Whether Charles Barkley was right when he said “race was the No. 1 factor” why Auburn chose Gene Chizik over Turner Gill is something only a few higher-ups in the athletic department and the administration at his alma mater will ever know.
But Barkley may be giving them too much credit. Judging by the process that led to Chizik’s selection as the Tigers football coach, incompetence appears to have trumped any questions of bad intent.
“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,” Barkley said. “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.”
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs created a buzz, all right — just not the kind he hoped for. Polls show fan sentiment running 2-to-1 against his new coach, something Jacobs might have suspected after being heckled mercilessly by some Auburn fans upon returning to the university’s airport with Chizik’s deal in his briefcase.
After first declining to confirm the hiring, Jacobs later issued a statement saying, “I’m confident that Gene can build upon the foundation that has been established and make this a program that competes for championships on a consistent basis.”
Those remarks make you wonder what program Jacobs was watching.
Auburn consistently competed for championships under Tommy Tuberville, who went 85-40 in 10 seasons at the school, including a perfect season and Southeastern Conference title four years ago and six straight wins over archrival Alabama — and whose contract ran through 2013.
Maybe that’s why early reports labeled his departure a “surprise.”
But soon enough it became clear Tuberville agreed to resign in exchange for a $5 million payoff, because the university was under no obligation to buy out the deal if Tuberville quit. There was no evidence Tigers fans wanted him gone, either, since six dozen protesters marched in front of university president Jay Gogue’s mansion to protest their former coach’s ouster.
Tuberville’s 5-7 record, after all, was only his second losing season; he went 5-6 his first year in charge. And while Alabama’s resurgence under Nick Saban made some Tigers fans nervous, few see the sense in paying a proven winner $5 million to go away and hiring a one-time defensive coordinator at $2 million per year — especially since Chizik went 5-19 at Iowa State in his only stint as a head coach.
The number of black coaches running major college football programs is abysmal: four of 119, the same number as 15 years ago. Of the nearly 200 head-coaching jobs that have opened up since 1996, a dozen have gone to blacks, who make up half the players.
“They’re not getting good jobs. They’re not getting jobs where they can be successful. That’s why I wanted Turner to get the Auburn job,” Barkley said. “He could win consistently at Auburn. You can’t win consistently at New Mexico. You can’t win consistently at Kansas State. He could have won at Auburn.”
Now we’ll never know.