North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had wanted to work with Gene Chizik for a while now after long admiring the way his defenses played, and now that opportunity has arrived.
UNC formally announced the hiring of Chizik, the former head coach at Iowa State and Auburn, as the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator – a hire that had been reported weeks ago.
Chizik had been viewed as one of the best available defensive coaches for hire at the major college football level, though his arrival at UNC comes with questions that Fedora addressed unprompted during a recent interview with The News & Observer.
“Just like everybody, we vetted him completely and are very comfortable with where we’re at,” Fedora said of Chizik, who was accused of committing major NCAA violations at Auburn. “I mean, there were some unsubstantiated allegations out there about him and what’s happened in the past.”
Chizik led Auburn to the 2010 national championship but was fired two seasons later after the Tigers went 3-9. Months after his dismissal Selena Roberts, a former writer for The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, reported that Auburn committed several NCAA violations under Chizik’s watch.
Several former Tigers players told Roberts, among other things, that during Chizik’s tenure Auburn changed grades to keep players eligible, and that the school offered thousands of dollars in effort to keep potential NFL draft picks from leaving school.
In a statement released through his attorney, Chizik denied the allegations.
“During my time as Auburn’s head coach, I never authorized, instructed or directed anyone to change any player’s grade or provide any type of illegal payment to any student-athlete,” Chizik said.
Fedora said UNC investigated Chizik’s past and found no reason to believe the allegations were true. The university for years has been mired in academic and athletic scandals that have damaged UNC’s reputation and cost millions. Meanwhile, the NCAA continues to investigate how a long-running scheme of African Studies paper classes benefited athletes.
Chizik’s hire, then, is likely to be scrutinized by critics and university supporters alike who have grown tired of scandal and the perception that athletics has too much influence at the university.
“The NCAA, I know, reviewed all those allegations and couldn’t substantiate any of it,” Fedora said of Chizik. “And so we’re very comfortable with his background and where he’s at.”
The statement UNC released on Monday that announced Chizik’s hire emphasized the university’s commitment to academics, and Chizik’s commitment to what he described in the statement as “the student-athlete experience.”
UNC highlighted Auburn’s NCAA Academic Progress Rate scores during Chizik’s tenure there. Auburn finished with an APR of at least 970 out of a possible 1,000 in three of Chizik’s four seasons, and in his third season the football team had an APR of 985.
“I’m thrilled to join Coach Fedora’s staff and I appreciate the trust he and athletic director Bubba Cunningham have in me,” Chizik said in the statement.
On the field, Chizik faces a formidable rebuilding job. The Tar Heels’ defense was among the worst in the country and in the school’s history last season.
UNC allowed an average of nearly 500 yards per game last season, and six times it surrendered at least 40 points. The Tar Heels ran a 4-2-5 defense – four linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs – under Vic Koenning, who was the assistant coach most responsible for leading the defense.
Chizik will bring a more conventional 4-3 defense to Chapel Hill. When he was a defensive coordinator at Auburn from 2002-03, his defenses were among the best in the nation.
The transition from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 could be a difficult one, especially given that UNC during the past three years has recruited personnel for a different scheme. The first step, Fedora said, will be for Chizik and his defensive assistants to become comfortable with the scheme.
Fedora said he wasn’t ready to announce further changes on UNC’s defensive coaching staff, but some changes in personnel are likely.
“In the short term we want to make sure our staff, especially our defensive staff, gets on the same page,” Fedora said. “Because we’re running a new defense. So we’ve got to make sure our staff gets on the same page first before we start giving it to the players.”
Fedora and Chizik have never worked together but they do share a history. They competed against each other in the late 1990s when Chizik was the defensive coordinator at Central Florida while Fedora was the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State.
Fedora then moved on to the same role at Florida, where he competed against Chizik’s defenses at Auburn. When Fedora was at Oklahoma State in the mid-2000s, Chizik led the defense at Texas.
“And so I competed against him in three different leagues,” Fedora said. “And I had a tremendous amount of respect for him and what he accomplished.”
When Fedora and Koenning parted ways, Chizik became Fedora’s top choice to lead UNC’s defense. Word of Chizik’s hire leaked weeks ago, but the university spent no shortage of time vetting the hire before finally making it official on Monday.
“I wouldn’t say it was a hurdle,” Fedora said of questions about Chizik’s past, and the allegations of violations at Auburn. “I just think it was something that we were going to definitely check out and make sure we were comfortable with.
“We’re comfortable that they were, in fact, just allegations. Allegations that have been investigated and reviewed and dismissed by the NCAA.”