AUBURN, ALA. – It is early November, about the time when the late-season appointment known as “the deep south’s oldest rivalry” – Georgia-Auburn – traditionally erupts.
And, surprise, there standing at the lectern, spreading layer upon layer of vanilla pudding and mayonnaise over this big event was none other than Gus Malzahn.
What? He’s still here? Still standing? Wasn’t Auburn supposed to feed its insatiable impatience and fire this coach, too? And well before the first leaf turned?
After going to the BCS Championship and coming within a Jameis Winston-led drive of winning it all in 2013, Malzahn’s Tigers seriously undershot expectation. Picked a pre-season top 10 last season, they went 7-6 and to the Birmingham Bowl. Then this season began 1-2, including an opening loss to Clemson in which Malzahn changed direction on his quarterbacks with the impulsive frenzy of a dog chasing squirrels.
He was a coach on a spit, slowly roasting, nearly done. The experts at SEC media week picked his team to finish last in the West this season, and by extension, seemed to vote Malzahn Most Likely to Relocate.
Then a call goes his way at the end of the LSU game. Auburn gets on a little roll, winning six straight, running the ball with wild abandon and scoring points in great profusion. Look at the Tigers now: Ranked eighth in the country, 5-1 in the SEC, and needing to beat Georgia in Athens to set up a truly meaningful Iron Bowl against Alabama.
How did they get here?
Apparently, on faith.
“A lot of the guys on the team sort of recognized early on that we would be able to do great things this season,” Auburn senior lineman Robert Leff said.
He continued: “Obviously there were question marks the first week or two. But everybody could tell in the program that we were going to be able to do great things. We just needed to smooth out the bumps and figure out how to make everything work together.”
Malzahn, meanwhile, took the opportunity during Tuesday’s presser to say: It was all me! I did it! In your face, braying masses!
No, of course, he didn’t.
“It’s the leadership of our players, that’s really where it starts,” is what he really said, explaining the turnaround.
“We went through a little bit of a storm early. Coaches are used to dealing with that. It was the leadership of the team – they never budged. They didn’t listen to any kind of negativity. They just kept working. We never had a bad practice. We never had a practice where you felt “Ohhhhh, no.” It’s our players. It’s our leadership. They deserve the credit.”
It also helped that Malzahn seemed to rectify what had been chronic quarterback issues, settling on sophomore Sean White (playing with a banged up shoulder). And that he rekindled Auburn’s relationship with playing defense.
Malzahn looked quite robust for someone all but written-off at the season’s beginning.
And he was in tip-top form in advance of meeting Georgia, revealing nothing. The biggest question revolves around the SEC’s leading rusher, Kamryn Pettway, who left last week’s game with what, a quad injury?
“A leg injury,” he said, engaging in the usual public vagueness.
“We’re hoping to get him on the practice field today or tomorrow,” Malzahn said. “He has done well so far. He is kind of a quick healer. I’ll know more later in the week, but he is planning on practicing.”
Who knew that November would come and Auburn would be this hearty and Malzahn still would be doing the head coach’s press conference dance?
There’s the theme for this week: There really is something to be said for staying the course.
Just ask Gus Malzahn or Thomas Dimitroff.