Joe Medley: Malzahn's hire solves short-term problem, but Auburn has many issues
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
Dec 05, 2012 | 6443 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Newly hired Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn speaks during an news conference Tuesday in Auburn. Malzahn received a five-year contract worth $2.3 million annually to try to get the team back on solid footing. (AP Photo/Todd J. Van Emst)
Newly hired Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn speaks during an news conference Tuesday in Auburn. Malzahn received a five-year contract worth $2.3 million annually to try to get the team back on solid footing. (AP Photo/Todd J. Van Emst)
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AUBURN —In light of Auburn’s hiring of Gus Malzahn, it’s time to revisit that old Pat Dye tale. It’s more relevant now than ever.

As the story goes, Dye encountered Bear Bryant before their first Iron Bowl clash and told Bryant, “I’m not scared of you.” Bryant said come again, and Dye modulated to his ex-boss.

“I might not beat you,” he said, “but I’ll beat all of those pups that come after you.”

Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs and his search committee of Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Mac Crawford needed to think long term in hiring a football coach. Malzahn looks more like a Band-Aid for one, short-term problem.

His spread system does fit the players Auburn recruited to it, back when he was offensive coordinator there.

Many of those players, including now-confidence-shattered quarterback Kiehl Frazier, are still around. Malzahn’s one year as Arkansas State’s head coach didn’t change that.

The problem is, Malzahn’s one year away saw Auburn’s program complete the meltdown that started during his last year as offensive coordinator. It wasn’t his fault, but it’s hard to see how his offense alone can overcome the myriad issues he inherits as Auburn’s head coach.

Those issues are why Auburn had to resist the quick-fix urge and hire with long-term, comprehensive rebuilding in mind. If Malzahn is to fix all problems, then he’ll need to call on strengths he didn’t have time or a need to show in one year as a college head coach, over a Sun Belt Conference program that was already winning.

He has to recruit to rebuild a roster missing 35 out of 104 players signed over four years under Malzhan’s former boss, Gene Chizik.

Malzahn also must restore an accountability culture, the absence of which showed on the field during Auburn’s worst season in 60 years and off the field with a string of arrests and disciplinary matters.

And to have any chance to consistently compete for SEC and national titles, the Tigers must restore the quality defense they played during most of Tommy Tuberville’s 10-year run as head coach from 1999-2008.

Malzahn is an offensive guy, so Auburn might want to cough up the $1.3 million a year it paid to keep him around after the 2010 season, only this time for a home-run defensive coordinator.

Auburn had a chance to hire a defensive mind who has worked eight years in three stops under the ultimate program rebuilder. The school reportedly interviewed Alabama defensive coordinator and Nick Saban protégé Kirby Smart on Monday.

Speculation about Smart’s involvement in the search started an Internet meltdown among fans of Auburn’s biggest rival. Alabama fans expressed relief at Auburn’s hiring of Malzahn, who has just one year as a college head coach and four as an SEC coordinator (including one year at Arkansas).

Malzahn, who saw Auburn go 1-2 against Alabama during his stay as offensive coordinator, interviewed Sunday and was hired Tuesday.

Time will tell whether he can solve more than matching an offensive system with the current players, who clearly suffered from Auburn’s inexplicable, pro-style switch in 2012. The Tigers finished 115th nationally in total offense and 112th in scoring offense.

Malzahn, speaking during his introductory news conference Tuesday night, promised a return to a fast-paced, run-first offense with play-action passing. It’s the same system Frazier, Auburn’s starting quarterback for the first half of the 2012 season, ran in high school. Same for Jonathan Wallace, who finished the season as Auburn’s starter.

Arkansas State finished the 2012 regular season in the top 25 nationally in nearly every offensive category — 17th in total offense and 21st in scoring and rushing offense. Quarterback Ryan Aplin helped the Red Wolves finish 13th in passing efficiency.

At Auburn, Malzahn’s system helped quarterback Chris Todd set a single-season school record for touchdown passes in 2009, and Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy in 2010.

Beyond offense, Malzahn also promised an “attacking” defense with multiple fronts, calling the idea of a single front antiquated in an era of spread offenses like his.

Showing sensitivity to Auburn’s other issues, he talked about recruiting and restoring a winning internal culture. Jacobs said Malzahn presented a comprehensive program plan to the search committee.

With all committee members standing in front of the room during Tuesday’s news conference, Auburn president Jay Gogue, Jacobs and Sullivan went to pains to say that the search committee’s recommendation was unanimous. That was a signal to outspoken factions within the Auburn fan base that wanted Smart or Bobby Petrino.

Jacobs rightly called for patience, saying Auburn won’t go from winning three games to playing championship football again quickly, but will Auburn’s factions be “all in” without immediate results?

With a growing sense that Jacobs’ job hangs on this hire, is there such a thing as patience at a school that just fired his last hire two years removed from a national title?

Malzahn had better be up to the plan he showed the committee. If it’s as comprehensive as Auburn needs, it will require more than his limited record as a college head coach shows.

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.

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