Gene Chizik walked away from his defensive coordinator job at North Carolina earlier this month to spend more time with his family… and that wasn’t a euphemism for something else. Chizik was in a job he loved, a job that wanted him back for a third season, and walked away by his own volition to spend more time with his family.
Chizik told the Audible podcast he promised his three children when they moved back to Auburn after the 2008 season (he was previously the Tigers’ defensive coordinator from 2002-04) that this would be their last move. He was fired after the 2012 season and kept his promise. Chizik worked in media for two seasons, then spent the past two in Chapel Hill. His family remained in Auburn, the first place, as Chizik said, he told his kids they could feel like they were truly “from.”
And now, after two seasons, Chizik decided to hang up his visor to return home and be a full-time dad.
Of course, this is a highly-privileged position in which Chizik finds himself. Still only 55, he’s made enough to where he doesn’t have to work again if he so chooses. His buyout from the Auburn firing was a reported $7.5 million alone.
“The guys that I’m closest with have called or texted me and said, ‘I can’t wait until I’m in the position to make the same decision.’… I try to tell people all the time: There’s a huge distinction between who you are and what you do,” Chizik said. “I spoke to the team in a team meeting the other night and I wanted to address them and tell them why I was not going to be at North Carolina next year and I said, ‘Guys, I want you to understand this about me, you’ve been around me for two years and you probably have figured it out, but coaching football is what I do, it’s not who I am.’ I said, I’m a husband and a father. Look, there’s nobody out there that’s going to be more competitive, there’s nobody in this profession where football is more important to them than it is to me. There was nobody that wanted to be better at what they did than me. There were people that wanted to be as good, but there was nobody better. But at some point you draw the line between what you do and who you are. And I know who I am.'”
Chizik also shared a bit of advice for young coaches on how to succeed in coaching while not falling behind at home.
“When you’ve got three hours off, don’t go play golf. Go be with your kids,” he said. “I tell young coaches that all the time. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to put food on your table, to be great at your craft. But that’s not 24/7. There’s windows in there where you have opportunities — don’t go blow those opportunities. Make sure your heart’s right and you go do the things that (are) right, and that is be with your family whenever you can and be present whenever you can. Don’t go home and pick up the clicker, sit down in front of your TV and not pay attention to anybody. You’re home but you’re not home.
“Those are the things that I always tell young coaches. I had a guy tell me a long time ago, he was in the coaching profession, became a head coach when he was 29. He said, ‘Gene, I regret it because one day my wife pulled out a picture of Halloween. I looked at that picture and I said, “Who is that?” My wife said to me, “That’s your daughter.”‘ And he said, ‘I’ve always regretted that.’ That was a story that stuck with me from the time I was a young guy in my 30’s and I’ve tried to live by that the best I can.”
Chizik also briefly touched on his final season at Auburn and what it was like living in a fishbowl as the shiniest goldfish in the mist of a 3-9 season. At one point, Chizik said, he went to his kids’ schools and instructed the administrators to keep a special eye on any children of Auburn football staffers.
“I went there and I had a meeting with them and I told them, ‘That is absolutely not going to be tolerated.’ And they were phenomenal about it. (Kids) don’t sign up for that and that’s what makes it really tough,” he said. “We understand that’s how football works. A 9-year-old or a 13-year-old, they don’t understand that. And it’s really, really difficult.”
The Chizik family survived that time and now embrace the town to the point where his twin daughters are now freshmen at Auburn.
Chizik said the hardest part of his decision was not knowing what’s next. He may get back into the game down the road… or he may not. Either way, he said taking the North Carolina defensive coordinator job was the right decision at that time, and walking away from that job at this time is also the right call.
“Football coaching is what I do. If I want to get back into it two years from now, I can get back into it. But at this particular time there was no question what I needed to do for me to never, ever look back on anything and have any regrets.”