When Gus Malzahn landed back at Auburn in December of 2012, he offered shell shocked Auburn fans A New Day.
Rocked by a rapid descent from the top of the 2010 mountain to the depths of an 0-SEC 2012, Auburn fans were looking for hope; for a glimmer of faith that things were going to get better.
There were no delusions of immediate championship contention, SEC titles, vanquishing the new titans of the SEC. All we wanted was the promise of a new day.
In more ways than can be measured, Malzahn delivered.
Malzahn hired a world-class staff of assistant coaches, many of whom had Auburn ties. He instilled discipline and a no-nonsense, work-first attitude in the players who remained.
His first spring showcased a new attitude and Auburn fans responded. More than 83,000 showed up for Malzahn’s inaugural A-Day, shattering the old attendance record.
As the magical 2013 season unfolded, Malzahn displayed an uncanny ability to recognize his team’s offensive strengths and adapt his strategy to the hand he was dealt.
The incredible turnaround in Auburn fortunes earned Malzahn national accolades, including numerous Coach of the Year Awards. On May 30, Malzahn was presented the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award which recognizes recipients who ” exhibit a high standard of propriety, imagination, and innovation as a character-builder in the tradition of great teacher-coaches.”
Auburn players benefitted from his intensity and dedication.
Nick Marshall and Tre Mason emerged as legitimate Heisman candidates. Greg Robinson earned a reputation as perhaps the best offensive lineman in the nation. Tiger defensive stars like Dee Ford honed their skills and increased their stock with NFL scouts. Robinson and Ford went in the first round of the NFL draft. Mason and Jay Prosch were called in the third and sixth rounds respectively.
After an early season stumble at LSU, the wins piled up. Malzahn’s New Day included wins over Georgia and Alabama, a win in the SEC Championship game and a berth in the BCS Championship — a game his Tigers could very easily have won.
With one season and another spring in the books, Malzahn’s New Day now includes something that’s long been absent from the Auburn psyche — confidence.
Going all the way back to Shug Jordan’s 25-year tenure and continuing on through Pat Dye, Tommy Tuberville and even Gene Chizik, the Auburn way has been to downplay expectations; to embrace the “under the radar” philosophy.
How many times have you heard an Auburn fan claim that the team performs better when it’s not expected to do so; seen an Auburn fan take an ‘aw shucks, we might be okay’ stance when looking to the future?
That’s not Gus Malzahn’s way. It’s not the vibe Malzahn took on the road as he addressed thousands of Tiger fans on his nine Tiger Trek stops around the Southeast in April and May.
Malzahn and his staff weren’t satisfied just to reach the BCS championship game, they thought not only could they have won, they SHOULD have won. They don’t see flukes and lucky breaks, they see a team that battled to the very end and was the better team on the Rose Bowl field.
That sense of a mission left unfulfilled drives Malzahn. He uses it to motivate the team. Auburn players in 2014 will wear their emotions on their sleeves, literally. The team has wristbands with the slogan ‘TnTXIII’
As Gabe Wright explained to the Montgomery Advertiser, the slogan is a reminder of the feeling the team had as the last seconds of the BCS Championship game expired.
TnT “Tough ‘n Together” and XIII for the 13 second gap between Auburn and the goal of a national title a year ago.
“It means a lot to me because it brings back memories from last year,” quarterback Nick Marshall said of the wristband. “We just look at it and it makes us focus harder on what we got to do.”
“This wristband, it brings something to you,” Sammie Coates said. “You think about what it means, it just touches you. It makes you want to work even harder every day you look at it. You put this on, it makes you think about how close we are and we’re going to finish the job.”
Using a gutwrenching loss as personal motivation isn’t a new concept for Malzahn.
In his first ever coaching job, Malzahn was the defensive coordinator at Hughes High School in Arkansas. (Yes, you read that correctly, the widely praised offensive genius was the defensive coordinator). He took over as head coach in 1992 and led the upstart team to the state championship game in 1994. The Blue Devils fell eleven yards short, losing on an interception in the final minutes.
Two years later, he was head coach at Shiloh Christian where he won a pair of state titles. From there he energized Springdale winning the 2005 state title in his second trip to the championship game.
In ten seasons, Malzahn took six teams to state championship games and fell a game short of playing for the crown twice.
Last season Hughes High named its field after Malzahn.
The memory of the team he coached at Hughes still resonates. Even on the eve of the BCS Championship, Malzahn lamented what could have been as he spoke to his Tiger team.
“And I’m telling you, people ask me, ‘Man, what do you think of all these championships?’ SEC championship, state championships, national championships – you know what I think about? Every week I think about those kids at Hughes High School,” Malzahn told the team. “Those jokers, they played their guts out. I didn’t do a very good job coaching.
“When you guys see me and wonder what motivates me and why I tick like I do? That’s what motivates me. I think about some of those guys. I sit there and think, ‘Man, we were that close. We could have had rings.’”
The last few agonizing minutes of the BCS Championship game no doubt gnaw at Malzahn. The ache of the championship loss at Hughes launched him to a slew of Arkansas state titles. What will the frustration of a BCS title that should have been do to his internal drive and motivation?
Malzahn has little doubt. Last season was no anomaly. That’s where Malzahn expects Auburn to consistently be.
When it comes to the 2014 Tigers, so many of whom were on the field in 2013, Malzahn doesn’t shy away from expectations, external or internal.
Many college football experts are high on the Tigers in 2014, given that the majority of playmakers on both sides of the ball return. Were Auburn one of the media’s sacred cows with a similar cast returning, words like ‘dynasty’ would be tossed about and the Tigers would likely hold one of the top two spots in the preseason poll with ease. As it is, Auburn opens the 2014 campaign fifth in the coaches poll and sixth in the AP.
The last time Auburn opened the season in the top five was 2006. That team finished 11-2 and in eighth place in the coaches poll. Since 1980, the Tigers opened a season in the top five just six times. Only one of those, the 1983 should-have-been national champions, improved on that ranking.
Neither history nor expectations faze Malzahn.
“I’d say,” Malzahn told Auburntigers.com, “that our expectations are a little bit higher this year than they were last year at this time.”
The national coach of the year also understands that resting on his laurels isn’t an acceptable response to the success of 2013.
“That’s in the past; this is a new team,” he said. “The seniors have moved on and we’ve got to earn it. All we are talking about is earning the right to get back to a game like that. We’ll be working really hard every day to do that.”
He expects this team to compete, not just in games but for titles. He’s not afraid to say so. He’s not poor-mouthing the team or downplaying the burden of expectations. He expects to be in the thick of the race.
That confidence is not the traditional Auburn way, but it is definitely the Malzahn way.
It’s a new way. It’s a new day. The season is upon us. We’re coming.