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Duane Cross | | January 5, 2014

Auburn resurgence began with return of ‘married couple’


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Like all great marriages -- Ricky and Lucy, Luke and Laura, Ross and Rachel -- there is a give and take. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, the offensive guru, and Rhett Lashlee, the wunderkind sidekick, are no different.

While both were assistant coaches on Auburn’s 2010 title team, they will be center stage at the BCS national championship Monday night in Pasadena, Calif. “I've been blessed to have a lot of really good players and a lot of really good coaches, just like this year, to get to that point,” said Malzahn, the Tigers first-year head coach. “Any time you play for championships, if you have experience before, it's got to help. Hopefully we'll be able to lean on some of that.

“I went through it as a coordinator, and so I kind of know what to expect as far as that goes, we're very blessed to have a veteran staff that has won a lot of games and won championships, so we feel pretty prepared.”

After Auburn defeated Oregon in the championship game, Malzahn, who was awarded the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, spent another season at Auburn. Lashlee spent 2011 as the offensive coordinator at Samford. Then Malzahn was tabbed as the head coach at Arkansas State and he brought in Lashlee to run the offense for the 2012 season. The Red Wolves went 9-3 and won the Sun Belt, and after a year away from The Plains (and spurred by Auburn’s 3-9 record), Malzahn was hired to replace Gene Chizik.

Malzahn, with Lashlee in tow again, returned to Auburn and assembled a coaching staff with roots that dug deep into the SEC soil, including former Tigers Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner, respected defensive mind Ellis Johnson and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes. Named the head coach on Dec. 4, 2012, Malzahn and his staff went to work on turning around the Tigers’ fortunes.

Auburn sticks to gameplan in return to prominence
For running back Tre Mason and receiver C.J. Uzomah, the coaches’ return was welcomed. “As Coach Malzahn came back, he came in telling us that we're going to have the biggest turnaround in college football -- that was his first sentence of coming back to Auburn,” Mason said.

“I personally know how much of a perfectionist he is,” Ozumah added, “and I knew he was going to hire a great staff. So that's when I knew we had something special, and it really was a new day.”

Malzahn went to work re-establishing Auburn but there was no timetable -- and certainly no expectations for returning to the BCS championship game. “Our goal was real simple,” Malzahn said, “just improve each game. We felt like if we did that we'd have a chance to be a pretty good team at the end of the year. We really never went into the fact of how many wins or this bowl or that bowl, it was really about us trying to improve, and that was our approach. We look up and we're playing for the national championship.”

Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher had a similar experience in 1993, his first season as an assistant coach at Auburn. “To me, it's a tremendous coaching job. They won a couple games early in the year, like the [Texas] A&M game, and some games that gave them some confidence, and once a team gets confidence, then it can take off," Fisher said.

“We did that one time when we were at Auburn, my first year there, and Terry Bowden's [first] year. We went undefeated in '93, went 11-0, and they were 5-6 the year before, and what was key that year.”

The Malzahn-Lashlee relationship dates to 1998, when Malzahn was the head coach at Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, Ark. Lashlee was quarterback of the Saints and went 40-3-2 as the starter. Shiloh Christian played in the state championship three consecutive years and won two state championships. Suffice to say, Malzahn and Lashlee know each other.

“The core of who he is hasn't changed,” Lashlee said. “He's a perfectionist, works extremely hard; the details are all that matter. I think what he's done has been very true to himself which has helped him be successful. Coach has always been great at taking a team of players, a team of coaches and getting them to all do what they do best and probably getting you to perform maybe better than you could on your own.

“I remember that as a player. I felt like he always got the best out of us as players, pushed us to be better than we thought we could be. I played quarterback for him, nine of 10 wasn't acceptable. He's always pushing you to be the best you can be. He's done that, and he's just adapted to the college level as far as it doesn't matter if you're in high school, college, it's 11 on 11, it's Xs and Os.”

Gus Malzahn
Head coach
SEC connections: Arkansas (2006), Auburn (2009-11, '13)
* Rodney Garner
Associate head coach / Recruiting coordinator / D-line
SEC connections: Auburn (1990-95), Tennessee (1996-97), Georgia (1998-2012), Auburn (2013)
Ellis Johnson
Defensive coordinator / Linebackers
SEC connections: Alabama (1990-93; 1997-2000), Miss. State (2004-07), South Carolina (2008-11), Auburn (2013).
Charlie Harbison
Co-defensive coordinator / Safeties
SEC connections: Alabama (1998-2000), LSU (2001-02), Alabama (2003-06), Miss. State (2007-08), Auburn (2013).
Melvin Smith
Assistant coach / Safeties
SEC connectionse: Ole Miss (1992-94), Miss. State (1995-2001), Alabama (2002), Texas A&M (2003-05), Miss. State (2006-12), Auburn (2013)
Rhett Lashlee
Offensive coordinator / Quarterbacks
SEC connections: Arkansas (2006), Auburn (2009-10, '13).
* Dameyune Craig
Co-offensive coordinator / Wide receivers
SEC connections: LSU (2004), Auburn (2013)
Scott Fountain
Assistant coach / Special teams coordinator / Tight ends
SEC connection: Auburn (2009-13)
J.B. Grimes
Assistant coach / Offensive line
SEC connections: Arkansas (1981-82), Missouri (1984), Arkansas (1989-92), Texas A&M (1998-2002), Miss. State (2004-08), Auburn (2013)
Tim Horton
Assistant coach / Running backs
SEC connections: Arkansas (2007-12), Auburn (2013)
Ryan Russell
Strength and conditioning coach
SEC connection: Auburn (2005-06, 2010-11, 2013)
* -- Played at Auburn
Malzahn is the third coach in SEC history to win the conference title in his first year at a school, joining Bernie Moore at LSU (1935) and John Vaught at Ole Miss (1947). To boot, Auburn’s turnaround tied the NCAA record for the biggest single-season improvement (8.5 games, Hawaii, 1999 to 2000) and is the biggest turnaround in SEC history (plus-7 conference wins).

“It's been a lot of fun to coach this group, and they have come a very long way,” Malzahn said. “Our first game we were probably an average at best team, and they just bought into the fact to get better each practice and each game, and they slowly improved and they found a way to win games early on when we weren't playing our best ball.

“They've found a way to stay focused and get prepared each week, no matter who we were playing, whether we were playing Alabama or a [FCS] school. This group has been extremely focused.”

Lashlee is familiar with the focus that Malzahn demands. “That always goes back to he's a perfectionist,” Lashlee said. “I think our guys know not only with Coach Malzahn, but with all of us, that we're going to coach them hard on the field. They know we care about them. We don't cuss them or do anything like that, but we let them know there's a high standard. If you're not meeting that standard, I don't care if we're winning or not or you're playing well or not, we're going to hold you to that standard.”

The players have responded -- and they enjoy the back-and-forth between Malzahn and Lahlee. “It is funny,” Mason admitted. “Those guys together are a great combo. They're both gurus and great at what they do. So when they're picking the play, I know it's going to be the right play.”

Getting to the right play is the fun part for sideline bystanders, including Uzomah. “They are like a married couple fighting sometimes. I'm telling you, they are back and forth, 'We need to do this, we need to do this.' Coach Malzahn will say some stuff and it's constant back and forth, and that meshes together perfectly, but it's funny sometimes to be able to listen to them.”

“I guess they have the perfect balance for each other because sometimes Coach Malzahn is like, 'What did you want to call? We should call that,' and Coach Lashlee will say, 'Yeah, we should do this,' and Coach Malzahn will say, 'Do that.’ “

Lashlee is comfortable with the back and forth but also understands there is a hierarchy that has to be respected. “I never go back at [Malzahn]. He's the boss and the head coach. I also have that unique perspective. As a former player, it doesn't matter where you are in life, your coaches are always your coaches.

“But when I started, even sometimes when I was a GA for him, you know, he was fine with me. If I really felt strongly that we were doing something incorrect, I'd tell him just doing it the right way. More and more as you're a coordinator, you're going to dialogue. We don't have a lot of heated debates or discussions, but there are definitely times if I think I need to say something, I will and he'll do the same. I think that's what helps keep people checked and balanced.”

Just like a married couple …