AUBURN, Ala. — Gene Chizik led Auburn to a historic season but couldn’t keep the Tigers from descending to their lowest point in decades.
The rapid fall from a national championship to 3-9 and the Southeastern Conference doormat led to Chizik’s firing Sunday, the day after a humbling 49-0 loss to No. 2 Alabama that showed just how far the program has fallen.
The Tigers endured the worst slide within two years of winning a national championship of any team since the Associated Press poll started in 1936 and hadn’t lost this many games since going 0-10 in 1950. The decision came 17 months after Auburn gave Chizik a contract worth some $3.5 million annually through 2015 with a hefty buyout.
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said he informed Chizik Sunday morning after President Jay Gogue accepted his recommendation to fire the coach.
The players were informed in a team meeting Sunday. Jacobs scheduled a news conference for later in the afternoon.
“I’m extremely disappointed with the way this season turned out and I apologize to the Auburn family and our team for what they have had to endure,” Chizik said in a statement released by Auburn. “In my 27 years of coaching, I have gained an understanding of the high expectations in this profession. When expectations are not met, I understand changes must be made.”
Meanwhile, in Raleigh, N.C., North Carolina State fired football coach Tom O’Brien after six seasons, four of which were good enough to get the Wolfpack into a bowl but none that could get them to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Athletic director Debbie Yow made the announcement Sunday, one day after the Wolfpack finished a 7-5 regular season with a win over Boston College.
O’Brien went 40-35 after coming to Raleigh from BC following the 2006 season. He took the Wolfpack to three bowl games, but won’t coach in a fourth when N.C. State receives its bid next week.
N.C. State says offensive coordinator Dana Bible will be the interim coach for the bowl game. All other assistants are staying to continue bowl preparations.
In Auburn, the Tigers went from 14-0 with a perfect SEC record with Cam Newton leading the offense in 2010 to 3-9 and 0-8, losing their final three league games by a combined 150-21. Auburn was blown out by Texas A&M (63-21) and Georgia (38-0) but the finale was even more painful for Tigers fans.
The Crimson Tide cruised to a six-touchdown halftime lead and the second-most lopsided Iron Bowl victory in history, behind only the Tide’s 55-0 win in 1948.
“While we experienced a tremendous low in 2012, I will always be proud of the incredible highs that we achieved, including three bowl victories, an SEC championship and a national championship,” Chizik said.
He was 33-19 in four seasons and 15-17 in SEC games.
Auburn said the total buyout for Chizik and his assistant coaches is $11.09 million. Chizik’s buyout is expected to total $7.5 million and will be paid in monthly installments for the next four years.
Six assistants are under contract through June 30, 2013 while defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor have deals extending another year beyond that.
The buyouts could be reduced if the coaches find other jobs.
Auburn joins Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky as SEC teams with job openings showing the huge divide in a league with six teams ranked in the Top 11.
Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said players gave Chizik a warm ovation after the team meeting.
“I think we did what he deserved and we gave him a standing ovation and clapped for him,” he said. There’s so much love for coach Chizik on this team. Would we have loved to see him get another year, another opportunity? Yes, but at the same time we understand where Jay Jacobs is coming from. Three wins isn’t going to cut it in our league.”
Defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker said, “It’s kind of crazy right now. I had a special bond with Coach Chizik.”
Chizik inserted tailback Tre Mason on the final play against Alabama to get him to 1,000 yards. The next day, Mason saw his coach get fired.
“It was a rough day for everybody,” Mason said. “It’s tough. There are going to be a lot of tears shed because there are a lot of relationships that may be put on hold or come to an end today. I have nothing negative to say about coach Chizik. He’s done a lot for me and this program. I wish him the best of luck in his future.”
Chizik had sandwiched two 8-5 seasons around the national title, but never approached the success of 2010, when Newton won the Heisman Trophy. The Tigers were 7-17 in SEC games outside of 2010 during his tenure.
His hiring was criticized by some fans after Chizik went 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State and lost the last 10 games of his first head coaching job.
Jacobs was heckled at the airport after making the hire.
Chizik had been defensive coordinator on unbeaten teams at Auburn and Texas.
A search committee comprised of former Heisman Trophy winners Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson and former Tigers fullback Mac Crawford will assist Jacobs, the school said.
A transition year might have been expected.
Chizik had to replace the offensive and defensive coordinators after last season. Chizik made an ill-fated switch from Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle, spread offense to a pro-style system with the hiring of former Temple offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler.
The Tigers struggled in the transition, partly because of shaky quarterback play and ended the season with freshman Jonathan Wallace under center.
Auburn ranked at or near the bottom of the SEC in every major statistical category offensively and defensively.
Chizik’s tenure was marred by off-the-field problems, too, to the extent that he had employees of a private firm run curfew checks on players this season.
Four members of the 2010 national championship team were arrested on robbery charges in March 2011. Antonio Goodwin was convicted in April and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Dakota Mosley, Michael McNeil and Shaun Kitchens are awaiting trial.
Two-time 1,000-yard rusher Mike Dyer transferred to Arkansas State with Malzahn after being indefinitely suspended before the bowl game.
Freshman quarterback Zeke Pike was arrested in June for public intoxication and later dismissed from the team. Starting center Reese Dismukes was suspended for the opener against Clemson following a public intoxication arrest.
Auburn is also the subject of an NCAA investigation that includes the recruitment of Memphis running back Jovon Robinson, who was ruled ineligible after a guidance counselor admitted to creating a fake transcript.
The Birmingham News reported on Wednesday that NCAA investigators had interviewed at least one assistant coach and several players during the week leading up to the Iron Bowl.
Chizik’s contract includes a clause that it wouldn’t owe the buyout money if he is fired for cause, including findings of major rules violations or significant or repetitive violations” involving him or his program.
Chizik and Auburn have weathered past NCAA scrutiny. The governing body closed investigations into the recruitment of Newton and allegations from four former players that they were paid thousands of dollars during their college careers.
The 64-year-old O’Brien, who went 75-45 in 10 seasons at BC with eight consecutive bowl berths before coming here, said at his December 2006 hiring that it was “N.C. State or bust for me.”
In his statement Sunday, O’Brien said he is looking “forward to life after football.”
His teams were just 22-26 in ACC play and finished above .500 in the league just once, going 5-3 in 2010. He was 1-14 in Atlantic Division road games.
Only three ACC teams — No. 13 Florida State (10-2), No. 15 Clemson (10-2) and rival North Carolina (8-4) — had better overall records this season than the Wolfpack, who were 4-4 in the league.
That was good for third in the Atlantic Division behind Florida State and Clemson — exactly where they were picked in the preseason poll.
But consistency was a problem all season.
They opened with a 14-point loss to a Tennessee team that went on to finish 5-7. They blew a late 10-point lead and allowed an ACC-record 566 yards passing in a loss at Miami. They were routed at home 33-6 by a last-place Virginia team that had lost six straight and they gave up 62 points in a loss at Clemson.
Not even a thrilling upset of then-No. 3 Florida State on Oct. 6 could save O’Brien’s job.
O’Brien also faced some questions in the spring of 2011, when he parted ways with three-year starting quarterback Russell Wilson, who was attempting to play both minor-league baseball and football at the high FBS level.
Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his senior season, led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl and wound up winning the job with the Seattle Seahawks.
O’Brien’s choice certainly appeared justified when Mike Glennon — who took over for Wilson — led the ACC in passing this season, averaging 304 yards.
The school says a national search for O’Brien’s replacement will begin immediately.