By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
As the Cullman County Auburn club president, Curtis Mize doesn’t consider himself very high on the university’s food chain. When the Tigers began hunting for a new head coach after ousting their old one, Gene Chizik, on Nov. 25, he knew the final decision would be made by the “men in the skybox,” not by “the common folk.”
Though he obviously didn’t have a say in the school’s ultimate choice — former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn — that didn’t mean Mize couldn’t share his opinion on Auburn’s latest hire. The president was personally pleased with the ex-assistant’s selection and had only heard positive comments from local club members he had spoken to late Tuesday afternoon.
“I feel like they made a good choice because this coach was there when some of these players were recruited, and he knows his way around Auburn,” Mize said of Malzahn. “He doesn’t have a lot of head coaching experience, but I think he’s got the potential to hold it down.”
Notable names like Jimbo Fisher, Bobby Petrino and Kirby Smart surfaced alongside Malzahn’s at various times throughout the nine-day search for Chizik’s replacement. Mize would’ve accepted any of the four candidates but preferred the Tigers refrain from hiring Petrino because of the indiscretions that resulted in his firing as the head coach at Arkansas.
“He probably would’ve won games, but he comes with too much baggage,” Mize said. “I think Auburn is a little bit above that. He has some big wins under his belt, but where he’s been, he left under interesting conditions. I don’t think I would have been all that happy.”
As a faithful alumnus and true believer in the university, abandoning the Tigers never once crossed his mind while the program considered bringing Petrino aboard.
“I would’ve gone with it because I trust Auburn’s leadership,” Mize said. “In this case, I think they did the right thing.”
Many fans and Alabamians have quickly turned on Chizik since his dismissal less than two weeks ago. The Tigers underwent an unprecedented downfall following their national title run in 2010, finishing 7-5 the next year and 3-9 with zero victories in Southeastern Conference play this past season.
Between Auburn’s on- and off-field issues, Chizik seemingly lost control of his players, and with it, a great deal of respect from the school’s faithful fanbase.
Mize was never included in that group on non-believers, however. He still maintains Chizik, who included the Cullman County Auburn Club on his annual Tiger Trek all four years he spent at the university, is “a great, Christian man.”
“He liked Cullman, and Cullman liked him,” Mize said. “We thought the world of him. I really feel like there was more going on within the program that never came to light. It just seemed to be he didn’t have that cohesive feel among the team members you’d seen before.
“He was doing the best he could, but if they don’t meet you halfway, it makes it pretty hard to pull the whole log.”
In a football-crazed state like Alabama, Malzahn will surely be expected to turn around the Tiger football program as quickly as possible. The coach’s high-powered offensive schemes should help the situation, but so too will the full support of the Auburn community, according to Mize.
“I think we took a good first step today,” the president said. “But a lot will depend of the attitude of a lot of people. Fans and alumni and everybody will have to stand behind them.
“We may not blow anyone out of the water this coming season, but anything we do hopefully is going to be better than what we just got out of. Auburn people have been bumped on the head before and come back, so I think we can make it back from this.”
Mize has yet to hear if the Cullman County Auburn Club will be picked as a stop on next year’s Tiger Trek. The local chapter hosted Chizik at its last four scholarship banquets and plans to extend the same invitation to Malzahn.
“We’re looking for another good year,” Mize said. “We’re not changing the way we do things. They’ve got our support, and we’ve got their back, too.”
‰ Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.