Wiedmer: Newton saga 'not finished,' and Chizik showing irritation

Wiedmer: Newton saga 'not finished,' and Chizik showing irritation

July 22nd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

HOOVER, Ala. -- We now have somewhat irrefutable proof that the Cam Newton situation is finally getting to Auburn football coach Gene Chizik.

We say this in light of Chizik's short-term memory loss during his Thursday morning appearance at the Southeastern Conference's Football Media Days.

Having answered seven questions concerning the Tigers' ongoing NCAA concerns over the recruitment of Newton -- who did stick around long enough to win both the Heisman Trophy and national championship last season before turning pro -- Chizik said, "Again, as I've said for maybe the fifth time today, I feel really good when my head hits the pillow at night."

Trouble was, he had uttered those words only twice -- after the print media's sixth and 18th questions to him.

When you can't remember whether you said something two times or five times in a span of 15 minutes, you're clearly feeling the heat.

Or maybe Chizik is upset only that these repeated questions about a player no longer on his roster keep getting in the way of what he really wants to talk about: "Graduating players and winning championships."

Not that Chizik has resided in the Loveliest Village on the Plain long enough to have a graduation rate. But he has taken just two seasons to win the school's first national title since 1957. Even Alabama's resident genius Nick Saban needed three years to win the Crimson Tide's first title since 1992.

Assuming the NCAA allows the Tigers to keep their latest crown, Chizik appears to be building a program capable of yearly challenging both LSU and Bama in the SEC West.

He even said as much before the Newton questions began, telling all who would listen, "I feel really excited about not just the 2011 football season, but really just kind of where we are as a program."

Yet that's also where everything gets a wee bit murky. Is Auburn truly where it appears to be -- in the NCAA clear? Or are those serious storm clouds on the horizon, given the conversation reported to have taken place between Chizik and Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA's director of enforcement, at the SEC's spring meetings in Destin?

According to an article in last week's New York Times, Chizik asked Lach during a coaches' meeting when the NCAA intended to make public that its investigation was over.

She supposedly replied, "You'll know when we're finished. And we're not finished."

Understandably upset by this conversation going public, Chizik said Thursday, "Typically, I don't talk about what I thought were private meetings. Apparently, it became public, so for that reason I will address it. It was a real simple question to Julie. [Her answer] was very informative. There were some clarifications that were made that had to do with the process."

And that was basically all he said about Destin, except to reiterate a second time, his face seemingly frozen in a forced smile, "She was very willing to clarify for me, and I appreciated that."

It's at this point that you can imagine a scene unfolding in Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs' office the week after Destin in which the AD did all the talking and Chizik all the listening, the lecture ending with, "And when you get to Hoover, you're going to tell the media how much you appreciated Julie Roe Lach's clarifications. And you're going to smile when you say it. And that's all you're going to say."

So Chizik politely denied the Times' assertion that the meeting was testy. He instead spoke enthusiastically of Auburn's recent top-five back-to-back recruiting classes, of its brand new $16 million indoor practice facility, of the stunning support of the "Auburn family."

And then, just to prove there really might be a wry sense of humor beneath his robotic facade, Chizik said this about the NCAA denying freshman running back Mike Blakely immediate eligibility after his transfer from Florida.

Sounding eerily like the NCAA's Lach, he said: "We're still working through the process. When the process is completely finished, I'll let you know."

As Auburn players were wrapping up their media responsibilities, Tigers tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen said, "There will never be another Cameron Newton."

And he's right. But not until the NCAA finishes its investigation will the Auburn family know if that's a good thing or a bad thing for its latest national championship.