Chizik returns to rebuild UNC defense again

The former national champion is back in Chapel Hill — and on Mack Brown’s staff

Gene Chizik has returned to Chapel Hill for a second tour of duty running the Tar Heels' defense, this time under coach Mack Brown. Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

It took three years longer than expected, but Mack has his man on defense.

When Mack Brown returned to Chapel Hill, replacing Larry Fedora as Tar Heels football coach after the 2018 season, there was speculation that he was bringing an all-star staff with him.

Kliff Kingsbury would be the UNC offensive coordinator in 2019, with Gene Chizik serving as defensive coordinator.

Kingsbury had better things to do, however — like taking an NFL head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals. Chizik decided to remain home with his family, where he’d been since leaving the coaching ranks in 2016.

Fast forward to Tuesday. Kingsbury’s season just ended after taking the Cardinals to the NFL playoffs. He doesn’t seem destined for Chapel Hill any time soon, and Phil Longo, hired by Brown as offensive coordinator in place of Kingsbury, appears entrenched in the position.

Chizik, however, has found his way back to Chapel Hill in a return that seems almost as improbable as Brown’s was three years ago. The Tar Heels parted ways with coordinator Jay Bateman, who had served in that role for the first three seasons of Brown’s return, following a disappointing performance by the unit in 2021.

The call went out to Chizik, and this time he was willing to end his pseudo-retirement and return to the sidelines with the Tar Heels. That creates an interesting staff in Chapel Hill, something football hasn’t seen in nearly a century.

Chizik coached Auburn to the 2010 national title. Brown was head coach of the 2005 Texas Longhorns title team — with Chizik serving as his defensive coordinator with the Longhorns. That gives UNC a staff featuring two coaches who have won national titles, just the second time that’s happened in college football history.

In 1925, Harvard was coached by Bob Fisher, who won the 1919 title with the Crimson. Charles Daly, who won a title in 1914 with Army, was his assistant.

In fact, Chizik is just the seventh man to win a title as a head coach and go on to serve as an assistant anywhere afterward. Dennis Erickson (Utah, 2013-16 after winning a title at Miami in 1991) is the only other coach to do it in the last 60 years.

And Chizik has now done it twice with the same team.

He joined Fedora in Chapel Hill for the 2015 season, taking over a Tar Heels defense that had allowed 497 yards per game — fourth worst in Power Five. Chizik improved the defense by 24 spots in the national rankings in his first year with Carolina and another 33 spots the following season.

There was speculation at the time that Chizik may have been UNC’s coach-in-waiting, with Fedora struggling as the Tar Heels head man. With Chizik rebuilding the defense, however, Fedora and the Heels won the ACC Coastal Division, and he kept his job. Chizik eventually stepped down to spend time with his family.

“I left because there were some family dynamics going on that I wanted to make sure I was able to look back on my career and make sure that I did everything right by my family as well,” he said. “So I decided to take a step out of college coaching not really knowing whether I would get back in or not, to be fair.”

Now, with Brown turning 70 and the Tar Heels having a 2021 season far below expectations, the speculation that Chizik is again looking to inherit a head coaching job has returned.

Chizik, 60, put those rumors to rest in his re-introductory press conference.

“Zero discussion about that,” Chizik said. “I’ve got this one mindset. And this mindset is I want to come back to the University of North Carolina. I want to enjoy myself. I want to have a blast. I want to put a great defense on the field for the University of North Carolina and Mack Brown. And that’s all I care about. That’s all I focus on.”

His rebuild isn’t quite as daunting as when Fedora brought him in. The Tar Heel defense was No. 120 nationally back then. This year, it was “only” 105th, allowing 32.1 points per game and 6.1 yards per play.

Just like last time, however, he plans to focus on fundamentals.

“This game is about tackling,” Chizik said. “This game is about attacking. This game is about execution. Limiting the catastrophic and big plays, right? So that’s going to be the nuts and bolts of everything we talked about. … If you’re not good at a combat attack mindset, if you’re not good at tackling, if you’re not disciplined and accountable to where and how you fit in the defense, you have no defense.”

The Tar Heels should have a defense in 2021, and it will be led by somebody no one saw coming a year ago.

Who knows, maybe someday, Brown will get the “Kingsbury” nameplate out of storage too.