Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s High Profile on David Bazzel

Part man, part tornado, Bazzel has created the state's largest touchdown club and so much more...
Part man, part tornado, Bazzel has created the state’s largest touchdown club and so much more… Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

I recently had the pleasure of writing a biographical feature on David Bazzel, one of the most well known personalities in Arkansas sport media and certainly its most versatile. “The Baz” has dabbled in everything from sports medicine and fitness column writing to sports anchoring and morning talk show hosting. In recent years, though, his focus has increasingly shifted to creating traditions – whether in the form of new chants, new trophies or Razorback game-day ceremonies. The former Razorback linebacker’s most significant creation, on a national scale, is the Broyles Award which for the last 17 years has been honoring the legacy of Razorback don Frank Broyles. Bazzel proposed the award in 1996, but he didn’t immediately find receptive ground:

At first, Broyles was hesitant. He brought in longtime assistant Wilson Matthews to blitz Bazzel. “They were both going to make me prove I was confident in what I was doing,” Bazzel recalled. “They wanted to hear, ‘How are you going to execute this? What are the steps? How are you going to get your finances?’”

That last part proved to be tricky. Bazzel didn’t yet have sponsors, and it was difficult to find donors because Broyles had asked that he not take money that would have otherwise been donated to the University of Arkansas’ Razorback Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising arm of Arkansas athletics.

Bazzel once asked for support from a local company president: “He said, ‘Well I can either give you a check for $75,000 or I’m going to give Coach Broyles a check for $75,000. What do you think ?’”

In 1996, Bazzel borrowed about $100,000 from Capital Bank to launch the award. To make everything in the event first class – from the banquet to accommodations for the five major-college assistant coach nominees and their families – the expense was worth it, he said.

“It’s the names on these things. You can’t just walk out there with a big trophy and then not run [the show] well.”

Not all of Baz’s ideas have taken off. Some have sputtered after lift off, yawed a bit, then buried their noses into the ground. To wit:

[In 1996] he wanted to augment the “Hog Call” with a new chant used when the Razorbacks defense really needed to make a stop.

The “Root Hog” was meant to evoke the sound of a pig digging into the ground with its nose. “It almost sounds like a guttural ‘boo’ but it’s a root-root,” Bazzel recalls.

During halftime of a home Razorbacks basketball game, Bazzel made an “awkward” debut with the chant, according to one online message. “He’s wearing a leather jacket as he explains how you do the cheer,” writes H-O-double G on Hogville.net. “Then right before he starts the cheer, he stops and takes off his jacket, to which he had on a cut-off sleeve muscle shirt … and then he says, ‘Now I know not everyone here has guns like ol Bazzel.’”

Reminded of this event, Bazzel laughs. “Who knows, I might have said something like that. Anything to get their attention at halftime.”

“That was strictly for impact purposes.”

Check out the entire feature in today’s High Profile section in the Democrat-Gazette. Or click here [paywall].

One entertaining story I wasn’t able to include in the piece was Bazzel’s ill-fated stab at live theater in the fall of 1998. “What!?!” you may very well be asking right now.  This is just about the same reaction Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummet had then:

In the category of things you couldn’t make up because no one would believe them, we now have “Football, Biceps, Biscuits and Gravy: Confessions of a Razorback,” the one-man stage show of this same finely sculpted Florida refugee who made all those tackles… Twelve bucks will get you in for this 70-minute show.

I called David and asked what in tarnation this was all about: self-promotion born in ego of gargantuan and breath-taking proportion or a brave and adventurous spirit?  “I hope it’s the latter,” he said. “You know, this time last year I was wrestling around in the woods outside Greenbrier with a wild Russian boar. By comparison this seems tame.”

Advance ticket sales for the play, slated for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, were so bad Bazzel cancelled it before the first show. Bazzel knew he was in trouble when Houston Nutt’s Arkansas coaching debut at home didn’t even sell out that weekend. “You win some, you lose some,” Bazzel told the paper, adding he has “no problem eating a little humble pie.”

I am of the mind that the screenplay for “Football, Biceps, Biscuits and Gravy: Confessions of a Razorback” may be the single most interesting/hilarious unpublished piece of work in late 20th century Arkansas sports history. I don’t care what the play is actually about – with a title like that it can’t be boring. So,  where might this literary grail filled with porcine gravy reside nowadays? Bazzel’s not sure – the file may possibly still be on this computer, and a paper version may still be floating around his condo near Chenal Promenade in Little Rock.

I hope once he slows down creating all these national awards he can spare a few hours looking for it.

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QB Fred Marshall Almost Quit On Frank Broyles, Imperiling Arkansas’ 1964 National Championship

From mmbolding.com
From mmbolding.com

Arkansas’ starting quarterback on its 1964 national title team nearly skipped out on that entire season. In 1963, Fred Marshall was a fourth-year junior who had bided his time and was ready to take the reins as Hogs’ full-time quarterback. When he didn’t, he visited head coach Frank Broyles in his office with two games left in the season and told him he’d had enough. “I told him I wasn’t coming back the following year because I thought he’d done me wrong. I was saying, in essence, ‘Coach, you messed up and I’m pissed about it.'”

Broyles didn’t act defensive, Marshall recalled. Broyles heard Marshall out. And he tried to explain to him his reasoning.

The winter before, quarterback Billy Gray had starred in the Sugar Bowl and Arkansas coaches assumed he would be the starting quarterback the following fall. That season great things were expected of the Hogs, which had finished in the AP Top 10 for four consecutive years and entered the fall as conference favorites. Problem was, Gray didn’t want to play quarterback. He wanted to stick to cornerback on defense (this was the era of two-way players). So Marshall goes in, but it didn’t help his cause that  in the 1963 conference opener he threw three passes that should have been intercepted.

So the baton was passed around.  “I start the season as the starter and next thing I know, I’m not starting any longer,” Marshall said in August, 2o13 interview. “Billy Gray’s starting and Billy Gray takes his turn and lo and behold he joins me over on the bench. And now we got Jon Brittenum starting.” It went on like this through the first eight games of the season as Arkansas fell to a 4-4 record. Gray and Brittenum weren’t as explosive in terms of passing as anticipated. Marshall, more of a running, ball-control type of quarterback, recalled being told by Broyles that “we can’t take the ball and just grind it down the field. We’ve got to have somebody who can make the big plays.” That wasn’t happening as much as expected, though, and Marshall heard about it: “I had people all over the state telling me they didn’t understand why I wasn’t playing. To a lot of people it was clear that I should have been playing.”

With Gray and Brittenum both returning the next year, and Marshall stuck as the third stringer, he decided he’d had enough. “I wasn’t gonna ride the bench for another year,” Marshall said. He was only three or six hours away from graduating at that point and moving on with his life. He had a wife and eight-month-old son to support. “I was going to get into the workforce and do my thing. [Pro] football was not part of my future.”

He vented to Broyles after a 7-0 road loss to Rice, but added that he didn’t intend to stop playing hard for the team for the remainder of the season. During the next game, at SMU, Broyles put in Marshall early but the team still lost 14-7. That didn’t dissuade Broyles. He approached Marshall in the locker room. “If you come back next year, you’ll be my starting quarterback,” Marshall recalled being told. Broyles admitted he’d made a mistake and was going to start him the next game against Texas Tech.  “I look back and wish we’d stuck with Fred in ’63,” Broyles recalled in his autobiography “Hog Wild.” “Instead of 5-5, we might have won eight or nine games.”

Marshall started the season finale at home against Texas Tech [ in the only SWC game played the day after Kennedy was assassinated] and helped the Hogs get out to a 20-0 start. Gray jumped in for Marshall in the second period after a running play in which he hit a defender head on. “As we call it in football language, he got his ‘bell rung,'” Arkansas Gazette writer Orville Henry wrote after the game. “I got a little dazed and nauseated, but I was all right by the middle of the second half,” Marshall told the Gazette.

The Hogs held on for a 27-20 win – the first of what would be 22 straight wins. Marshall would go on to be the starting quarterback the following season in which the Hogs went undefeated and clinched the national title with a 10-7 win over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. Marshall engineered the crucial game-winning drive in the fourth quarter and got co-MVP honors along with linebacker Ronnie Caveness. The entire season, under the steady leadership of Marshall and an elite defense, Arkansas gave up only six turnovers.

