pitt or wherever he’s been.”
It’s the second consecutive year the Tar Heels have opened against an SEC team in a neutral site game. They lost to South Carolina 17-13 last year in Charlotte.
“I love it. It’s a great way to open a season,” he said. “It’s two great conferences, it’s going to be right in the heart of where both of us recruit. I think it’s going to be a great game.”
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