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July 22, 2009Lincoln (Ala.) head coach Keith Howard noticed it. It didn't take him long.
Once Gene Chizik was hired as the new Auburn head coach following the 2008 season, Howard saw a change in attitude on the Plains. It came from Chizik and trickled down to his staff of top-notch recruiters and coaches.
"He's just down-home, just as good as he can be. All of those coaches are very accessible," said Howard. "It's different from the past down there. I loved Coach (Tommy) Tuberville. He did a good job, but sometimes you didn't get to spend a lot of time with those guys.
"With the new guys, you have to get up and leave or they'll stay all night talking to you. They are there as long as you want to be there. They are working hard because they are there all the time."
Howard knows first-hand the work ethic of the new staff. His standout rising senior, athlete D.J. Howard (no relation), became Auburn's 11th commitment in the 2010 class Monday. A lot had to do with Chizik, the coach said, and the personal approach he and his staff are taking.
"It's all personal with him," said Keith Howard. "You go to some schools and sit down and fill out a form telling them your mother's name. You don't have to do that at Auburn. They already know. It's all very personal for them. They all want to get to know the family.
"As a matter of fact, Coach Chizik told D.J. the first time he met with him that he wanted to meet everyone in D.J.'s family that is important to him. Those kinds of things are strong."
D.J. Howard was recruited to Auburn by ace Tommy Thigpen. Thigpen has played a huge role in nearly half of the Tigers' '10 commitments. Of Auburn's 11 pledges, Thigpen has at least aided in the recruitment for five of them.
Keith Howard understands why Thigpen and the new staff are considered some of the best recruiters in the country.
"They have been very, very accessible," said Howard. "I heard Coach Chizik speak at the Alabama Coaches Association right after he was hired. He made the statement that they were going to be at every high school in Alabama and meet up with every coach. And they are working hard at it."
D.J. Howard's mother, Teresa Gaines, reiterated the coaches' thoughts on Thigpen and the new Auburn staff.
"I love Coach Thigpen to death," said Gaines. "He talks not over your head. He's right there with you. He knows what you're going through and he makes you feel comfortable.
"He makes you feel like family. That's what I love about Auburn."
Gaines said she feels as comfortable as possible with her son going away to college under the guidance of Thigpen, Chizik and staff. So does Keith Howard.
"I think it's great for D.J. I think they will keep an eye on him," said Keith Howard. "Getting to know Coach Thigpen like we have, I think anything that comes up, he'll stay on top of it and keep us informed, in touch with what's going on.
"I think one of the strong suits that Auburn coaches have is that we feel like they are going to be there. Everywhere he goes, he'll have someone watching him, taking care of him, making sure he does the things he needs to do and is there for him when things don't go well."
Not that D.J. Howard would need much help.
"He's a great kid. He works hard," said Keith Howard. "The attention that he's drawing now is well deserved. He hasn't missed a workout since he's been here."
Gaines said she received two blessings when her son committed to Auburn and the new staff.
"It's a weight off my shoulders and his. I would've never been able to afford college," said Gaines. "God heard my prayers. If not for Him, none of this would be possible.
"And I've been an Auburn fan quietly, but a big Auburn fan. I didn't let it influence D.J. in anyway. I let him make his own decision.
"But I have to admit, I love it."
So do the new Auburn coaches.