The final memory Auburn running back Tre Mason has of Gene Chizik as his coach forced a smile on an otherwise disappointing Sunday afternoon.
The moment was easy to ignore. Buried under an embarrassing 49-0 deficit against No. 2 Alabama with 11 seconds left Saturday night, Chizik turned to Mason on the sideline with a promise to keep.
Mason was 3 yards from 1,000 on his sophomore season. Chizik had assured his tailback the milestone would be reached, even against the Tide’s vaunted rush defense.
With one play left, Chizik sent Mason onto the field for his final carry. Five yards later, he crossed his goal.
“That shows the type of guys he is,” Mason said. “He stuck to his word. He told me that we were going to get me 1,000 yards. We were down to the final seconds of the game and everybody gave it their all. People were pushing me in the back, trying to get those extra yards.”
Chizik is a good man. Even the angriest fans frustrated with the 3-9 record that eventually cost Chizik his job Sunday after four seasons at Auburn never discredit that. It’s partly why players unified Saturday supporting their coach in Bryant-Denny Stadium’s media room after Auburn’s second-worst loss in the Iron Bowl’s 77-game history.
But there was something more.
Senior tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who has played his final Auburn game and will leave for the NFL in April, said players felt plenty of guilt.
“Coach Chizik is going to take all the blame for it, but at the same time we're the ones playing the games and we're the ones out there,” Lutzenkirchen said. “We're giving our best effort, but our best effort wasn't good enough. It's tough, a lot of mixed emotions going on, but it's what Auburn has to do right now and we just have to look forward.”
Players had an opportunity to say goodbye to their coach during a Sunday afternoon meeting at the football complex. Mason described the atmosphere as “dead silence, a lot of hearts were broken.”
The quiet was interrupted at the end when players stood to give Chizik an ovation.
“It was a rough day for everybody. It's tough,” Mason said. “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.”
Mason said a monumental task awaits him and his teammates as the program transitions to a new coach.
Any time there is a turnover, attrition naturally follows. Mason said he’ll work to keep his teammates at Auburn.
“It’s going to be a challenge because peoples’ minds go every way,” Mason said. “People are just going to be like, ‘Should I leave, should I stay?’ But I’m pretty sure that people will probably stay, stick together as a family.”
Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs seemed unworried Sunday as he spoke with the media.
Jacobs declined to offer details of his conversation with players, but added his primary reason for recommending Chizik be fired to Auburn president Jay Gogue was the players’ well-being.
“I’ll tell you this, they are a class group,” Jacobs said. “One of them came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Mr. Jacobs, we love Auburn and we all are going to be here.’ They all lined up down the hall way after it was over to shake Gene’s hand.
“My primary consideration was doing what is in the best interest of our current student-athletes and the future of our football program.”
Ryan Wood is the Auburn University Sports Beat Writer for the Opelika-Auburn News.
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