CHAPEL HILL, NC — Over the past five years, from time to time, Mack Brown would ask Gene Chizik a version of the same question.
“Are you ready to coach again? »
Brown asked for it four years ago, before returning to coaching in North Carolina. At the time, Chizik told him that he wasn’t ready yet. Then in the spring of 2021, when Chizik had a few opportunities, Brown told him, “You have to decide if you want to coach again.”
Chizik had a simple answer.
“Yes,” he told Brown. “I have one more in me.”
Neither knew at the time that “one more” meant reuniting with Brown, under whom he had served as defensive coordinator at Texas in 2005 and 2006. They remained close friends over the years. years, whether Chizik was a head coach at Auburn or a defensive coordinator at UNC. or a television analyst.
But when Brown called him in January, he asked the same familiar question, but with a bit more weight: “Are you interested in coaching again?”
It didn’t take long for Chizik to say yes, bringing him back to the Tar Heels for a second stint as assistant defensive head coach and defensive coordinator.
Ten minutes after hanging up, Brown received another call from Chizik. Intrigued, Brown picked up the phone.
“I have to tell Jonna I’m going to do it,” Chizik told her, referring to his wife.
Brown laughs as he recalls the story. It certainly seems providential that Chizik decided the time was right to return to coaching after spending the last five years as a college football analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network.
As a result, Chizik became one of the most notable assistant coaching hires of the entire offseason.
“It had to be the perfect script, the perfect fit,” Chizik said. “Because I could be difficult if I had to do that again. It was the singular fit that made the most sense. If I was going to be a coordinator somewhere, I had to be with someone I knew and understood. I wasn’t ready to roll the dice with anyone else.”
Chizik last coached in 2016, a lifetime ago considering all the changes that have happened in college football, from the transfer gate to NIL. When he left North Carolina after two years as a defensive coordinator at the time, he really didn’t know if he would be coaching again.
But he fielded phone calls every offseason with job offers.
“Every year for the last five,” he said of the offers. “Now, as you start to go into years 4 and 5, and they realize that you’re really retired and you’re not coming back, it’s become less [calls]but I said no to all of them because they had to be perfect for me.”
That includes interest from the USFL’s newest team, the Birmingham Stallions, earlier this year. Chizik confirmed in January that he had several discussions about joining as head coach, including one about two days before the official announcement that he would return to North Carolina. Again, here’s the familiar refrain when it comes to the Tar Heels – a perfect fit.
In a few months, Chizik has reconnected with what he lacked so much: education, competitiveness, the ability to have an impact on the young people he trains. (Certainly not sleepless nights).
On a personal level, however, the experience this time around will be totally different. Although Chizik cited family reasons when he stepped down in 2016, few knew how difficult things had become for all of his family members.
It all started at Auburn, where Chizik served as head coach from 2009 to 2012. When Chizik took the job, he promised his three children that they would never have to move again, no matter what.
After being fired after the 2012 season, they all stayed at Auburn so the kids could stay in school and keep their lives as normal as possible. Chizik also stayed and worked as an analyst at ESPN until North Carolina coach Larry Fedora called and offered him the defensive coordinator job in 2015.
Chizik knew that the only way he could accept would be to live alone in Chapel Hill, while his family stayed behind. Fedora agreed to allow him to return to Alabama whenever the schedule permitted. Chizik got an apartment 15 minutes from the football stadium. Although they visited and FaceTimed whenever possible, the stress of living away from her family for two years took an increasingly heavy toll.
“I’ll never forget, I was on the bus after we played Stanford in the bowling game in El Paso, and you have time to think, and I remember saying, ‘You know what? ? It’s time for me to go home. That’s when I made the decision,” Chizik said.
His twin daughters, Landry and Kennedy, were heading to Auburn, and he missed their senior year of high school. His youngest son, Cally, had suffered a neck injury during soccer practice, a moment that made Chizik re-evaluate everything. Although Cally never asked her father to be more present, Chizik felt he had to be there as a father.
“It’s really important that your family is there to watch you play,” Chizik said. “I know when I went to his football games one of the first things he did was he always looked up to see where we were sitting. I just wanted to be a dad and enjoy this part of his life and letting him know that meant enough for me to realize that I’m not there for him enough, I wanted to be there for him.
“For two years we did our best. But when you think about not being there, about things that are really important, which is baseball and football and all the other stuff, the dances and the balls, it’s It’s different when you ‘I don’t come home to the same house every night Completely different.
Chizik felt at peace with his decision, understanding one reality: he may never coach again. So he returned to work on television and went to support his children, turning down the opportunities that came his way.
But now that he’s back, he and his wife have already bought a house and she will be living with him in Chapel Hill for the first time. Cally is a cornerback at Furman and her daughters are settled with lives of their own. With worries off the pitch squared, Chizik can focus on his new team. There’s a lot of work to do on the UNC defense, which has struggled to tackle and prevent big plays in a 2021 season that didn’t go to plan.
The Tar Heels gave up 6.1 yards per game last season — ranking in the bottom third among all FBS teams. North Carolina has given up less than 400 yards per game in an entire season only once in the past five years.
Stacks of binders lined Chizik’s office in the spring, because there was so much to rediscover. But Chizik also knew that if he took the job, he would have to bring in Charlton Warren, whom he had become close to during his first stint in North Carolina.
Warren had risen through the coaching ranks after leaving the Tar Heels and was Indiana’s defensive coordinator when Chizik called. Warren agreed to leave a job as the sole defensive coordinator to take up a co-defensive coordinator position for the opportunity to work with Chizik again.
The pair had no background when Chizik interviewed him in 2015 for a defensive backs coaching job, but the job interview itself laid the groundwork for their relationship. They met early one morning in Atlanta, in some nondescript building in an industrial complex, so they could keep the interview a secret.
For eight hours, it was just Warren, Chizik and a whiteboard. Chizik didn’t just ask Warren to walk through the rooms, he asked him to explain every scenario he came up with. The more they talked, the more they bonded.
This link remained after the departure of Chizik. Chizik frequently called Warren to go over concepts and games — including hour-long Zoom calls going over specific details from games to new concepts he was running.
“You don’t study and meet if you’re not going to coach anymore,” Warren said. “The depth he went to, the details, the grades. He would go visit NFL teams. I knew he would end up being a football coach again.”
Without a doubt, this is a great season for North Carolina as they head into Year 4 under Brown. What appeared to be a program on an upward trajectory – with a pre-season ranking at No. 10 a year ago – suffered a setback after instead going 6-7, with an entire squad underperforming.
Despite the loss of starting quarterback Sam Howell, there are talented players returning – especially on defense, with a deep group along the defensive line and in the secondary.
“I think we can play defense really well because we’re talented,” Brown said. “We’re still young. We made too many mistakes last year. We had too many penalties and too many missed tackles. We’ll make sure we don’t give up so many explosive plays, because sometimes we played C’ is what drew me in. It’s my fault when you have a team that can play really well, but they don’t. It’s my job, and that’s why I felt like a failure. We have better players than our record. ‘I’m not going to do it again.’
The goal, of course, is to get to the ACC Championship Game, which Brown has eluded to date. There happens to be an assistant head coach on staff with ACC championship game experience: Chizik.