If you believe the speculation, Gene Chizik recently could have been a leading candidate to become the head coach at East Carolina. Chizik offered a wry smile last week after a North Carolina football practice when asked whether he might have been interested.
“Rumors, rumors, rumors,” he said, before adding that he doesn’t “really like to discuss any of that.”
With what Chizik accomplished during his first season as the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator it wouldn’t have been surprising if schools with head coaching vacancies targeted him. Nonetheless, the coaching carousel has slowed down, for now, with Chizik planning his future at UNC.
He sounded happy about it after one of the Tar Heels’ final on-campus practices of the season, before UNC travels to Orlando to begin on-site preparations for its Dec. 29 game against Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
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“I’m very happy here and it’s been a great ride,” Chizik said. “I want to finish everything out here.”
Those are likely comforting words for UNC coach Larry Fedora, who is in the market for a new offensive coordinator. Whomever Fedora hires for that role, though, will be charged with leading an offense that Fedora developed himself.
I love these kids. I love coaching these guys. I love working with Larry. I love working with his staff and, yes, I’m extremely happy.
For Fedora, finding the right fit with a defensive coordinator is a more arduous task. As evidenced by the struggles during the first three years of Fedora’s tenure when Vic Koenning led the defense with mixed results. Until, that is, those results turned plain bad in Koenning’s final season in 2014.
That led to Koenning’s dismissal and the hiring of Chizik – and with it the hiring of a completely new staff of defensive assistant coaches. In the months after Chizik’s arrival, both Chizik and Fedora faced questions that became familiar: How much improvement was possible? How much realistic?
Answers began to come as the season progressed. The Tar Heels held six of their first seven opponents to fewer than 400 yards of offense, something they did twice all of last season.
UNC stopped allowing an abundance of long, game-changing plays, and the Tar Heels in their first eight games allowed 20 or more points only once. By comparison, they allowed at least 20 points in every game a season ago.
UNC did so well defensively, relative to the modest expectations entering the season, that Chizik became a finalist for the Frank Broyles Award, which is given to the nation’s top assistant coach. Yet amid the improvement and the accolades a fear began to emerge, too: Had UNC been too good?
Had the improvement on defense been so drastic, the turnaround so good, to entice other schools to take notice and offer Chizik a chance to leave? Perhaps so. Regardless, though, he’s staying.
The head coaching job at ECU, which eventually hired Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery to replace Ruffin McNeill, was the most prominent one linked to Chizik. And if ECU did want Chizik, it likely wasn’t the only school to express interest.
“I don’t discuss all those different opportunities that have presented themselves to myself,” Chizik said.
He was happy, though, to discuss how, well, happy he is in Chapel Hill. Before the season began Chizik, whose head coaching tenure at Auburn ended poorly and in ugly fashion, said he chose to resume his coaching career at UNC for a few specific reasons.
He liked the environment of Chapel Hill. The chance to work with Fedora intrigued him. Chizik described UNC as a perfect fit for him.
Had he left after only one season it would have been difficult to view Chizik’s tenure at UNC as anything other than something he used as a springboard. And it may still prove to be that. Yet Chizik clearly isn’t in a rush, either.
“I love these kids,” he said. “I love coaching these guys. I love working with Larry. I love working with his staff and, yes, I’m extremely happy.”
The feeling has to be mutual, after what Chizik accomplished in his first season. In one year, UNC’s defense went from one of the worst in school history to perhaps the nation’s most improved.
The Tar Heels’ performance earned Chizik national attention in his first season back after a two-year break from coaching. It likely earned him an opportunity or two, if he wanted it, to become a head coach again.
For now, though, Chizik is where he wants to be.