CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Over the past five years, every now and then, Mack Brown would ask Gene Chizik a version of the same question.
“Are you ready to coach again?”
Brown asked it four years ago, before he got back into coaching at North Carolina. At the time, Chizik told him he was not ready just yet. Then in spring 2021, when Chizik had a few opportunities come his way, Brown told him, “You’ve got to decide if you want to coach again.”
Chizik had a simple reply.
“I do,” he told Brown. “I’ve got one more in me.”
Neither knew in that moment 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, whether Chizik was head coach at Auburn or defensive coordinator at UNC or a TV analyst.
But when Brown called him in January, he asked him that same familiar question, only with a little added weight: “Are you interested in coaching again?”
It did not take long for Chizik to say yes, bringing him back to the Tar Heels for a second stint as assistant head coach for defense and defensive coordinator.
Ten minutes after hanging up, Brown got another call from Chizik. Puzzled, Brown picked up.
“I need to tell Jonna that I’m going to do this,” Chizik told him, referring to his wife.
Brown chuckles recalling the story. It certainly seems providential that Chizik decided now was the right time to return to coaching after spending the past 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 scenario, the perfect fit,” Chizik said. “Because I could be choosy if I was going to do this again. This was the singular fit that made the most sense. If I was going to be a coordinator somewhere, I had to be with somebody that I knew and that I understood. I was not willing to roll the dice with somebody else.”
Chizik last coached in 2016, a lifetime ago considering all the changes that have happened across the board in college football, from the transfer portal to NIL. When he walked away from North Carolina after two years as defensive coordinator back then, he truly did not know whether he would coach again.
But he fielded phone calls every single offseason with job offers.
“Every year for the last five,” he said of the offers. “Now as you start getting into Year 4 and Year 5, and they realize that you’re really kind of retired and you’re not coming back, there became less [calls], but I said no to every one of them because they had to be perfect for me.”
That includes interest from the new USFL team the Birmingham Stallions earlier this year. Chizik confirmed in January he had several discussions about joining as a head coach, including one roughly two days before the official announcement stating he would return to North Carolina. Again, here is the familiar refrain when it comes to the Tar Heels — perfect fit.
In a few short months, Chizik has reacquainted himself with what he missed so much: The teaching, the competitiveness, the ability to have an impact on the young men he coaches. (Definitely not the sleepless nights).
On a personal level, though, the experience this time around will be totally different. Though Chizik cited family reasons when he stepped away in 2016, few knew how difficult the situation had become on everyone in his family.
It started at Auburn, where Chizik was head coach from 2009 to 2012. When Chizik took the job, he promised his three kids they would never have to move again — no matter what.
After he was fired following the 2012 season, they all stayed in Auburn so the kids could stay in school and keep their lives as normal as possible. Chizik stayed, too, and worked as an analyst at ESPN until then-North Carolina coach Larry Fedora called and offered him the defensive coordinator job in 2015.
Chizik knew 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 commute back to Alabama whenever the schedule allowed. Chizik got an apartment 15 minutes away from the football facility. Though they visited and FaceTimed whenever possible, the stress over living away from his family for two years took an increasingly heavy toll.
“I’ll never forget, I was on the bus after we played Stanford in the bowl game in El Paso, and you have time to reflect, and I remember going, ‘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 headed to Auburn, and he missed their senior year of high school. His youngest son, Cally, had sustained a neck injury during football practice, a moment that made Chizik reevaluate everything. Though Cally never asked for his father to be around more, Chizik sensed he needed to be there as a father.
“It’s really important for your family to be there watching you play,” Chizik said. “I know that when I went to his football games, one of the first things he did is he always looked up to see where we were sitting. I just wanted to be a dad and enjoy that part of his life and let him know it meant enough for me to realize I am not there enough for him. I wanted to be there for him.
“For two years, we did the best we could. But when you reflect on basically not being there, on things that are really important, which is baseball and football and all the other things, dances and proms, it is different when you’re not coming home to the same house every night. Completely different.”
Chizik felt at peace with his decision, understanding one reality: He might not ever coach again. So he returned to television work and went to support his kids, turning down the opportunities that came his way.
But now that he is back, he and his wife have already bought a home and she will live with him in Chapel Hill for the first time. Cally is a cornerback at Furman and his daughters are settled in with their own lives. With the off-the-field concerns squared away, Chizik can focus on his new team. There is plenty of work ahead for the UNC defense, which struggled to tackle and prevent big plays in a 2021 season that did not go as planned.
The Tar Heels gave up 6.1 yards per play last season — ranking in the bottom third among all FBS teams. North Carolina has given up fewer than 400 yards per game over the course of an entire season only once in the past five years.
Stacks of binders lined Chizik’s office in the spring, because there is plenty of reacquainting to do. But Chizik also knew if he was going to take this job, he would have to bring in Charlton Warren, with whom he had grown close during his first stint with North Carolina.
Warren had moved up the coaching ranks after leaving the Tar Heels, and was the defensive coordinator at Indiana when Chizik called. Warren agreed to leave a job as the sole defensive coordinator to take a job as co-defensive coordinator for the opportunity to work with Chizik again.
The two had no previous history when Chizik interviewed him in 2015 for a job as defensive backs coach, but the job interview itself established the foundation of their relationship. They met early one morning in Atlanta, in a nondescript building in an industrial complex so they could keep the interview under wraps.
For eight hours, it was just Warren, Chizik and a white board. Chizik not only asked Warren to run through plays, he asked him to explain every scenario he drew up. The more they talked, the more they bonded.
That bond remained after Chizik stepped away. Chizik called Warren frequently to go over concepts and plays — including hours-long Zoom calls going over specific details from games to new concepts that he was running.
“You don’t study and meet if you aren’t going to coach again,” Warren said. “The depth he went into, the detail, the notes. He’d go visit NFL teams. I knew eventually he would become a football coach again.”
Without question, this is a big season for North Carolina as it heads into Year 4 under Brown. What appeared to be a program on an upward trajectory — with a preseason ranking at No. 10 a year ago — hit a setback after instead going 6-7, with an entire team that underperformed.
Despite losing 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 really good on defense because we’re talented,” Brown said. “We’re young still. We made too many mistakes last year. We had too many penalties, and too many missed tackles. We’re going to make sure that we don’t give up as many explosive plays, because sometimes we played great. That’s what got me. It’s my fault when you have a team that can play great, but they don’t. That’s my job, and that’s why I felt like a failure. We’ve got better players than our record. We’re not going to do that again.”
The goal, of course, is to make it to the ACC championship game, something that has eluded Brown to date. As it happens, there is an assistant head coach on staff with ACC championship game experience: Chizik.