For two years, Jonna Chizik, the wife of North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, cherished every second with her husband and children, knowing the day would eventually arrive.
They went on family vacations. They held family game nights. They celebrated Thanksgiving, and above all else, they escaped the college football lifestyle that previously defined their family dynamic.
Football wasn’t a part of the equation for the first time in their relationship. But a return to the game, a return to reality, was never ruled out.
“We took it one day at a time without really boxing ourselves in, saying, ‘This is the next step, or that is the next step,’” Gene said. “There were a lot of conversations about being open-minded, about what the next thing would be if there was a next thing coaching-wise.”
That next thing came this past offseason, on Jan. 19 to be exact, when Gene ended his coaching hiatus and elected to assist Coach Larry Fedora in an effort to rebuild the UNC defense.
The day Jonna anticipated was here.
United by football
She barely knew him.
Jonna’s path intersected with Gene’s in the late 1970s at Clearwater High School in Florida, where her father coached him in football. But Jonna, who was in elementary school at the time, doesn’t remember when she first met her future husband.
“I didn’t really know him then, but he has known me forever,” she said.
Their paths diverged. Gene attended Florida before entering the coaching ranks. Jonna went to Clearwater and later Florida State. But football reunited them.
After graduating from FSU in 1991, Jonna returned home. And for Christmas, Gene did the same. In his first full-time college-coaching gig at Middle Tennessee State, he came to Clearwater on a recruiting trip. He left with a companion.
They spent time together over the holiday and began dating shortly after. In 1996, they got married and had three children — twin girls and a boy — within their first three years of marriage.
And as quickly as Gene established a family, he proved himself a football coach — a defensive guru known for his attention to details and a track record of success.
He landed his first defensive coordinator job in 1998 at Central Florida and made the leap to the same position at Auburn in 2001. There he constructed one of the best defenses in the nation.
So when Texas head coach Mack Brown needed a new defensive coordinator after the 2004 season, he called Gene.
“The guy’s got championships written all over him,” said Brown, who coached at UNC from 1988-97. “He’s very smart and passionate about football. He’s a great teacher, and the kids and the staff on his side of the ball really buy into him.”
And that’s what they did. With Gene at the helm of the Longhorns’ defense, Texas captured the 2005 BCS National Championship.
But even with all of his success, the family never stayed in one spot for long. They remained in Texas for one more year before heading to Iowa State, where Gene served as the head coach.
The emotional and mental toll weighed on everyone — they searched for a place to call home.
A promise kept
She knew it was the right decision.
After two seasons at Iowa State, Gene accepted the head-coaching position at Auburn in 2009. The Chiziks moved again, their fifth state change in eight years — but the family welcomed it.
The twins started preschool in Auburn during Gene’s first stint with the Tigers. And, for once, they didn’t need to form new relationships. The Chiziks maintained their roots in Auburn. And like any good set of roots, they dug deep. Jonna and Gene made a promise to their children — the twins could finish school in Auburn.
“We were gone probably four years, but this is what they consider home,” Jonna said.
Four years and another national championship later, that guarantee remained intact. After a 3-9 record in 2012 resulted in Gene’s dismissal from Auburn, the family stayed put. Gene opted to not return to football in 2013 or 2014. He traded his spot on the sideline for spectator seats at his son’s games and practices.
The family caught up on lost time. They spent time with friends and family they hadn’t seen. They celebrated Christmas at home instead of at a bowl game. Stepping away from coaching allowed Gene to get a taste of what he’d missed.
“I would never trade the two years I had with my family for anything,” he said.
In 26 years, Gene had never been fired. Although he didn’t regret his final season with the Tigers, he often reflected on it and searched for closure.
He still worked in college football as an analyst with Sirius/XM Radio. But it wasn’t the same. Jonna savored the time with her husband — she knew it wouldn’t be long.
“The thing he missed the most was being on the field,” she said. “He loves coaching those kids. He loves interacting with them, and more importantly, he loves changing lives and being a part of the process of changing lives. And he really likes to win.”
An offer he couldn’t refuse
She knew it was time to say goodbye.
After UNC offered Gene the defensive coordinator position in late December, the whole family mulled over the decision for days.
“It was a matter of the right fit at this stage in the game,” Jonna said. “As a family, you have to be mindful. You’ve moved your family so many times. What is going to be the best fit for the family? And we felt like (UNC) was the best fit.”
The idea of Jonna staying with the kids as Gene left to coach had been an afterthought through his career. Despite the chaos associated with constantly moving, they would never consider separating.
But they had made a promise. With twins Kennedy and Landry entering their senior years of high school, Gene and Jonna weren’t going to make them move again. There was only one option — Gene had to leave the family behind.
With the start of the season less than a week away, Jonna knows Gene won’t have an off day until February. She and the kids will attend Thursday’s season opener against South Carolina, marking the first time she’ll have seen her husband in nearly six weeks.
But to her, the children and Gene, the past two years have been everything.
“I’ve seen a renewed something in his spirit. I think it has everything to do with the two years off. He’d done it for 30 straight years. I think it was like 29. I lost count before I even met him. That had to be a grueling and exhausting pace because it’s the whole year, all year, and they get very little time off.
“It probably was the best, worst thing that ever happened to us as a family, those two years.”