Jan. 1, 2014
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. - Last winter and spring, as I tried my best to get to know the men who would coach Auburn’s football team, there was a recurring theme. They all talked about the passion for football they felt at Auburn and about Auburn’s history of excellence.
And they all talked about Gus Malzahn.
All these men who came from different places and different backgrounds had one thing in common: They had bought into Malzahn’s vision of what he wanted Auburn football to be. And they were all convinced it would happen.
Not one of them said anything about it happening in 2013.
What I didn’t know was that, even as those conversations were going on, the fabric of Auburn’s football team was changing. It was changing in the weight room where new strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell was doing more than overseeing workouts. He was changing young men physically and emotionally.
“Collectively, as a team, Coach Russell has gotten us in shape like never before,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “I think everybody has been getting a lot bigger, stronger and faster.”
Uzomah didn’t say that after Auburn was winning games. He said it last July.
As running backs coach Tim Horton said the other day, the players deserve most of the credit for Auburn winning the SEC championship and earning a spot in the BCS Championship Game. The contributions of coaches, starting with Malzahn, can’t be minimized either.
But when players talk about how they went from a 3-9 team that couldn’t compete to one that went 12-1, you hear Russell’s name mentioned more than any other.
Russell shrugs it off, deflecting credit to the players for working hard. Whether he is the best strength coach in the country or the second best or the third best, I have no idea. What I know is that he has had a remarkable impact on a team that has done far more than even the most optimistic of fans would ever have thought possible.
Auburn players have continued to get bigger, stronger and faster throughout the season. From what players and others tell me, that is all but unheard of.
Russell believes in competition. And players thrive on it. When someone reaches a personal best, he rings a bell. Those rings are hard-earned.
"We put these guys in some unbelievably tough situations," Russell said. "We tell them all the time that confidence is earned. You have to earn confidence by paying the price. You can have pain of hard work or pain of regret. You'd better work hard, because if you don't, you're going to be regretting it on Saturday."
Malzahn had known Russell when he was Auburn’s offensive coordinator and Russell was Kevin Yoxall’s assistant. When Malzahn went to Arkansas State after the 2011 season, he hired Russell. When he returned to Auburn, he hired Russell again.
Malzahn hired Russell, who had been an assistant for Kevin Yoxall at Auburn while Malzahn was offensive coordinator, when he went to Arkansas State as head coach in 2012. When Malzahn returned to Auburn, he hired Russell again.
Auburn players respected Yoxall and believed in him. They weren’t sure what to think when Russell moved into Yoxall’s old office. But they soon were sold.
“If you don’t feel like doing it today, he’s going to push you to the max and help you get through it,” Prosch said. “We’ve been grinding all season. Even though we’ve played hard games, he’s continued to push us. Guys have been getting stronger during the season. He’s an outstanding strength coach.”
The cameras won’t be on Russell on Monday night. Like most in his business, he’s largely invisible beyond his own program. But Auburn players know and their coaches know.
Auburn is one of two teams still standing in the race for the national championship. And it all started far from the cheering crowds when a young strength and conditioning coach helped a team of players who had lost trust in almost everything and everybody believe again.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: