Every morning when he walks into the North Carolina football offices, Gene Chizik passes the statue out front of Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, the one with Justice standing tall, looking stern, tough, his helmet in his hand. It makes Chizik think.
“It’s karma,” he said recently.
Chizik, the Tar Heels’ defensive coordinator, never expected to be here. He never figured coaching would take him back to the state where his father grew up in the mountains, in Asheville, in the same school halls and on the same fields as the Justice boys.
A long time ago Chizik’s father, Gene Chizik Sr., became close friends with Charlie Justice, who remains one of UNC’s most beloved athletes, and his brother Bill. They all played football together, went off to World War II together and in some ways grew old together.
Before his father died in 2002, Chizik and Bill Justice took a trip to the hospital. Chizik still remembers what Justice told his dying father that day. Chizik still remembers how Justice slapped his father’s foot while he said those words: “Well, Chizik – you lived 53 years more than you should have.”
Chizik left the hospital a little confused. He asked Justice what he’d meant – why he’d said that his father should have died five decades earlier. Justice responded with a question of his own: Had Chizik ever heard stories from his father about the Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill?
‘I do things one way ... the right way’Chizik, 53, arrived at UNC in January, after one of the worst defensive seasons in school history. He arrived amid much celebration and expectation because of what he’s done – the national championship he won as a defensive coordinator at Texas in 2005 and another as the head coach at Auburn.
He arrived, too, with a firm understanding of the fickle nature of his profession. Four years earlier, Chizik had reached the pinnacle. He’d coached Auburn to the national championship. Two seasons after that, after accusations of NCAA violations and after a 3-9 finish, he was looking for work.
What Chizik endured at Auburn – he was “tarred and feathered,” he said, amid allegations of a pay-for-play scheme involving quarterback Cam Newton and, later, a report that Auburn changed players’ grades and paid others during his tenure – left a mark. NCAA investigations went nowhere and Chizik was never implicated in anything, yet he still admonishes the notion that he did anything wrong.
Given what UNC has gone through in recent years – five years of slow-drip scandal and two NCAA investigations, the second of which is still ongoing – the school dug deep into Chizik’s past. He doesn’t have a problem saying what he feels he needs to say.
“I’ll just be real candid with you,” Chizik said. “I got tarred and feathered for a couple of years straight for accusations, allegations that were completely a myth. At the time, I wasn’t able to speak out about it because when you have ongoing investigations your hands are tied. But my hands aren’t tied anymore.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of people did a lot of erroneous reporting. And it’s a shame because they didn’t do their job. Here’s the reality of it – if you talk to anyone in this profession, I’ve always done it exactly the way that it should be done.”
He wasn’t finished.
“I look back on anything that I did, and I have absolutely no regrets, and I would do it exactly the same,” Chizik said. “It’s like I tell everybody – the NCAA came in, they did their due diligence for a long time. I’ve got nothing to hide. I was completely transparent then, I’m completely transparent now.
“And I only do things one way – and that’s the right way.”
FRESH START AT UNC
His office is smaller now. Family pictures that once could have been spread around a room the size of an apartment are now mostly contained to the space beneath the window behind his desk. Playbooks and practice plans from years ago sit on shelves a step or two away from his chair.
In some ways he’s starting over, hitting the reset button on a career that took an abrupt turn. Is he mad about it? Has the hurt subsided years after his firing? Perhaps in some ways but maybe not in others.
“When you look back on it, it’s hard to comprehend,” Chizik said of his ending at Auburn. “You’re the winningest coach in the history of the school your first three years. Your fourth year, obviously, you have an extremely bad year without an opportunity to fix it. Which I felt like I deserved.
“But I don’t make those decisions, and I don’t hold grudges. And I understand the business.”
For the first time since 1987, when he was an elementary school teacher after graduating from Florida, Chizik suddenly found himself without a coaching job. Opportunities arose. He could have become an assistant somewhere, maybe gone to the NFL.
