Long before he was Gene Chizik, the up-and-coming defensive coordinator turned national championship-winning head coach, he was Gene Chizik the third-grade teacher, an ex-football player teaching math and science and whatever else to 8 and 9 year olds.
Chizik, the defensive coordinator at North Carolina, stood on the Tar Heels’ practice fields Thursday morning about 10 when he shouted, “All right, all right – let’s go, let’s go!” Players sprinted past and Chizik exchanged small talk with them and another practice began – another opportunity to teach.
The challenge ahead of Chizik is daunting. He is charged with turning the Tar Heels’ defense, which was among the worst in school history a season ago and among the worst in the nation, into a competent unit and then, the hope is, into something much more formidable.
And all these years later, after coaching stops at Central Florida and Texas and Iowa State and two at Auburn, where Chizik coached the Tigers to a national championship in 2010, he still draws from his experience at Bauder Elementary in Seminole, Fla. The school gave Chizik his first job after he graduated from Florida in 1985.
As it turns out, teaching third grade isn’t so different from teaching a 4-3 defense, Chizik said. One might be more complex than the other, but teaching is teaching, and Chizik is using an elementary approach – day by day, lesson by lesson, one building block on top of the other – to rebuild the Tar Heels’ defense.
“Really and truly, how you break things down to a third-grader, you just move up a few years and it’s how you break them down to a college guy,” Chizik said Thursday after the Tar Heels’ fourth practice of the preseason. “It’s all the same.”
Media members often have asked Chizik and Larry Fedora, who is entering his fourth season as the Tar Heels head coach, how much improvement can be expected from the defense. Those answers and the defensive potential will remain unclear at least until UNC begins the season in Charlotte on Sept. 3 against South Carolina.
During the next four weeks there will be signs, though, of how quickly players are adapting to Chizik and what he’s teaching. Some of those signs, Fedora said, will be tangible – such as the number of missed assignments in each practice. Yet many indicators will be less measurable.
“You break it down and see if guys know what they’re doing,” Fedora said. Then if “they at least know what they’re doing, now are they playing hard? If they’re doing those two things, we’ll be OK.”
That might sound simple, or cliché, but the Tar Heels throughout last season often appeared as if they didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing defensively. Those breakdowns compounded, the long plays allowed and missed tackles added up and eventually effort became a problem, too.
Players say the attitude has improved since the arrival of Chizik and a new defensive coaching staff. Under Vic Koenning, the coach who had been most in charge of UNC’s defense during Fedora’s first three seasons, some players said confusion reigned. Amid all the defensive mistakes a season ago, for instance, rarely did it appear like the Tar Heels learned from what went wrong.
“Vic, he was a good coach but at times, the players – we just (weren’t) on the same page a lot of the time,” junior cornerback Des Lawrence said. “And now we kind of have an idea of where we’re going and I think that’s a good start for us.”
When Chizik arrived at UNC, the players he inherited knew little about him but were impressed by his resume. Chizik was considered among the best defensive coordinators in the country during his years at Texas and Auburn. And then came the national title as Auburn’s coach.
Since his arrival, UNC’s players have come to better appreciate his teaching style and organization. Jeff Schoettmer, a fifth-year senior middle linebacker, said Chizik possesses “the most intelligent football mind I’ve been around in my life.”
“Like, I’ve told this to the media a bunch of times – through the time he’s been here I’ve learned more about football (than ever),” Schoettmer said. “About the game, about what my role and responsibility is, about how to read the offense, how to read the linemen, how to read the running backs, how to read coverages, routes.
“Just listening to him day in and day out, you can pick up something every day.”
Like a lot of coaches, Chizik is known for his organizational skills and attention to details. On a tall bookshelf in his office he keeps practice reports and game plans from his tenure at Texas and Auburn.
Fedora said Chizik’s teaching style comes from this adherence to details and his ability to imprint that on his players. Chizik’s teaching methods have been shaped during his nearly 30 years of instructing young men to act as one.
“It’s very organized, it’s very detailed,” Fedora said of Chizik’s teaching style. “He doesn’t want to speed it up, he doesn’t want to slow it down. This is what we do on this day, this is what we get done – whether we’re ahead or not, this is what we’re focusing on.”
When Chizik studied the work he’d done during spring practice, he said he realized he had installed about 75 percent of his defense. To this point in preseason practice, he said, “There’s been nothing new.”
Soon, though, that review will be over, and it will be time to complete the defensive installation and increase the pace.
UNC’s defense often failed last season in part because of a communication breakdown between the coaches and the players. At some point that message was getting lost, which eroded the self confidence among players and coaches – and confidence in each other. If the defense succeeds in Chizik’s first season, it likely will be because players grasp his message.
“We’re very big on exactly how we teach them,” Chizik said. “We’re very big on the exact verbiage of how we say it. It’s the economy of words – how can I get a point across to you in as little words as possible and you go, ‘Oh OK – I get that.’ And that really does stem from my education background.
“Because coaching is teaching. If you can’t teach, you can’t coach.”