Time near for Auburn football, Gus Malzahn-style

July 28, 2013

Pat Dye is introduced as an honored guest at Auburn's 2011 national championship celebration (Todd Van Emst Photo)

By Phillip Marshall
AuburnTigers.com

AUBURN, Ala. - Gus Malzahn, Auburn's fourth head football coach in 21 seasons, has spent almost eight months coaching, teaching, recruiting, hiring. speaking and doing all the things head coaches do when they take new jobs.

Like those who came before him, he has done it his way.

In January of 1981, Auburn football players went to meet their new head football coach for the first time. Pat Dye waited with a message.

Auburn was going to win, he told the assembled players. Some of them, he said, would be around to enjoy it and some wouldn't be willing to pay the price of success. Randy Campbell, a sophomore quarterback, listened intently.

"He threw two guys out of the meeting because they weren't paying attention," Campbell says. "He basically proceeded to tell us that he'd won a championship at every level. He said he knew how to win and that we were going to win. He said, most of all, we weren't going to fear Alabama. That got my attention."

Once they were on the field, players who were there say it was the most difficult challenge of their lives. Players left almost every day.

"We had a lot of good guys that left, good football players," Dye says. "There can't be but one way to do it, and that was our way. The ones who stayed bought into our philosophy."

The Tigers went 5-6 in Dye's first season, but two years later, they went 11-1 and won the Southeastern Conference championship.

Similarly, Tommy Tuberville took over a team in 1999 that had won just three games the previous season. His first team, plagued by injuries, went 5-6. A year later, the Tigers were 9-2 in the regular season and played in SEC Championship Game. In Tuberville's fifth season, they were 13-0.

In 2009, Gene Chizik took over for Tuberville, who had won 85 games in 10 seasons. He won a national championship in his second season.

Last December, Malzahn stood in front of another Auburn team. Most of them knew him, because he'd been offensive coordinator just a year earlier. But he, too, had a message.

Malzahn, like Dye, told his players Auburn was going to win. And he told them there would be no patience with the off-field issues that had plagued the program for more than a year. He told them the demands would great and the rewards greater. Senior defensive end Dee Ford wanted to stand up and cheer.

"Malzahn is a no-nonsense guy," Ford says. "He came in and told us what to expect. It was the nicest way I've heard anybody say `Your first screwup you are gone.' You had to believe him, and respect it. He's not joking."

Both Dye and Malzahn took over teams coming off terribly disappointing seasons. In 1993, Terry Bowden replaced Dye, who had made Auburn football a national power again but had been through two non-winning seasons.

At every level of college football, first-year head coaches inherit unique situations.

Any new head coach faces a balancing act. He wants to create excitement among fans without raising expectations to unrealistic levels. He wants to earn the trust of his players while making it clear he won't bend with the prevailing wind.

Significant decisions have to be made. Will a coach insist on a certain offense or defense or will he hire coaches and tailor schemes to fit the players available? Will he keep coaches from the previous staff? Who will he hire, not just to coach but for other jobs crucial to building a winning program? How will he relate to the athletics director who hired him?

When Bowden took over, with NCAA sanctions looming, he didn't sense a lot of optimism.

"I meet with the players, and you don't see a lot of confidence in their eyes," says Bowden, now the head coach at Akron. "I'm thinking to myself `If I can get six wins, that will be a step up.' You don't see a lot that suggests you can get more than six wins. You try to motivate kids to do that, to go out and be better than they were before."

Bowden became the first head coach in college football to go 11-0 in his first season in Division I.

Malzahn arrived from Arkansas State with the advantage of knowing most of Auburn's players and having been involved in recruiting a significant number of them. Most of the offensive players were already familiar with his offensive scheme. He and athletics director Jay Jacobs already had a warm relationship.

But he also took over a dispirited team coming off a 3-9 season, the worst in 60 years of Auburn football. Restoring confidence was a priority. He and his coaches went about getting that done. Players say they have put the unhappiness of 2012 far behind them.

"Everybody is buying into the system and doing what the coaches say," says junior Justin Garrett, who blossomed at the hybrid Star position in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's scheme. "I feel like there's a big change not just in football but off the field and workouts and FCA and everything. We do it as unit."

Says Ford: "I am going into every game believing we can win it."

Friday will be another significant day for Malzahn as he begins the stretch run toward his first game as Auburn's head coach.

The offseason and summer programs were demanding. Spring practice was tough and physical. Preseason camp will be tough and physical, too.

And on Aug. 31 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Malzahn era of Auburn football will begin.

 

Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: