Gus Malzahn the football coach sidelines his CEO side at Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. -- At his core, Gus Malzahn is a high school football coach.

He'll tell you that himself. He's proud of his roots, honored that he was a part of so many kids' lives at such a developmental age, and grateful that he cut his teeth in coaching by being involved in every part of the team the way high school coaches invariably are.

It's precisely that side of Malzahn that he felt was missing, at least in part, a year ago and a side he vows is back for good as he enters his fourth season at Auburn.

"I'm a football coach, not a CEO," Malzahn told ESPN.com last week. "I probably tried to be too much of a CEO last season. My teams have taken on my personality in the past, and I think we sort of had four or five different personalities last year, all the different coaches' personalities. That's on me. That's my fault. You live and learn, and I learned the hard way last year."

Malzahn isn't making excuses for the Tigers' dip last season. He's just being honest. And the truth is there were a number of issues -- from instability at quarterback, to defensive end Carl Lawson's hip injury, to not being able to win the close games -- that contributed to Auburn's 2-6 finish in the SEC. The Tigers wound up 7-6 overall and beat Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl, but it wasn't close to what anybody expected on the Plains.

At the top of that list was Malzahn, whose club was ranked No. 6 nationally to open the season and a popular choice to win the SEC.

The Tigers' issues at quarterback were a common theme in what went wrong last season, something Malzahn didn't see coming. His track record with quarterbacks speaks for itself, and Malzahn was extremely high on Jeremy Johnson in the preseason. But Johnson lost his confidence early and never recovered.

Looking back, Malzahn doesn't think he handled much of anything well, including the quarterbacks.

"It wasn't just the quarterback last year," said Malzahn, whose Tigers slipped to ninth in the SEC in both scoring offense and total offense in league games. "I know the quarterback is the focal point and all that. We just didn't execute as a whole, and that falls on me. I tried to be a CEO, and I'm a football coach. I can promise you we'll execute better on offense this year."

Malzahn wasn't necessarily trying to be somebody he wasn't. It was more continuing to evolve in the massive fish bowl that is the SEC, particularly as an SEC head coach with so many people pulling at you from so many different directions.

"When you've got a job like this, there are a lot of different things grabbing at you," Malzahn said. "We also had a new defensive coordinator coming in and putting in a brand new defense. But that's the challenge for all the head coaches in our league, everything that goes with the job. Some are more CEO-driven, and some are more football coach-driven. I'm going to stay true to who I am. I'm a football coach, and I'm going to do a better job this next year."

Malzahn, whose Tigers wrapped up spring practice earlier this week, has five new assistant coaches in place, although a couple of them -- receivers coach Kodi Burns and linebackers coach Travis Williams -- aren't necessarily new to Auburn or Malzahn. They both played and coached at Auburn.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele comes over from LSU. Malzahn has gone up against Steele when Steele was at three different schools (Alabama, Clemson and LSU).

"We really complement each other, and his personality fits mine," Malzahn said. "It was a blessing to get him."

Offensive line coach Herb Hand was previously at Penn State. He and Malzahn worked together under Todd Graham at Tulsa, and secondary coach Wesley McGriff was on the New Orleans Saints staff the past three seasons. McGriff was the co-defensive coordinator at Ole Miss in 2012, and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze and Malzahn are close friends.

"I feel good where we are right now, the competition on the team, the experience and leadership we have in key areas and the chemistry we have in the program," Malzahn said. "Last year was hard in a lot of ways, but that's life in this conference. It's never easy."

Alex Kozan, a fifth-year senior offensive guard for the Tigers, has seen the program run the gamut. He was there in 2012 for the winless season in the SEC and Gene Chizik's subsequent firing as head coach. In Kozan's second year on campus, the Tigers made an amazing run to the BCS National Championship, but the last two seasons have seen a combined 11 losses.

He understands the restlessness among fans, but also understands there's a razor-thin margin in the SEC between playing for championships and finishing in the bottom half of the league.

"It's all, 'What have you done for me lately?' " Kozan said. "Change is the only constant. Unless you're Coach [Nick] Saban, no coach is safe. You have one bad year, and they're after you. I mean, they were trying to fire Les Miles last year, and he's a helluva coach. Coach [Mark] Richt got fired, and he's a great coach, too.

"No matter where you are, you've got to be ready for change, got to be ready to adjust and adapt. That's real life. In the real world, you're not safe for five years in a bubble. Stuff changes, and you've got to be able to change with it and move on. That's what we've done and what coach Malzahn has done. We know what the expectations are, and nobody here is backing down from them."

Lawson, whose health will be pivotal next season for the Tigers, has definitely noticed a different Malzahn.

"Coach Malzahn is an offensive guy, but this year he's really taken a liking to defense and being everywhere," Lawson said. "It just seems more balanced on both sides with a lot of competition. That's why the spring was so fun. It was a competition, and nobody feels as a player they're getting any special treatment. It's the offense and defense competing every day, and he's right there in the middle of it."

The biggest question mark for Auburn coming out of the spring remains unanswered. Malzahn still has to figure out his quarterback situation. He simply didn't see enough separation in the spring to name a starter. He likes the competition, likes that the Tigers were able to play faster on offense this spring, and it's also not out of the realm that Auburn could add Texas Tech post-graduate transfer Davis Webb, who would be eligible immediately.

The schedule in 2016 is brutal, starting with Clemson at home on Sept. 3. There are also trips to Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss. But at Auburn, especially with the crimson-coated behemoth across the state, bitter rival Alabama, having won four of the last seven national championships, the goal remains the same every year.

"You've got to win championships. That's the bottom line," Malzahn said. "That's what we expect here at Auburn. Hats off to Alabama. I guess in the last six years, the state of Alabama has produced the SEC champion in all but one of those years. You've got to win championships in this state, and our guys understand that. We recruit here to expect that."

Malzahn said Alabama's success under Saban has only raised the stakes.

"You buckle up and compete, and I like the fact that they're playing good football right now," Malzahn said. "That makes it even more competitive, and this is a great rivalry anyway. So I like it. Our players like it, and I'm sure they like it. I'm just disappointed we lost the last two. We had chances in both.

"But, hey, that's what motivates you and drives you, and we'll take our shot again this year."

And he'll do so with where it all began for him in mind.

"The longer you're in this position, the challenges are more about all of the other stuff other than just football," Malzahn said. "You re-evaluate after every year. Last year was a good learning curve for me and a reminder that I'm a football coach, and I'm going to focus more on that."