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Oregon Coach Chip Kelly, Auburn's Gene Chizik are unlikely success stories

Two years ago, before either man had coached a game at his current school, few would have anticipated that Kelly and Chizik would be leading unbeaten teams in Monday night's BCS national-title game.

January 09, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Oregon Coach Chip Kelly and Auburn Coach Gene Chizik took unique paths to the BCS title game.
Oregon Coach Chip Kelly and Auburn Coach Gene Chizik took unique paths to… (Photos by US Presswire and…)

From Scottsdale, Ariz. — Oregon and Auburn, a combined 25-0, led by coaches Chip Kelly and Gene Chizik, are going to meet for the national championship.

Two years ago, not even the Psychic Network would have made that prediction.

Kelly was Oregon's obscure offensive coordinator, possibly years from supplanting Mike Bellotti at the top.

Chizik had just completed his second season at Iowa State. His record was 5-19.

Things twisted dramatically when Kelly ascended to head coach after Bellotti abruptly resigned, and Auburn shockingly hired Chizik to replace Tommy Tuberville.

No one then said, "We'd better get the jump on BCS hotel reservations."

Kelly was lucky to make it through his first game. His 2009 debut at Boise State was a potato-truck wreck. Oregon played horribly in a Thursday night game that ended with tailback LeGarrette Blount throwing the punch heard round the Worldwide Leader ( ESPN).

Tony Seminary, a disgruntled Oregon fan who had attended the game, wrote Kelly demanding back the $439 he had spent on the trip.

Kelly wrote Seminary a check for the full amount (it was never cashed).

Meanwhile, down South, Auburn fans heckled the athletic director after he emerged from the plane ride that landed Chizik.

Kelly and Chizik first met at an awards show in Florida last month.

Now they meet again Monday night, in the desert, for the BCS national title.

Kelly emerged from the rubble in Boise to win consecutive Pac-10 titles, and Chizik has Auburn on the brink of its first national championship since 1957.

It goes to show: Hiring is a crapshoot.

Kelly is 22-3 in two years at Oregon and Chizik is 21-5 on the Plains.

They lead their teams into one of the hottest tickets in BCS history.

Don't ask Kelly to get sentimental about it.

"I'm not a pinch-myself kind of guy," he said.

Chizik, if he wins, plans to keep his true feelings in house.

"The outside world will never know," he said. ". . . No one understands the work that it takes to get to this."

Kelly and Chizik got to the same place from different places. Kelly is an offensive guru, from New Hampshire. He talks fast, out of the side of his mouth. His goal in life is to see how fast an offense can go without blowing its gaskets.

Kelly spent years tinkering in obscurity, picking brains about offensive football. He studied Dutch Meyer's offense at Texas Christian and Knute Rockne's "box" formation at Notre Dame.

"I will study anybody," Kelly says.

Chizik is a defensive man, from Florida. He has a square chin and is predisposed to curtail offensive entertainment. He was Auburn's defensive coordinator from 2002-04. He was Texas' defensive stopper the night the Longhorns stopped USC on fourth and two in the 2006 BCS title game.

Chizik wanted to be a head coach so badly he probably jumped too soon at an Iowa State offer, and had to feel like the world's luckiest man to get hired at Auburn with a 5-19 record.

Chizik says now Iowa State was a great learning experience.

"Obviously, along the way we would have liked to have had more wins," he said.

Kelly and Chizik have overcome major challenges. Kelly had to manage Blount, the expulsion of star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and several other off-field issues.

Chizik deftly dealt with a talented, but complicated, junior college star named Cameron Newton.

Newton carried some baggage when he arrived at Auburn from Texas' Blinn Community College.

Chizik saw Newton in uniform last spring and said, "I hope he can play like he looks."

Boy, could he. Newton won this season's Heisman Trophy while leading Auburn to regular-season perfection.

Chizik kept the Tigers stitched together while the NCAA sorted out the controversies surrounding Newton's eligibility.

Kelly and Chizik do not easily rattle, and their teams reflect that resolve. Oregon rallied after trailing against Tennessee. Reporters were not allowed to operate heavy machinery after listening all year to Kelly's monotonous "win the day" mantra.

Auburn won six games by single-digit margins.

"Everybody thought it could happen," receiver Kodi Burns said of this wild 13-0 ride. "But I'm not sure everyone believed it could happen."

Coming back from 24-0 down at Alabama was a confidence boost.

Both coaches have explosive offenses and defenses they hope can do enough.

It's difficult to imagine either defense stopping the opposing side. Oregon's offense averages 49.3 points per game, and Auburn averages 42.7.

Oregon's defense, ranked 25th nationally, is solid, but has not faced anyone like Newton.

The weak link in the matchup is Auburn's secondary, which ranks No. 106 nationally.

Yet, Auburn's defensive front, led by All-American tackle Nick Fairley, has the size advantage against Oregon's smaller offensive line.

It may come down to Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas getting to Auburn's secondary before Fairley gets to him.

Oregon probably has more playmakers than Auburn, but Auburn has the two best players in Newton and Fairley.

It will be a shock if the game is boring.

Will the long layoff hurt Auburn, which seemed to be peaking at season's end? Will the layoff help Oregon reclaim the dominance it demonstrated earlier in the season?

The players are antsy in anticipation.

"Like a little kid getting candy at the candy store," Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris said. "Eyes big, just excited to be there. I'm ready."

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