Would Arkansas have  won its lone national title had Marshall quit the previous winter? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s a credit to Broyles’ ability to listen and admit mistakes that Arkansas fans never had to find out.

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Ken Hatfield on Stanford, Recruiting Texas and Bill Parcells’ Secret Sauce

ken hatfield
Hatfield coached the Hogs 1984-1989. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

I just got off the phone with Ken Hatfield, the most winning Razorback football coach by percentage, for a High Profile feature I’m writing on David Bazzel for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I couldn’t help but also ask Hatfield some side questions about college football’s biggest game last week and the current state of the Hogs. Specifically, I was curious as to what he thought of grind-it-out Stanford’s recent domination over Oregon and how that could play into the Razorbacks’ future.

“To be a champion, you’ve got to do one of two things to be successful,” Hatfield said. “You got to do things better than anyone else or you got to do things different than anyone else … like in the days that Texas ran the wishbone. The teams trying to stop it had a hard time trying to stop it on their own practice field, so one year every team in the Southwest conference ran their own version of the wishbone. They had to do it so they could figure out how to stop [the wishbone] and then they still couldn’t stop it because Texas had better players and executed it better.”

So, the other SWC teams went another direction. “That’s when you had Hayden Fry and some other people come in with a single wide receiver and do different other things.” Stanford has been able to capitalize on its enduring reputation for ball-control offenses, Hatfield said. “They have been able to recruit people that style of offense from around the nation because Stanford has such a national draw, and a lot of the things that they were doing, nobody else was recruiting those players for.”

Bill Parcells once told Hatfield the winning formula was similar in the NFL: “You’ve got to take the ball over when there’s four minutes left in the game. You’ve got to run the clock out when the other team knows you’re going to run every play … that other team is paying $30 million for that quarterback for that two-minute offense and the only way you’re going to defeat him is by keeping him on the bench. So to win you’ve got to be able to run the football when the other team is ganging up on the line of scrimmage and knows you’re going to do it. If it works for the NFL, it ought to work good college teams too.”

OK, bear with me: I’m now putting on my referring-to-myself-in-third-person socks:

Demirel: Do you think to a certain extent Stanford’s success against a powerful hurry up offense provides a blueprint for Arkansas success going forward in the SEC?

Hatfield: “The only difference you have is that you got a couple teams in the SEC that are already doing the Stanford thing … then you get back to trying to do something better than them.” For Bielema and his staff, the biggest priority is signing the right players – especially on the lines, he added.

Demirel: Do you think that Arkansas will be able to do better at recruiting when LSU, Alabama and now Texas A&M are closer to the hot spots where so many of these recruits live?

Hatfield: “Certainly, it’s a real big challenge … I would think one of the great assets we have right now is to really to go back in and recruit Texas extremely hard, the way we did. Because, for about 18 years there, nobody in Texas cared about the SEC because it wasn’t in the paper, they never covered it. But now, with A&M coming into the league and the great success they’ve had in two years, every paper in Texas everyday mentions the SEC. Every newspaper. So I think you get a chance of knowing the SEC is important in Texas and and we’re so close to it, where you could get a lot of players where their families could come and see it.”

Demirel: But A&M’s success makes that tougher, as does Baylor’s recent success as well.

Hatfield: “Oh, there’s no doubt about it … while Baylor’s good there, there’s no doubt about it, there’s still some mystique about playing in the SEC. And if you’re a Texas player who’s going to play in the SEC against the great competition you’re going to have, you’ve either got to go to A&M or go to Arkansas. LSU’s going to get all their players from Louisiana – a few from Alabama, a few from Texas – but they’re gonna get them from there. But for a great Texas player who wants to play in the SEC and still wants to be close to home, you’ve got A&M and Arkansas.”

Demirel: It’ll be interesting to see if Arkansas ramps it up there. Also, although Arkansas has tried to develop recruiting in Florida before, it seems like Bielema and some of his assistants are hitting it extremely hard. It’ll be interesting to see if they can make Florida more of a recruiting base than ever have before.

