To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the demise of Auburn football have been exaggerated. Despite the decay visible at College and Magnolia, a vital and vibrant heart beats still in the loveliest village on the Plains. A recitation of the tribulations that the Auburn faithful have recently endured is unnecessary; suffice it to say that there was a growing unease amongst all but the most blindly loyal members of the Auburn family about the current state, and future, of the Auburn football program.
Frankly, though, this diversion to which we devote so much time and passion is relatively unimportant. In a year that saw natural disasters and man-made calamity drastically alter the lives of so many of our fellow Americans the successes and failures of a football program seem rather petty. We can recognize this perspective and still embrace the Auburn football program for what it embodies; including, in part: the spirit that is not afraid. In times of trial, we humans naturally seek out our brethren for support and succor. This interdependence is exactly how the Auburn family made it through the past twelve months to find ourselves not only surviving, but thriving as the Gus Malzahn era begins in earnest.
Raise your hand if you could foresee in November, while suffering humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat at the hands of our fiercest rivals, closing the books on national signing day with a sense of pride, satisfaction and hope. If your hand is up, you are a rare soothsayer with a bright future in late-night infomercial stardom. The hiring of Gus Malzahn in December, heralded by some but decried by many more, did little to heal a fan base divided. His lack of experience as the captain of a premier college football program was going to be the nail in the coffin that Gene Chizik had prepared for Auburn football’s interment. Malzahn’s brief tenure in big time college football meant that he could not possibly assemble a staff of any but the greenest of college football coaching wannabes.
The problem with predicting Gus Malzahn’s next move, be it play call or assistant coach hire, is that he’s probably three moves (and almost certainly three cups of coffee) ahead of the predictor. Malzahn knew the challenges, the roster and, perhaps most importantly, the culture of the Auburn football program when he accepted the position. He was prepared to hire coaches with schemes that complemented his own and, more importantly, were familiar with the SEC and Auburn.
So it was, in the hyper-competitive world of SEC football (6 of ESPN’s top 10 recruiting classes were SEC teams…and 10 of the top 25), that Auburn, the most unlikely of candidates for a successful recruiting class, closed the books on February 6, 2013, with the #11 recruiting class in the nation. Give credit to the coaches: former AU quarterback Dameyune Craig, former AU lineman Rodney Garner, SEC stalwart Ellis Johnson, Charlie Harbison, Melvin Smith, Tim Horton, Rhett Lashlee, JB Grimes and Rich Bisaccia.
The coaches deserve high praise for the results of the recruiting blitz in which they participated. It is no small feat to have such success in just over one month’s time. It would be a mistake, however, to fail to credit the players. It was the recruits that were able to see through the temporary struggles of the Chizik regime and recognize the value of participating in the Auburn football program and, more importantly, receiving an education at Auburn University. A great many of the players who signed letters of intent to play football at Auburn could have chosen any school in the land: Carl Lawson, Montravious Adams, Elijah Daniel, Tony Stevens, Jason Smith, Jeremy Johnson, Jonathan Ford, Nick Marshall, Ben Bradley. These are not players with whom Auburn was forced to settle on the heels of a 3-9 campaign and wholesale change to the coaching staff. These are players that most top football programs in the nation coveted and courted.
There are notable players who chose not to be a part of the Auburn family. Such is recruiting: you win some and you lose some. The players who chose to play elsewhere will, hopefully, receive a quality education and have success in life (though the goodwill wished to those young men will be briefly withheld if they should step on the field in opposition to the Auburn Tigers). Their reasons for going elsewhere are their own and Auburn will be great with or without them.
More importantly, Auburn will be great with or without success on the recruiting trail, on the football field, or in the eyes of the sports media. We Auburn faithful will cheer mightily for our Tigers to conquer on the gridiron, and there is reason for much hope in the early hours of the Malzahn regime, but ultimately we Auburn faithful will cheer much more vigorously for our brethren’s success in life. Welcome to the family, young men, we have high hopes for you…and we hope you win a few football games as well.