"Can I throw this ball with my Dad?" he asked in his best four-year-old voice, this little boy with the new burnt orange Texas cap and the kid-sized football he'd just been given in the Longhorn football offices.
Chip Robertson, the Longhorn equipment manager who had produced the new prize, smiled. So did Mack and Sally Brown. For Gene and Jonna Chizik, it wasn't a new thing. It was a true thing, a validation of relationships and values that run deep, and are part of the fiber of the new Longhorn co-defensive coordinator.
A few minutes later, Chizik would meet the members of the Texas Longhorn football team. Somewhere between the little boy with the football, and the young men who play the game today, there is a tale that includes a role model whose life molded his son, and who was his inspiration. And that is where our story begins: In a place far away, in a time that has passed.
Sugar Loaf Hill was only a little more than 50 feet high and three football fields long, a knoll in a trio of them on an obscure island in the Pacific Ocean. To understand Gene Chizik, it is important to understand about Sugar Loaf Hill.
Because it was there that lessons of humility, character, commitment, team, loyalty and family all were manifested. For it was there that his father, Gene Chizik, Sr., earned a medal for bravery that he never bragged about, and survived a battle not many men did.
And when he returned from the war, he gave his life to teaching and coaching, and he fathered a son who became his best friend.
"Absolutely," says the new Longhorn coach, one of the true bright stars in college football after helping Auburn to an unbeaten season and winning the award as the nation's top assistant coach before taking the Texas job. "He was the man. My father and I were very close. He was a Marine, a tough, tough guy. He was a man's man. When he came back from the war, he finished college playing football, and from there he went directly into coaching, then went into administration and was a high school principal."
For 41 years, Gene Chizik, Sr., worked in the school system in Florida. He was 40 years old when his only son was born to join three older sisters in a unique family. He was the best man in his son's wedding, As a kid, young Gene even remembered seeing a medal his Dad got in the war, but they never talked about it. Life was way too active to be caught up in the past, and being active, for a kid growing up in Clearwater, Fla., meant outdoors and football.
"As far back as I can remember, football's either been on the TV, or we were playing it in the yard. It's always been in my blood, it's always been a part of my life. I can never remember it not being," he says.
So it was absolutely natural that he would follow in his Dad's footsteps and become a coach, because he embodies every facet of what coaching is about..
"I do it because I love it," he says. "I love being around young men. I want to have an impact on their lives, and I do it with passion. I love the camaraderie, the fellowship. The fact that you have to get so many guys from so many different backgrounds, from so many different cultures, you've got to get them all on the same page. They all have to believe in one thing, and they all have to believe they are working for the same thing. That's not easy to do, but it's fun to do."
He's an ardent chess player, who enjoys the strategy of the game. But he also likes the aggressive nature of the defensive side of the ball.
"I was a linebacker growing up. I was a quarterback at one point, and I decided I didn't like getting hit. I would rather do the hitting," he said. "I love the chess games you play with the offense, trying to get the right numbers of people in the right spots. To me, defense is a mentality. When you say the word 'defense,' one word comes to mind that's 'violence.' I think it's the only place you can go and be a violent person and not get in trouble for it."
Chess is the least physically active of the games Chizik still plays.
"It's one of those competitive games I can still play and not be sore in the morning," he jokes. But a big part of his life is committed to the outdoors. "I love to work out. It keeps you healthy, keeps your mind right, your mind and body fit."
Gene Chizik is a perfect fit for Mack Brown's program at Texas because he's really good at what he does, and because he believes in the same concepts which have brought this Longhorn family to its greatest success in 30 years.
"Everything, in my opinion, that is good in college football comes from the team concept. That's what's neat about football. It's not about one guy, it's not about two guys. It's about collectively a whole group of guys getting together to believe and to try to achieve one common goal. It's neat as a coach that we get to try to direct them to the best of our ability in getting them to buy into that. You can build on those things, and dreams can come true. That's a good thing. But it's not lip service. Don't tell me you believe. You've got to show me that you are willing to. It is easy to say, not easy to do."
It was as an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, in East Texas, where he first learned of football at The University of Texas. In his six-year stint there from 1992-97, he never envisioned himself coaching the Longhorns, but he came to understand.
"I saw what a phenomenal place The University of Texas was, and in my mind, I knew that this is the best place in the country. Did I ever imagine myself coming here? No. I didn't really know that opportunity would present itself. But when you talk about trying to get to the top of your profession and to the pinnacle of college football, I knew that Texas was right there at the top."
And for Gene Chizik, getting to the top is the deal.
"I don't want people to make more out of this than it really needs to be. Everybody who coaches wants to be a head coach. My goal is that whatever I do, I want to be the best at it. I want to do it at the highest level and be the best I can be. I don't do it for the money, and I don't do it for the notoriety, and I don't do it because I want to be on TV. I do it because I love the game. And I want to do it because I want to be a small part of something that's a lot bigger than myself."
Somewhere in the distance, you could almost hear an old Marine speaking.
"That's my Dad. That's why I do it. I want to be a great role model for young men, and in the end, when they get done playing for me, the most satisfying moment that I get is when guys can come back and look back and say 'Boy, you know what, you really taught me how to be a man. You taught me what really mattered.'"
And what really matters to Gene Chizik?
"My family is the most important thing in my life, God, and my family, in that order. My wife and my three children are the driving force in my life now. Everything I do is for them, and they're what mean the most to me. Period."
That part of his life began to come together when he was an assistant coach at Middle Tennessee, and had come home to Clearwater for Christmas. There, he met a drop-dead gorgeous 22-year old blonde who had just graduated from Florida State. He didn't remember her, but she remembered him.
His high school coach, John Nicely, had hung the pictures of the captains of his teams in his home. And when Gene Chizik met Jonna Nicely, he remembered a little fifth grader who used to hang around the field house.
And together, they formed a family that includes twin seven-year-old girls, Landry Grace and Kennedy Danielle, and a little four year old boy named Cally. They ride bikes, enjoy sports, love the beach.
"We try to do things together as much as we can. They're my pride and joy, and they're what I do. Football and family are really my two things. There's not time for anything else," he says.
When Gene Chizik, Sr., was in the twilight of his life, in the final days, an old friend came to visit him in the hospital.
"That's okay, Chizik," said his friend. "You had 53 years more than you should have."
When the conversation finished and the man walked into the hall, Gene Chizik, Jr., asked him what he meant.
"Didn't he ever tell you about Sugar Loaf Hill?" he asked. "That's where he got his Bronze Star. A hundred and forty of them went up, and 12 came back. He was one of the front liners."
In his book, Goodbye Darkness, famed author William Manchester talks about his own time on Sugar Loaf Hill, on the island of Okinawa, where it took 10 days and cost 7,547 Marine casualties to win the last great battle of World War II, one which Newsweek Magazine called "the most critical local battle of the war." This coming May, it will have been 60 years since William Manchester and Gene Chizik, Sr., fought there.
Working through a sea of memories that had troubled him most of his life, Manchester visited Sugar Loaf Hill years after the battle, and found some answers.
"Men," he wrote, "I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another."
And that is the ultimate commitment to team.
Gene Chizik, Sr., died a day or two after his son and his old friend talked.
"He was an amazing man," says the new Texas coach. "It was a real struggle for me for a while. He was very proud of everything I've done. But I have never looked back and said, 'I wish I'd done this or done that.' I told him I loved him every day."
And now, as he moves his young family into a cradle of football in the Texas Hill Country, he embraces new folks, new friends, and new opportunities, there is one thing that matters above all others to him.
"I hope I can be to my son just half of what my Dad was to me. Everything you do in your life boils down to how you do people. Everything's about people. Coaching football is about people. Running a business is about people. Everything is about the way you treat people. People just want to be treated honestly and fair and right. That's what I want. If you do that, everything else just takes care of itself."
And in his biggest little four-year-old voice, Cally asked again: "Can I throw this ball with my Dad?"