Instead Chizik decided to take a break from the only thing he ever wanted to do. For so long he’d been away from his family – absent on birthdays and holidays and too many other days.
He traveled with his wife, Jonna, and their three children. His twin daughters are seniors in high school, his son a freshman. Sometimes in those two years away Chizik and his wife just traveled alone. There were trips to Europe. Mediterranean cruises. Two trips to Hawaii.
On the first college football weekend that he was out of coaching, Chizik and his wife – she’s the daughter of Chizik’s high school football coach – went to Boston. A friend left them tickets for a baseball game. Chizik sat down in Fenway Park and felt weird not to be in a hotel somewhere, going over a game plan or meeting with players.
“I was at a Boston Red Sox game on a Friday night in September when the only thing I knew for 27 straight years was ‘I’m getting ready for a football game tonight – like, I’ve got a game tomorrow,’” Chizik said. “That’s all I know. And I remember sitting in the stands looking around going, ‘So this is what people with a real life do in September, huh?’”
Chizik didn’t leave football completely. He became a broadcaster. He did his homework. He traveled for games and went to practices and learned.
But how many football coaches can just walk away from it all? And so he waited.
PHILOSOPHY INSPIRES OTHERS
Ask people about Chizik the coach and inevitably they’ll talk more about Chizik the teacher. His dad was a teacher after he came home from the war. Later he became a high school principal. Like he learned so many other things, Chizik learned how to teach from his father.
Fedora knew much about Chizik before. He knew the obvious. He knew more intricate details because for so long Chizik and Fedora followed similar career paths at rival schools in the same conference.
They coached at different schools at the same time in Conference USA, the SEC and the Big 12. Their paths crossed and they admired the other’s work. So Fedora knew about Chizik the coach before the spring, when he gained a first-hand appreciation for Chizik the teacher.
“For me he had a very distinct progression of the way he wanted to teach his defense,” Fedora said. “He didn’t rush it. He wasn’t worried about whether he won spring or not. All he wanted to do was make sure when we came out of spring, those guys understood the base defense.”
Fedora liked what he saw, at least. He might not have said otherwise, anyway, but he made a convincing argument that players responded to Chizik and understood his material.
“That has given those guys confidence,” Fedora said. “And that’s the thing that they lost.”
Chizik will define success, among other things, by physicality. That’s the word that he wants to define his defense. He expects more effort. A different attitude than the one he sensed while he watched UNC’s games from last season.
“I felt like there’s got to be a little bit of a change on how they think,” Chizik said, the understatement perhaps intentional. “The mentality has to change some.”
When Chizik watched film he didn’t pay attention to the old scheme. He didn’t care about the play. He watched to measure two things: talent and heart.
“We don’t make things important based on the circumstances around us,” Chizik said. “Either it’s important to you all the time, or it’s not. It’s important to improve all the time, or it’s not. It’s important to be good on this play all the time, or it’s not.”
A few minutes later he paused. He said he’s starting to sound a lot like his father.
DISCOVERING HIS DAD, A WAR HERO
When Chizik was a small boy he found the Bronze Star his father received while serving in the Marines in the South Pacific. His father never talked much about the war.
Chizik only knew, he said, that his dad was a “man’s man,” and “a fantastic leader” and “tougher than a pair of boots.” And he knew about that Bronze Star but didn’t know what it represented.
“I just thought it was something to play with as a little kid.” Chizik said.
That day in the hospital, when Bill Justice told Chizik Sr. that he lived 50 years longer than he should have, left an impression on Chizik, the youngest of four children and the only boy. Chizik then heard for the first time about the Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill. One of his sisters began researching it.
They learned that their father had fought in what Chizik now describes as one of “the most brutal, bloodiest” battles in the Pacific. For nearly a week in Okinawa, Japan, Marines had attempted to take the high ground of Sugar Loaf Hill. And for nearly a week they’d been slaughtered.
“So finally the night they took it, I think (what) I read on it, 123 went up and like 14 made it,” Chizik said. “And my dad was one of the 14. The rest of them got killed.
“Now all of a sudden the Bronze Star and all that stuff starts making sense to me.”
Coaches draw their leadership philosophies from a variety of places. Some from other coaches. Some from military leaders. Fedora has several copies of “The Art of War” in his office. Everything Chizik learned about leadership, he learned from his father.
After the war, Charlie Justice became the most revered football player in UNC history. His brother Bill and Chizik’s father went to Florida, where they finished playing football for Rollins College in Orlando, and Chizik Sr. then began a career in education, eventually becoming a principal.
“His teachers would have ran through a brick wall for him,” Chizik said.
PERFECT LANDING SPOT AT CHAPEL HILL
During his days as a defensive coordinator at Texas, Chizik often asked Mack Brown, the Longhorns coach, about North Carolina. The state. The university and football program. Brown had been UNC’s coach for 10 seasons.
“He was very interested in what North Carolina was like when we were at Texas,” he said.
Chizik was well aware last season that UNC’s defense was a mess. He was aware that there might be an opportunity for someone to come in and try to fix it. When the job came open, Fedora approached him through an intermediary. The two met for the first time in Birmingham, Ala.
“We just sat down and talked and I told him I wanted to visit with him about getting back into coaching, and talk to him about what his interest might be,” Fedora said.
Chizik was Fedora’s first choice for the job. His only choice, initially.
Chizik liked what he knew about Fedora and liked the job the more he thought about it. Chizik sought Brown’s advice, too, and received more positive feedback.
“I was not surprised that Gene would be interested in Chapel Hill,” Brown said. “Because he heard us talking about how much we loved it there and what a great place it was for family. And people don’t understand, Gene turned down jobs every year.
“So it wasn’t like he was sitting in a corner and no one wanting him to come. He just had to make a decision of whether he wanted to take another job or not.”
To go back to a lifestyle of missing out on birthdays and holidays, again, a lifestyle of Friday nights spent worrying about a game plan instead of making the first pitch on time, or the dinner reservation, Chizik said it would have to be perfect.
“I was prepared to stay in (broadcasting) if the absolute perfect fit for me did not come along,” he said.
He believes it has. And UNC believes in him, enough that it’s paying him an annual salary of about $750,000 per year, which makes him the highest-paid assistant football coach in school history.
He said the two years away didn’t change him. The ending at Auburn didn’t affect him, he said, because he “went out with integrity” and pride and, yes, a sense of longing, too, to fix what went wrong in his final season. Yet he didn’t have that chance.
He has, instead, a chance to rebuild something else. He found himself attracted to the idea of salvaging UNC’s defense. He spoke of the “great challenge” here and how it intrigued him. For the first time in nearly 10 years he’s a defensive coordinator.
LETTERS FROM HOME
Since his return to coaching, Chizik has received letters from people across North Carolina, people with roots in Asheville who recognize his name. He opened his desk drawer not long ago and pulled out one of those letters and started reading it:
Dear Mr. Chizik …
My 92-year-old mother asked me to write you and tell you about our fathers. My mom heard your name on a sports news broadcast and wondered if your father was the same Gene Chizik my father knew in high school. … They both played on the same football team as Charlie Justice. Mom said they were really great friends … After the war – Dad was in Europe – they lost touch … I learned about your dad’s service and medal in the Pacific. Mom said how Dad would have loved to have known about it … My father died in the summer of ’84 ...”
And on it went.
“And so I wrote her back,” Chizik said, searching for another letter like that he’d received recently.
They come in periodically, he said, and at one point were coming in every two weeks -- letters or emails from someone else who recognizes his name not for football but for who his dad was. Chizik is keen to the strangeness of it all – that of all places to restart his career it was here.
“I walk by the statue of my dad’s best friend growing up every day when I come to work,” he said. “I think of my dad every time I walk into the building. Every time I walk by that I’m like, man, that’s crazy.”