Hatfield: “… You’ve always got to figure out in recruiting what’s your advantage. The one thing I believed we had for a long time which was great in Arkansas was the ability to bring kids in here in redshirt them – let them grow up, and enjoy the beauty of the state and the beauty of the fans, maybe get to be a year or two older than other people too. Almost all of the players we had were redshirted.”

“I mean, you had Steve Atwater and number one [round] draft pick, you had Wayne Martin, a [round] one draft pick, you had Quinn Grovey, one of the greatest quarterbacks we ever had. All of them were redshirted. None of them played as [true] freshmen and they were all great talents. Those extra years here really made a difference both in helping them get a degree and also in their physical development. So I wouldn’t give up on that formula either. Do something different Arkansas, maybe that other people aren’t doing. You just got to do whatever you believe in and I think that Beliema will do whatever he believes in.”

Mark Pierce Thriving in Prison, His Mother Says

pierce2

Life doesn’t slow down for anybody and this autumn, much to my concern, it has actually seemed to speed up. For months, my wife essentially worked another full-time job studying for her medical board exams. At the same time, she and I have been discussing job offers she received to start her career as a pediatrician. AND we have a very active 14-month-old daughter.

Still, I sometimes think about an article I wrote in August about former Razorback football star Mark Pierce, who has been serving a 15-year prison sentence for a 2008 drunk-driving accident that killed another man. In the article, I had to rely on news accounts to string together Mark’s story (no phone interviews were allowed.) I wasn’t able to make the trip in person to his east Texas max security prison, and I wasn’t about to break out some pen and parchment.

So I filed the story with Sporting Life Arkansas, some people read it and thankfully liked it, but still I knew nothing more about Mark’s fate than what I had found through Google. Until late September, when this email – from Mark’s mother – arrived:

Mr. Demirel,

Thank you for article you wrote about Mark. As a mother it was extremely difficult to see his life once again all over the net but the article was honest and sincere. I wanted to let you know, Mark is doing very well at the Beto Unit. The accident changed Marks life. He never thought anything like that could ever happen to him.

Mark had turned his life around. He had a great job that he loved with International Paper in Vicksburg, Mississippi, bought a home, fell in love and got married May 23, 2007. On May 9, 2008 he had a baby boy. He came home for Christmas where he went golfing with his brother and uncle. He had too much to drink and left the golf course and had a tragic accident.

Mark refused to have a trial. He said he was guilty, pled guilty and expected to take his punishment. He’s been in the Beto Unit for the past 3 years and done very well. December 2012 he received a Paralegal Certification from the U.S. Career Institute with a grade of 98%. February 2013 he received his certification in Electronics Technology from Trinity Valley Community College with a 4.0. In December 2013 he will graduate with his Associates in Business- Management from Trinity Valley Community College and has maintained a 4.0 and is on the President’s Honor List.

He will be transferring to the Hughes Unit outside of Waco, TX at the end of the year to continue his education working on his Bachelor of Science in Business Management. I pray that he will use what has happened to him to help others from making the same mistakes he’s made. His first choice for his future was to pursue an education in Psychology and become a Youth Counselor. Unfortunately, that degree program is only offered in Houston, Texas and I didn’t want him to be that far away.

Mark’s mother, Debra, goes on to tell me how to contact Mark – his snail mail address and a new cyber method, but I haven’t written him yet. If I did, I would ask him if he even likes football anymore, who his mentors are and if he plans to have anything to do with the Razorback program when he gets out. It’s obvious that he’s been able to succeed in a very regimented culture, but how does he plan to keep that kind of structure when one day he walks free again?  Perhaps assimilating into society after spending years in prison is as big of a shock and challenge as entering prison in the first place.

I won’t ask Mark these questions now. I have to prepare for a 5-day trip to Houston and next week have a few pressing deadlines to meet and, then, the holidays…  But, one day, when life again speeds up for him, and speeds down for me, perhaps I’ll finally be able to interview him.

Until then, best of luck, Mark Pierce. Know there are many Arkansans rooting for you.

