PINEHURST – Even though he wasn’t in the building, Gene Chizik’s name was mentioned a lot at the ACC Kickoff on Monday and Tuesday.
The event is a showcase for two players and the head coach of each team in the conference, meaning North Carolina’s Larry Fedora made the media rounds. But when Fedora sat down with the scribes, he found himself talking a lot about his new defensive coordinator.
At one point he was asked about hiring a coordinator who was a bigger household name than he is.
“Now that you say it, (he) is,” Fedora pondered, “I hadn’t really thought about that.”
Chizik has been a head coach, and he comes to Chapel Hill with hardware that proves he has been a success at previous stops. He was the defensive coordinator at Texas in 2005 when the Longhorns won the national championship. He then went and led his own team, the Auburn Tigers, to the 2011 BCS championship game, collecting his second championship ring.
He has been a head coach at two Power 5 conference schools, bringing experience to the North Carolina staff. Just the name alone has gotten the fanbase, and the team, fired up. When it was announced in January that Chizik would be replacing Vic Koenning, players took to Twitter to express their excitement. Before he stepped foot on campus many felt the UNC defense was already better. It couldn’t be any worst. In 2014, the Heels had the worst defense in the ACC, and one of the worst in the country. Exit Koenning, who many felt checked out before the season ended, and enter Chizik, who was on top of Fedora’s wish list.
Every year, because of the revolving door that is college coaching, Fedora keeps a list of the top coaching targets out there for assistant coaches and coordinators. When he knew it was time for a change, Chizik got the call.
“Gene’s always been on that list. He’s been on that list forever.”
With him, Chizik brings a traditional 4-3 base look, getting rid of the horrible 4-2-5 look that exposed the Tar Heels last season. UNC starting linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said after the Heels gave up 70 to East Carolina and 50 to Clemson in consecutive weeks, players started questioning the scheme. The wheels were coming off and UNC wasn’t even out of September yet. The moral was down, but when Chizik arrived in the spring, all of that changed.
“We’ve picked up confidence again,” Schoettmer said. “Chizik and the new staff, they believe in us. They think we can do great things. He has been at the highest level and that’s where we want to get. I couldn’t be more complementive of what he has done in the six months that he’s been with us.”
Schoettmer and the rest of the defense didn’t need that first introductory meeting to get to know their new coordinator. The senior from Dallas, TX explained that thanks to the internet and social media, it didn’t take long for players to check Chizik’s credentials – not that the 54-year-old coach is that far removed from the college game. He left Auburn in 2012 – Schoettmer’s redshirt freshman season – and held a gig with ESPN until getting the call from Fedora about the opening at UNC.
When Chizik finally met his troops for the first time, he already had the room before saying a word.
“The first meeting we had with him,” Schoettmer recalled, “He walks in the room and everyone is sitting straight, their hands were on their knees … almost a little scared because he’s a powerful name. He’s won national championships and we know that.”
And even though Fedora is the head man, he doesn’t downplay the importance of having another person in the room who has been the leader before.
“There are things that are going to come up and Gene is the only person in that room who is going to know what I feel like in that seat (as a head coach) and he is going to be able to help, give me advice, all those kind of things,” Fedora said. “To have another voice that’s been there, in my seat, I think it’s nothing but a positive.”
Chizik’s immediate impact has been felt already. The players are more confident. Confident in themselves and the new system. They believe what Chizik did at Texas and Auburn can be done in Chapel Hill. Fedora went on to say that Chizik was the right choice, because of his 4-3 scheme and the way he coaches. Schoettmer says it’s because of the the way he teachings the guys on the team. Not just the defense, but the entire team.
“Chizik is impacting the offense as well. I’ll see him talking to (UNC QB) Marquise Williams all the time. He’s teaching him stuff, too, because he was a head coach … he knows how to run a team.”
Fedora isn’t the type of man to feel threaten by the presence of Chizik. He probably won’t be looking over his shoulder if things go bad. He insists the entire staff, not just the one assistant with two championship rings, have input on all kinds of decisions. But if the defense starts pitching shutouts, tackles better and improves to one of the top units in the ACC and the country, then Chizik will get most of the credit, rightfully so. Fedora just sounds happy to have him onboard.
“To have a guy who’s been a head coach. To have a guy who has won a national title as a head coach and a coordinator,” Fedora said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world because I got him on my staff.”