On Monday, the North Carolina Tar Heels made a splash hire, bringing on former Auburn Tigers head coach Gene Chizik to be their new defensive coordinator. For years, the Heels have been on the edge of making a push to the top of the ACC but failed to take advantage of their opportunities. With Chizik in the mix, however, North Carolina has the pieces to finally be a legitimate ACC contender in 2015.
North Carolina was a darkhorse pick of many to make a run at the ACC title in 2014. But thoughts of a championship quickly faded when the Heels went on a four-game losing streak early in the year, effectively burying them in the ACC standings. They clawed their way to bowl eligibility (a 40-21 loss to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the Quick Lane Bowl) and finished the year at a disappointing 6-7, including just 4-4 in conference play despite not playing teams like the Florida State Seminoles and Louisville Cardinals from the Atlantic Division.
At the heart of their issues was the defense. They ranked No. 117 in the nation in total defense, allowing 497.8 yards per game, the second-worst average for a season in UNC history (and four-worst in the history of the ACC). They surrendered 40 or more points in six games this season and 50 or more points three times, low-lighted by their 70-41 drubbing at the hands of the East Carolina Pirates.
For his role in leading one of the worst defensive efforts in school history, Larry Fedora fired defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and set out to find someone who could turn things around in Chapel Hill. In landing Chizik, he’s added a coach with a championship defensive pedigree that will instill some much-needed toughness and discipline to the Heels’ defense.
Chizik comes to Chapel Hill with an impressive list of accomplishments that should give Tar Heels’ fans some optimism moving forward. As a defensive coordinator, he led Auburn to a perfect season in 2004 and took the Texas Longhorns to a national title in 2005. When he returned to Auburn as the head coach, he took the team all the way to the top, winning the 2011 BCS National Championship.
In Chizik, UNC has added a coach that understands what it takes to be the best. Of course, Chizik’s resume is far from spotless. In his first stint as a head coach of the Iowa State Cyclones, Chizik went just 5-19 in two seasons before landing the Auburn job. While he would post three straight seasons of at least eight wins (including the 14-0 2010 season that culminated in the national title), things fell apart quickly with the Tigers and Chizik was fired after a dreadful 3-9 campaign in 2012.
The hire also brings its fair share of controversy to the university. North Carolina is in the midst of an NCAA investigation for one of the biggest academic scandals in history. It has been caught for players accepting improper benefits and academic fraud on a scale that is staggering. They already self-imposed a postseason ban on themselves during Fedora’s reign back in 2012. In short, North Carolina is under the NCAA’s microscope and any misstep now could spell huge implications for the program’s future.
Chizik, for all his accomplishments on the field, comes to town with plenty of baggage in terms of run-ins with the NCAA compliance office. During his time at Auburn as the head coach, his program seemed to constantly be making headlines for one infraction or another. Assistant Trooper Taylor had to be taken off the recruiting trail on numerous occasions following self-reported NCAA secondary rules violations in 2009 and 2010. The NCAA was forced to change some of its recruiting rules because of Auburn’s use of the “Tiger Prowl” where assistants would cruise around high schools across the state in stretched Hummers to impress recruits during spring evaluation periods.
Of course, Chizik’s biggest near-miss with the NCAA was in the investigation into the recruitment of Cam Newton. The Heisman Trophy winning quarterback was instrumental in Auburn’s national title run but played under allegations that Auburn had paid a hefty sum to get him to come to school there. On top of that, Chizik saw his name attached to countless allegations of payment to players and fixing grades, though the coach has never been formally charged with any wrong-doing.
Even if there’s more smoke than fire to the whispers about how much he bent the rules at Auburn, the stain on his reputation remains. So it’s raised some eyebrows that a program in the midst of a scandal involving fixed grades and improper benefits would bring in an assistant coach with the spectre of possible grade fixing and improper benefits at his last coaching job. When the program could have used a coach with a squeaky clean rep to boost their image, they took a risk in adding a talented defensive coach with a sketchy past.
In the end, the risk is worth it for Fedora and the Heels. While the NCAA investigation into the program is troubling, the more pressing issue for Fedora is fielding a winner at North Carolina. This will be Year 4 for Fedora in Chapel Hill which has proven to be a breaking point for many coaches and programs in today’s college football climate. If a coach hasn’t shown the ability to really build the program up in four seasons, they can expect to get shown the door. Add in the scrutiny that Fedora has faced off the field, and his margin for error becomes razor thin. If he can’t quell the off-field issues and can’t field a successful team, why would the university keep him around?
So as the off-field issues continue to unfold, Fedora is shifting his focus entirely to putting the best team that he can on the field for 2015. And that means taking drastic measures to fix his defense. Since Fedora took over the program, North Carolina has allowed 30 points per game (last in the ACC), 431 yards per game (last in the ACC), 190 yards rushing per game (last in the ACC), 42 percent third-down conversions (No. 13) and 7.4 yards per pass attempt (No. 13). Any progress Fedora made on the offensive side of the ball was undercut by having the worst defense in the conference.
That paves the way for Chizik to come in and save this coaching regime. His long history of building elite defenses speaks for itself and those credentials will give him the clout he needs to get the attention of the North Carolina players and start getting the most that he can out of them. Additionally, Chizik is a phenomenal recruiter and will bring in elite defensive talent that has simply not been there over the last few years. While his methods have been heavily scrutinized, to be sure, at the end of the day, Chizik is a closer on the recruiting trail, which will pay immediate dividends to UNC.
And immediate dividends is exactly what North Carolina needs as there may be no better opportunity to break into the ACC title race than in 2015. The Coastal Division has been a wild up-and-down race for the last several years with the division winner having at least two conference losses in each of the last three seasons. Solidifying the defense will give the Heels a great opportunity to emerge from this cluster with the opportunity to play in the ACC title game.
There, they’ll meet the winner of the Atlantic Division, which has dominated this conference in recent years thanks in part to the undefeated streak of Florida State. But the Seminoles will be a team in transition next year with Jameis Winston turning pro along with a number of key defensive contributors. The Clemson Tigers, who have arguably been the second best team in the ACC the last few seasons, is also going through a transition in 2015 with a huge chunk of defensive talent leaving this offseason and their offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, has left to become the head coach of the SMU Mustangs. That opens up the conference for a new team to take control.
By hiring Chizik and turning the defense over to him, North Carolina is proving their commitment to building a winning football program in spite of the eyebrows it will raise and seizing the opportunity to take control of the ACC. On the field, there are few defensive coaches that are as talented as Chizik and his talents will help turn the tide of what has been a dreadful Tar Heel defense in recent years. He will give this team the edge that they have been missing defensively and provide the energy and intensity that championship-caliber teams require.
It wasn’t the safe hire and it wasn’t necessarily a “strategic” hire in terms of the school’s ongoing NCAA investigation but it was the best hire for the football team. Chizik will be the missing piece at UNC that will make them a legitimate ACC contender next season and be a defining moment in the Fedora era in Chapel Hill.
In a make-or-break season, North Carolina is all-in to win with Chizik.