Fourteen-month-old’s Hog Call Work In Progress, Like Razorback Program Itself

Last night, Auburn beat Arkansas to send the Hogs to their sixth straight loss, the second longest losing streak in program history. The Hogs still haven’t gotten it together to turn the proverbial corner, but fans are promised that one day soon they will. Just have faith, they are told.

My 14-month-old daughter Eden is also working on putting it together.

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Bentonville Vs. The Best in Texas: A Behind the Scenes Report

Bentonville coach Barry Lunney Sr. speaking to his players before facing one of the toughest foes of his career.
Bentonville coach Barry Lunney Sr. speaking to his players before facing one of the toughest foes of his career.

I wrote the following for the November 2013 issue of Arkansas Life magazine:

While his friends celebrated around him, Javier Carbonell emerged from a pile of bodies, staggered to the sideline of Bentonville High’s football field and collapsed. The junior defensive end had just suffered a blow to the Adam’s apple and a stinger to his leg after throwing his 259 pounds into an offensive line as big as some Division I colleges’. The sacrifice, he reasoned, was worth it. The opponent, one of the best prep teams in the nation, had driven deep into Bentonville territory in the fourth quarter and was looking for the kill shot. It was only an early season, non-conference game, but as both sides approached for a pivotal fourth down-and-one play, far more was on the line than a single win or loss. With seven minutes left in a showdown with a Texas powerhouse, Carbonell and his teammates were carrying the hopes of a state on their shoulders.

Fifteen years ago, this would have been unimaginable.

*****

In the 1990s, Benton County was booming economically but not yet on the football field. Northwest Arkansas-based Fortune 500 businesses like Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson were then already setting into motion forces that would turn the county into the state’s second most populous and boost Bentonville’s median household income from $40,000 (in 2000) to a projected $63,000 by 2015. Football, like other sports, benefited from a rapidly expanding talent pool, top-notch salaries and the construction of state-of-the-art facilities.

Bentonville High is Exhibit A here: In the early 1990s, it had about 750 students, the smallest enrollment of all schools in the state’s largest classification. It has since added ninth grade and this fall is the state’s largest school with more than 4,100 students. In the early 2000s, Bentonville had the worst athletic facilities in its conference. But the last decade has seen a new $9 million stadium and field house complex, as well as the 2005 hiring of one of the most accomplished head coaches around. To get Barry Lunney, Sr., Bentonville approved a salary of $89,000—$14,000 more than Lunney had made at his previous job at Fort Smith Southside—plus another $240,000 or so for four assistant coaches he planned to bring with him.

The investment paid off: Heading into this season, Bentonville had won two state championships since 2008, played in three straight title games and had a 35-game regular season winning streak. “I feel like our program is as good as any program out there,” Bentonville athletic director Scott Passmore said this summer.

“Out there” no longer means other parts of the state. In recent years, Bentonville’s football program has been so good it’s had trouble finding in-state opponents for early-season games. The program, like all other big schools, must stay in state during conference play and post-season but is free to choose its own opponents for the early-season, non-conference games. Scheduling willing in-state opponents has gotten progressively harder, so Bentonville has started looking across state borders at programs in a similar predicament. In recent seasons, the Tigers have played and knocked off elite teams from Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The wins bolstered their national cred and helped Bentonville make appearances in national top 100 prep football polls run by recruiting services.

But Bentonville isn’t yet considered a national prep power. It broadcasts its games on an ESPN-affiliated radio station but hasn’t yet brought ESPN cameras to town. To prove itself worthy of the limelight, it has needed one last accolade: a win over a top team from Texas, America’s football mecca. The best Texas teams are universally hailed as also being the best in America. This has also played out at the college level, where the best Arkansas teams have had some success in defeating Texan counterparts. The Arkansas Razorbacks beat their fierce rival, the Texas Longhorns, with regularity in the 1950s and 1960s and as recently as 2003.

Bentonville assistant coach Tony Cherico knows. He was an All-American noseguard for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the mid 1980s. “When I played, everyone circled Texas—that was it. Texas was a big game,” he says. “It was for all the marbles.”

But this rivalry has not gone nearly as well for top Arkansas teams versus top Texas teams at the prep ranks. Granted, Pine Bluff High handled business against any and all comers (including Texans) in the 1920s, as did Little Rock Central High in the 1950s, but no recent Arkansas prep program has achieved the national prestige of those schools. In 2010, Springdale’s Shiloh Christian—then ranked No. 22 nationally by MaxPreps—had a shot against Euless Trinity, then ranked No. 1, in Arlington, Texas. Shiloh lost 80-26. In 2012, North Little Rock High—one of the best three programs in the state that season—traveled to Texas to take on Longview High. It lost 30-14.

Not long afterward, Scott Passmore filled in an open date for the third game of the 2013 season by scheduling a home game with Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. The school of 2,300 midway between Dallas and Fort Worth has earned a reputation as one the most physically dominant programs in Texas’ highest classification. The Trinity Trojans used a ferocious ground game often employing 10-plus running backs to win three state titles in 2005-2009 and finish as runner-up in 2011.

All photos courtesy of hittphotography.com
All photos courtesy of hittphotography.com

“Certainly, when those guys get on a roll, they can beat anybody very badly,” Coach Lunney said in August.

Bentonville is a big, strong and well-coached team. Problem is, Euless is also well-coached, but bigger and stronger. Against Arkansas teams, Bentonville usually has the biggest linemen. Euless, which is stocked with 300 pound plus players, has linemen which outweigh their Bentonville counterparts by an average of 20-30 pounds. Moreover, Euless is loaded with future high Division I players. Bentonville doesn’t have the same firepower in terms of sheer future major college players. It has one major college commit in its senior class.

****

September 20, 2013
It’s a quarter to 7:00 p.m. in the middle of Tiger Fieldhouse, the high school band’s threatening to rock the metal siding off this place, and all those rankings and statistics mentioned above? Doesn’t matter here.

Bentonville football is ready to make its mark at a national level, and Tiger players who have gathered in a semi-circle on the edge of a half field of artificial turf are focused on the task at hand. The steady roar of 3,500 Bentonville fans outside conveys this game’s importance just as much as the words of Lunney and his nine assistant coaches.

“This is a chance to represent the state of Arkansas,” Bentonville defensive coordinator Jody Grant says, his voice rising with every syllable. “Let’s show these people what they came out here to see and let’s work these jokers over.”

Cheers erupt. The band pounds its drums.

Next to speak is Lunney. Nearly 100 players gather around him, drop to their knees and clasp hands. Lunney spends 42 seconds praying for the safety of all participants during the game and for the safety of their opponents who later that night will make a six-hour bus trip to Euless.

Then Lunney launches into a sermon on the game’s fundamentals: avoid penalties, take advantage of turnovers, play aggressive. It’s the same gospel this Fort Smith native has been preaching throughout his 27 years of head coaching that have brought six state titles and three runner-up finishes.

Lunney tells his players to hustle as hard as previous Bentonville teams. He reminds them of his first Bentonville team: “They fought for 48 minutes regardless, and we got down by some big scores that year,” he recalls. Then Lunney looks at senior Clay Wallace. “Your brother was a part of that, you know that.” Pause. “I don’t know if you know or not. You were so little,” he adds, smiling.

Lunney wraps by emphasizing the importance of the kicking game. One in every five plays is either part of kickoff, field goal or punt attempt, he says. These plays are not time for rest. “We must, we must, we must win the kicking game,” he says. “We’re gonna press it. We’re gonna press it. We’re gonna press it right from the start.”

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Continue reading Bentonville Vs. The Best in Texas: A Behind the Scenes Report

Exclusive Q & A with Gene Chizik

One thing only?  Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
One change only?
Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Whatever happened to former Auburn coach Gene Chizik? He’s still living in Auburn, for one. He doesn’t have any regrets, per se, about how his Tigers seemingly imploded following their 2010 championship. But if he could travel back in time he would do one thing differently, he tells me for the following piece in the The Classical:

Some myths belong to everyone, and so of course there is a Finnish Icarus, another optimist cursed with fatal ambition who nearly touched the pale arctic sun. He didn’t, because he couldn’t, and so he fell, headlong through the clouds, down and down, a lesson from the gods writ in flame and fearful velocity. You likely already know a tale along these lines.

