AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn opened spring practice in 2011, the honeymoon was already over. Less than three months after winning a national championship, there were questions about leadership, the quarterback and players off the field. The arrest of four athletes for armed robbery was a massive black eye on the university. And then, in the midst of spring, another body blow came as former players claimed they received money from boosters.
Gene Chizik’s program rotted from within. Auburn fell to 8-5 in the 2011 season and then bottomed out in 2012, when the Tigers finished 3-9 and failed to win a conference game for the first time since 1980. After a 42-point loss to Texas A&M, athletic director Jay Jacobs knew he had to make a change. Chizik was fired and former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was brought back to turn around a team that was two years removed from winning a championship.
“The tough thing is sustaining [success],” Jacobs said recently. “There are peaks and valleys. We know how difficult it is to get to the peak. It’s awful difficult to get to that championship game. But it doesn’t take a lot to fall down to where you can’t even get to a bowl game.”
As Malzahn heads into this spring, his situation is not so different from his predecessor's three years earlier. Auburn is coming off an appearance in the BCS title game, but there were still questions about leadership, questions about off-the-field incidents and the big question as to whether the Tigers can handle expectations.
"We’re going to focus on us," Malzahn said Monday. "We’re not going to pat ourselves on the back from last year. We’re going to have that blue-collar, lunch-pail mentality that we’ve got to improve each practice and each game."
It’s that same blue-collar, lunch-pail mentality that carried the Tigers to 12 wins and an SEC title in 2013. It’s what Malzahn expects from his players when they take the field on Tuesday for the start of spring practice, but the difference is this is a new season and a new team that needs to create its own identity.
“What are you guys going to do?” former running back Tre Mason asked his teammates before he left. “You ask them a simple question -- what are you going to do to separate yourself from the next team? How much better do you want to be? How good do you want to be?
“You’ve got to let them answer that themselves. You can take somebody to the water, but you can’t make them drink.”
Mason was there for both the 2011 and 2012 seasons. He knows the struggles that those teams went through, and though he’s moving on to the NFL, he wants to make sure this Auburn team doesn’t fall into the same trap.
“Auburn was here before us, and it will still be here after us,” he said. “So you’ve got to come in, and for that time you’re here, how are you going to leave your mark?”
That’s the challenge ahead for this Auburn team.
Unlike in 2011, when the Tigers lost eight starters on offense and eight starters on defense, this season’s squad has plenty of veterans returning in the fall who are more than capable of taking on leadership roles. And don’t expect a quarterback controversy with the return of potential Heisman Trophy candidate Nick Marshall.
As far as off-the-field trouble, the lone incident this offseason was cleared up Monday when Malzahn announced that cornerback signee Kalvaraz Bessent would in fact join the team this summer along with the rest of the 2014 class. The ESPN 300 prospect was arrested last month, but all charges were later dropped.
There’s no reason for another setback on the Plains. The pieces are in place for the Tigers to not only return to the national championship game but to win it.
“The key to it is never relax,” Jacobs said. “It’s a competitive league we’re in. The SEC West itself is very competitive. The trees are awful tall here. We’re going to continue to be a part of championships, and the way to do that is working at it every day. That’s what we’re doing.”
The quest for that next championship begins Tuesday.