In hiring Malzahn, Auburn admits the real brains behind its BCS title
If Gus Malzahn goes on to find great success as Auburn's head coach, is it possible Gene Chizik will forever be wiped from the program's memory? If, say, in 10 years, the Tigers have gone on to win several SEC championships and another national title, will the Chizik and Malzahn eras turn into one big blur? Will we remember Malzahn coaching Cam Newton and [future star quarterback] but only vaguely remember that miserable 3-9 season in between?
In hiring Malzahn, Arkansas State's head coach of one season and the Tigers' offensive coordinator for three seasons before that, Auburn AD Jay Jacobs essentially conceded what many already believed -- that Malzahn was the real brains behind Chizik's 2010 national-title team. Jacobs isn't necessarily getting the band back together. He just figured he'd start a new one centered around the lead guitarist.
Tuesday's Malzahn-to-Auburn hire won't raise as many eyebrows as the Bret Bielema-to-Arkansas news that broke only minutes earlier. And yet, as accomplished as Bielema is, Malzahn is the safer bet of the two to succeed. He's done so everywhere he's gone, including twice in the SEC.
The hurry-up offensive guru began his meteoric rise at Arkansas in 2006 under Houston Nutt. The Razorbacks, just 4-7 the year before, went 10-4 and played in the SEC title game. In Malzahn's seasons at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane went 21-7 and led the nation in total offense. And we all know what happened at Auburn, though perhaps what happened after the national title is just as noteworthy as what happened before.
In 2009, using mostly the same personnel that ranked 104th in total offense the season before -- including journeyman quarterback Chris Todd -- the 8-5 Tigers jumped all the way to 16th in the FBS. In that year's Iron Bowl, a seemingly overmatched Auburn squad raced to a 14-0 lead on eventual national champion Alabama, with Malzahn's extreme tempo and funky formations clearly throwing the Tide's star-studded defense off guard. Alabama eventually won 26-21.
The Tigers regressed in Malzahn's final year with the team, slipping from 14-0 to 8-5 and back down to 100th nationally in total offense, but that wasn't entirely surprising. Auburn not only lost a superstar in Newton, but it lost nearly every other key starter. The bigger indictment came this year, however, when Chizik foolishly decided to switch from Malzahn's hybrid offense to Scott Loeffler's pro-style attack, and the Tigers went from mediocre to incompetent. Kiehl Frazier, the dual-threat quarterback recruited to run Malzahn's offense, languished and was later benched.
All the while Malzahn was at Arkansas State, winning a Sun Belt title and averaging 481 yards per game. Now, he's been called back to The Plains to save the day.
Normally, when a program implodes to the degree Chizik's did in 2012, it cuts all ties to the old regime. In this case, Auburn is apparently acknowledging that the implosion was directly tied to Malzahn's departure. It feels strangely natural, in fact, that Malzahn -- who was destined to be an SEC head coach at some point -- wound up in this position, even if he arrived here via a circuitous route.
Malzahn very nearly joined the fraternity two years ago. Vanderbilt's James Franklin has been so wildly successful so quickly that it's strange to remember he was once the school's backup choice. Vandy reportedly offered Malzahn nearly $3 million a year, and Malzahn reportedly accepted it before changing his mind and staying at Auburn. Last year, he was all but set to board the plane to Kansas before a viral video of Malzahn's wife, Kristi, speaking at a church event apparently scared off further suitors.
With that in mind, one of the bigger questions as Malzahn begins his SEC tenure is how the soft-spoken, cerebral and deeply religious coach will deal with the often nasty criticism that comes with coaching at a place like Auburn. All fan bases have their share of loons, but Auburn's -- like Alabama's -- get to broadcast themselves to a national audience every day on Paul Finebaum's show. But Malzahn was there for three years. He knows what he's getting into.
Also, while Malzahn's offensive wizardry is a given, his success as head coach will largely depend on the staff he hires (particularly on defense) and its ability to recruit. Coaches often bring most or all of their current staff with them, but besides defensive coordinator John Thompson, none of his Arkansas State assistants have significant SEC experience. In fact, many of them had never previously served as more than control assistants or high school coaches before signing on with the Red Wolves.
But Malzahn still thinks of himself as a high school coach at heart. Many assumed he'd fail when he jumped straight from Springdale High to Arkansas. His boss at the time, Houston Nutt, basically bailed on him after one game. Malzahn obviously got the last laugh. He's now an SEC head coach, while Nutt and Chizik are not. He'll no longer be the man behind the scenes. If it wasn't before, Auburn's program is now officially Malzahn's.