It ends strangely, though, differently than you might expect. Our Icarus lands not on earth or sea but into the freezing steel belly of Gary Patterson’s man-making fortress, on the campus of Texas Christian University. This is a place Kobe Bryant has visited and—we can safely assume—so has/will LL Cool J. Yes, the ancient Finns predicted the wonder that is the body rejuvenator housed in TCU’s athletic department. The Finns had discerned, in reindeer entrails sprawled on snow, a great and improbable renewal.

***

In reality, there was nowhere for Gene Chizik to go but down after his 2010 season as Auburn’s head football coach. How swift and how vast the descent would be, though, was less easy to predict. Chizik’s Tigers won the 2010 national title, with much help from defensive tackle Nick Fairley and quarterback Cam Newton; both were juniors, both played far better than anyone had expected in that magnificent season, and both entered the NFL Draft and became first-round picks. From there, it took about a year and a half for things to fall apart.

Last fall, Auburn lost all eight of its SEC games, including the last three by scores of 21-63, 0-38 and 0-49. The day after that 49-point shutout loss to Alabama, Chizik was fired, concluding one of the most wildly disparate ten-year major college coaching runs on record. In that span, Chizik, as a defensive coordinator, coached undefeated teams at Auburn and Texas. Then, as a head coach, he bookended a 5-19 stretch at Iowa State and a 3-9 season at Auburn with the most successful three-year run in more than 120 years of Auburn football history, and the school’s second National Championship.

That rollercoaster ride is over, and Chizik is not currently working in college football. Which is how, in late September, Chizik found himself alone with me and a glass of water, 30 minutes before giving a speech to Arkansas’ largest touchdown club. This is one of the few public appearances he’s made since the firing, but he felt like he owed the event’s founder, David Bazzel. Chizik had also visited Little Rock nine years ago, that time to receive an award for the nation’s best college football assistant coach; it was another one of Bazzel’s projects. Now, he’s back, which is nice as far as favors go and all. But Chizik knows he wouldn’t be talking to me had he just done a few things differently in the last few years at Auburn.

“I think that 90 percent of everything we did was right on,” he says. There were plenty successes and “not a lot of failure but enough to have me sitting here with you today,” he said with a chuckle. “I would go back and really make sure I would never get caught in a position where I don’t have a quarterback that can, you know, grow and win and become your championship caliber quarterback.” In hindsight, then, more time should have gone into recruiting and developing successors to Newton. “We just couldn’t find a quarterback who could really compete in [the SEC]. We ended up going with a true freshman at the end of the year.”

Although his speciality is defense, Chizik knows a team ultimately goes as far as its quarterback. Every top team has a standout, he tells the Little Rock crowd: “Let me give you the case in points. We can go down the list right now. Where do you want to start? Oregon? Mariota. Wanna go to Clemson? Tajh Boyd. Want to go to Ohio State? Braxton Miller. I could go on and on.

“Want to go to A&M? Johnny Manziel.

“Want to go to Alabama? A.J. McCarron.

“I could go down the list,” he says, jabbing the podium three times with his index finger.

“I’ve had the best quarterbacks in college football history on my teams—Daunte Culpepper, Vince Young, Jason Campbell, Colt McCoy, Cam,” Chizik later tells The Buzz 103.7 FM. While their pro careers have gone in varying directions, each of those players were extraordinarily talented and, with the exception of McCoy, future NFL first-rounders. Superstars aren’t necessary to win championships, is Chizik’s point. But “you have to have a man in that position who can handle all the ups and downs and ebbs and flows that come with that position when you’re at a high profile place.” None of the Tiger quarterbacks who immediately succeeded Newton—Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier—flourished at the position. Trotter and Moseley ended up quitting the team in consecutive offseasons. Frazier later switched to wide receiver.

So this is all true, as far as it goes, but quarterbacking woes don’t explain Auburn’s disintegration, or Chizik’s long tumble from zenith.

For the rest of this piece, visit The Classical where it originally published.