Chizik’s Choice: Family over football after 2 years away
Gene Chizik was walking out to practice last August when he noticed the overstuffed cars being unloaded by wide-eyed teenagers and their parents. The freshmen were moving into the dorms at the University of North Carolina.
That’s when it hit him: His twin daughters would be doing the same thing at Auburn soon and he would not be there.
“It was tough,” Chizik said. “I remember going out to practice and just being out of sorts a little bit because I was just thinking to myself: Holy cow, I’m not there to help. Most parents are going to help their kids move to college.”
After two years of living and working in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while his wife and three children were in Auburn, Alabama, Chizik quit his job and returned home to be a full-time dad and husband. The long-distance relationship he had with his family is not uncommon among college football coaches as they job hop through a career with little security.
For Chizik, who won a national championship as Auburn’s head coach in 2010 and has made millions of dollars, the choice between career and family became clear because it was, indeed, a choice.
“I’m past the point where I have to put food on the table for my family,” Chizik said. “I’ve been blessed beyond belief. I’m financially in a place where I feel like I have options. So for me to (coach) because I love it and because that’s what I do and I love doing it versus do I love it more than my family? My son? My daughters? My wife? You really got to ask yourself those hard questions and the answer is simply: No, I don’t.”
From 1988-2008, Chizik had eight jobs and was never at one school for more than five years.
When Chizik returned to Auburn as head coach in 2009 — he had been an assistant there from 2002-04 — he and his wife, Jonna, made a decision prompted by a question from his twin daughters: “Where are we from?”
“Because they could tell you where they were born, but they couldn’t tell you where they’re from because we moved so much,” he said. “I didn’t have an answer for them.”
The Chiziks decided the answer would be Auburn. This would be where their children would go to high school and establish roots.
Then, Auburn went 0-8 in Southeastern Conference play in 2012 and Chizik was fired with three years left on his contract. The buyout was $7.5 million.
Chizik spent two seasons away from coaching, doing television and radio, occasionally visiting NFL and college teams, but mostly being a fully engaged father. He attended his kids’ sporting events, played chauffeur and got to know the names of their friends.
“I never knew how much I wasn’t there until I was there every day,” Chizik said.
When North Carolina coach Larry Fedora called with an offer to become the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator in 2015, Chizik at first turned it down. Fedora took another crack and Chizik agreed, but he would be moving on his own. Chizik got a one-bedroom apartment about 10 minutes from the office and near a mall with a movie theater and steakhouse. Your basic bachelor’s life.
“I’m not sure my assistants really liked it because they knew I didn’t have anything to go home to, so I kept them over there a lot of hours,” Chizik said.
Spending several months living hundreds of miles away from the wife and kids is a fairly common part of life as a college football coach. Most hiring is done from December through February. Instead of scooping up the whole family in the middle of a school year, coaches typically set up shop in the new location on their own and the rest of the family joins when school lets out.
Auburn offensive line coach Herb Hand spent 2½ years living apart from his wife and children after he went from Vanderbilt to Penn State with head coach James Franklin. Hand, like Chizik, wanted his two oldest children to finish high school in Nashville. During two seasons working in State College, Hand rented a house. The first year, one of his housemates was Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who had also left his family behind in Nashville when he followed Franklin from Vanderbilt to Penn State.
“There was another bedroom upstairs and any time another transitional coach would come in, they would live in my house for however long until they got their own place,” Hand said. “It was almost like a coaches’ halfway house.”
The Chiziks had always tried to avoid those long periods apart when Gene changed jobs.
Jonna Chizik is the daughter of a high school football coach. That helped prepare her for a life of sudden change.
Still, there is a big difference between having dad come home after everyone has gone to bed and seeing him once every few weeks because he is 430 miles away.
“It was difficult,” Jonna said. “I’m not going to candy-coat it. When you look at it from the vantage point of the kids’ perspective, we started to realize we can’t get this time back.”
The tipping point came last year when their son, Cally, injured his neck in football practice. “It could have been catastrophic,” Jonna Chizik said.
“Those are the times when, look my wife did a great job handling everything, but it’s different when your dad does this for a living,” Gene Chizik said. “It’s different when you can sit down with your son face to face and tell him what he needs to hear versus you doing it over the phone.”
That emergency came shortly after Chizik’s move-in day moment and made him realize a change might be in order.
The family talked about it and prayed about it. It was time for Dad to come home.
Gene Chizik has returned to a newly built house he had never truly lived in. He has re-decorated his office, gotten into a daily workout routine and immersed himself in the kids’ activities such as parents’ day at the sorority house and baseball games.
He owns three restaurants and commercial property. He would like to get back in TV or radio to stay close to the game and plans to do some clinics and consultation. At 55, he does not consider himself retired from coaching.
“I’ve got a lot of things going and I feel really good about it,” Chizik said. “However, I will make this inclusion. I am sitting on my back porch on hole 10 of the golf course enjoying watching these people putt.”
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