During Gus Malzahn’s first stint at Auburn, the Tigers won their first national championship in 53 years.
No wonder he calls it “probably the best three years of our lives as a family.”
Now that he’s back on the Plains, Malzahn has to pinch himself occasionally to make sure it’s all real. That is, when he has time.
From the moment he was named last Tuesday as Auburn’s new head coach, Malzahn has been going at a pace usually reserved for his no-huddle, warp-speed offense.
He understands the stakes, especially when he looks across the state to Tuscaloosa.
“Hey, give those guys credit,” Malzahn said of rival Alabama, which is seeking its third national championship in the past four years. “They’ve got it rolling, and we understand that. But we have high expectations at Auburn and are committed to getting this program back to where it should be.”
Malzahn is off to a brisk start with the hiring of Ellis Johnson as his defensive coordinator and Charlie Harbison as co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Johnson and Harbison worked together at Alabama and Mississippi State. Between them, they’ve worked at five different SEC schools and obviously know their way around the league. They’re also proven recruiters.
“It’s unbelievably huge, especially being an offensive coach, to have veteran guys who’ve had a lot of success in this league and to have the comfort to turn the defense over to them,” Malzahn said.
Offensively, the Tigers are going back to the fast-break style that was so successful when Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Auburn from 2009-11. The offense bogged down his last season there, but a big part of that was having to slow things down to help cover for a defense that was being shredded.
Malzahn is bringing Rhett Lashlee with him from Arkansas State to be his offensive coordinator. Lashlee was also with Malzahn the first time at Auburn and headed up an offense at Arkansas State this season that averaged 481.8 yards per game and scored 30 points or more in 10 games.
The offensive play-calling duties at Auburn will be a joint effort, Malzahn said.
“We’ll do it together,” Malzahn said. “When we were at Auburn, he was my right-hand man. He will do all the game-planning during the week and I’ll be the head football coach, and on Saturdays, we’ll do it together just like we’ve done every stop.”
And, yes, the pace will be blistering.
“We’re going to play fast. That’s who we are on offense,” Malzahn said. “At the same time, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the football game. This past year against Troy, I think we had the ball almost 13 minutes in the fourth quarter. We’ll manage the game, but we’ll be extremely fast on offense. We feel like that’s the big advantage in college football right now.”
Malzahn also has the advantage of not having to get accustomed to Auburn. He knows the place and the people well.
“It seems like I’ve only been gone a couple of days,” Malzahn said. “Auburn’s a real special place, and until you get in the middle of it, it’s hard to explain. It’s something that sticks with you, and I really feel like that’s who I am. I take great pride in coaching here in the past and being the head coach.”
Malzahn said he’s traded emails with his former boss and predecessor, Gene Chizik, and plans on talking with Chizik at length at some point.
It’s obvious that the program crashed this past season under Chizik, who was on top of the college football world just two years ago after winning the national title and getting a huge raise.
Now, he’s out of a job.
Malzahn is much more interested in moving forward than he is dissecting what went wrong the last year or two, but he’s well aware of how quickly it can change in this league.
“I feel like being familiar with a lot of the players helps,” Malzahn said. “I was part of the group that came in here in 2009. It’s a little bit similar. That experience that I had, I think, will help in this situation of turning this thing around.”
The irony for Malzahn is that he nearly landed a head coaching gig in the SEC following the 2010 season, but turned down a lucrative opportunity to go to Vanderbilt. He then left a year later for a much lesser paying job at Arkansas State and actually took a pay cut from what he was making at Auburn as an offensive coordinator.
Eventually it all worked out because here he is, right back at Auburn ... as head coach.
"If you look at my career, there’s always been a reason for things happening," said Malzahn, who was coaching high school football in Springdale, Ark., before latching on as Arkansas' offensive coordinator in 2006. "I feel very blessed to be head coach at Auburn and blessed to have taken the path that’s led me here."