Jan. 14, 2014
AUBURN, Ala. - When Pat Dye arrived at Auburn in 1981, legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant was nearing the end of his career. Recruiting became more difficult when Bryant couldn't tell recruits he would be around throughout their careers. And after Dye's second season, Bryant retired.
In 1999, Tommy Tuberville's first season at Auburn, Alabama won the SEC championship. But starting the next season, Alabama's program imploded. The next eight years would be marked by NCAA problems, one coach mired in an infidelity scandal, another who got out of town as quickly as he could, another who never coached a game and another who couldn't overcome sanctions and scholarship losses.
Both Dye and Tuberville took full advantage. Dye won four SEC championships. Tuberville won 85 games in 10 seasons, beat Alabama six consecutive times and had a 13-0 season in 2004.
Gus Malzahn had no such advantages when he arrived as head coach on Dec. 4, 2012. Alabama was getting ready to win its second consecutive national championship and third in four seasons. Alabama head coach Nick Saban was the biggest name in college football, perhaps in all of football. He was lauded daily as the game's greatest coach.
At Auburn, Malzahn inherited a team that had gone through the program's worst season in 60 years. It had gone 3-9 and was on a 10-game Southeastern Conference losing streak. Malzahn said that night and repeated on the speaking circuit that Auburn would be back to winning championships sooner than most expected. Making that happen in the same state with an Alabama program that was at an all-time high was a difficult task. Most thought it was too difficult.
Not even Mazlahn thought that it would take only months.
Even as athletics director Jay Jacobs expressed excitement and confidence on the night of Malzahn's arrival, he hoped that maybe, somehow, the 2013 Tigers could win enough to go to a bowl game. Spring practice came and went, and no one talked about Auburn as a potential contender for anything more than a bowl bid. In the preseason polls, 55 teams got votes. Auburn was not one of them.
Now, here we are, 13 months later.
Auburn is fresh off going 12-2, winning the SEC championship and falling seconds short of winning the national championship against Florida State in Pasadena. Malzahn won his first head-to-head matchup with Saban and has an office full of Coach of the Year trophies. Auburn coaches, even at least one who was offered a head coaching job, aren't going anywhere. Malzahn blew off rumors of interest in other jobs, signed a contract extension and says every chance he gets that he finds great joy coaching at Auburn.
The team that didn't even get as many votes as Iowa State in the preseason poll is a lock to be a top 10 team, maybe top 5, in the 2014 preseason. Players, devastated by the outcome in the BCS Championship Game, were already vowing as they got on the airplane to return from Pasadena that they would play for the national championship again and the outcome would be different.
No one can predict the future, of course. Malzahn has built a great team, but he is just getting started building a program. Alabama isn't going anywhere. Neither is LSU nor Georgia nor South Carolina nor Missouri. Others in the SEC are upwardly mobile. But if the past 13 months are any indication - and it seems clear that they are - the coming years are going to be a lot of fun for Auburn folks.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: