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The Wishbone asks: Had Gus hopped a bus, where would we have turned?

Van and John were hard at work yesterday morning compiling a short-list of potential replacements for Gus Malzahn as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in the eventuality he took off for Vandy. TWER was hoping for the best, planning for the worst. The best came around lunchtime. (But let’s keep the list handy, just in case.)

Going on just his expression, we'll go ahead and mark Curtis Luper off the list.

Gus Malzahn has made an obvious and tremendous difference at Auburn.  Coming on the heels of some of the worst offense Auburn fans have ever seen, Malzahn installed his system prior to the 2009 season and it made an immediate impact. (Anyone that can take the leftovers from 2008, add Chris Todd to the mix, and then proceed to rewrite portions of the Auburn record books has definitely made an impact!) When the extra ingredient of Cam Newton was injected into the Malzahn offense this season, it went from great to one of the best offenses in the history of college football.

And, inevitably, due to the amazing success of this year’s Auburn offense, Gus Malzahn has become a hot commodity in college football coaching searches.  Schools are looking for coaches that will be successful on the field and will also help sell tickets—and Gus has demonstrated the potential to do both.

Obviously, from the perspective of an Auburn fan, we don’t want Gus Malzahn to ever leave.  We’re ready to stage one of those phony third world elections and declare him “OC for Life.”  But why should he consider going now?  Let’s look at it from his perspective.   His profile will never be higher than it is right now.   He is coordinating an offense that dominated the SEC, set all-time records in the conference title game, and is now preparing for the BCS National Championship game.   His offense produced a Heisman Trophy winner and a very successful individual season for many of the players.  Sometimes you have to strike while the iron is hot.

The flip side of the coin is that if Gus remains at Auburn—if he chooses to be picky about job offers—he could look like less of a genius a year from now.  Having Cam Newton at quarterback and four seniors on the offensive line made this team dominant.  Without those players (if Cam goes pro, which we expect him to), Auburn’s offense will struggle at times in 2011.  If Malzahn stays, Auburn’s offense should be better than 2009 but not nearly as good as this season.  And if the offense regresses a little bit, or at least doesn’t ring up quite as many big numbers or look quite so flashy, will the lucrative job offers still come?

Secrets exposed: We tried distortion, but Auburn Elvis enhanced the heck out of the thing.

Then again, Will Muschamp just got hired by Florida after a 5-7 season at Texas, because the Jeremy Foley and the Gators remembered how good he was before this season.  Our own Gene Chizik famously was hired after a 5-19 career at Iowa State, because Jay Jacobs could see beyond that superficiality to his tremendous track record in previous years at Auburn and Texas.  The lesson here is that one or two bad years on the recent record of an otherwise sterling resume aren’t deal-killers.  Hanging around Auburn for another year or two, at least—even if the offense takes a step or two back—could prove a virtue rather than a problem for Malzahn, particularly with regard to waiting for just the right job to come open.  (After all, how much longer will Bobby Petrino stay at Arkansas?  It is Bobby Petrino we’re talking about—hasn’t he already topped his previous record at one location?)

But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say Gus does accept a job elsewhere (if he hasn’t already—these things tend to move slow slow slow FAST!), what are Auburn’s options?

Whenever the issue of a new coordinator at Auburn comes up, it’s always helpful to look at the numbers.  You may have an opinion about who you like or don’t like, but if someone’s offense or defense is consistently ranking in the top 15 in the nation, they are doing something right.

Unfortunately for Auburn, many of the offenses appearing in the upper echelons of the NCAA rankings this year are actually “coordinated” by the head coach himself—and the chances of almost any of them accepting a demotion to OC at Auburn are virtually nil.  Chip Kelly at Oregon, Bobby Petrino at Arkansas, and Rich Rodriguez at Michigan are perfect examples.

So what options remain for Auburn?  In general terms, the Tigers can do one of three things:

1. Promote from within. Most Auburn fans, as soon as I wrote that, thought of the awful 2003 offense, co-coordinated by High Nall and Steve Ensminger, and so nicknamed “Nallsminger.”  Nothing with the nickname “Nallsminger” ever had a chance of being good, and indeed it was a train wreck.   Those guys took a team with three future first-round NFL offensive players (Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams, and Jason Campbell) and produced an offense that didn’t score a touchdown until three weeks into the season!

However, all offensive coordinators started out as something else.  It is very possible that one of Auburn’s offensive coaches could step in and perform very well as offensive coordinator.  If he has been working side by side with Malzahn for two years, taking notes every day, studying and asking questions, could this hypothetical assistant run the offense?  Perhaps.   One of the key lessons of 2003 is simply this:  Some people have a gift for calling plays and some people do not.  Malzhan has it.  Bobby Petrino has it.  Steve Spurrier has it.  Not many others do—not to that level of accomplishment.

2.  Hire a “Malzahn Disciple.” But—is there such a thing?  Unlike coaches who have long track records of success across the top division of football, Gus hasn’t really had the opportunity to develop a group of apprentices and hangers-on who fundamentally understand how to run this scheme.

If Auburn did promote from within, a loyal assistant who has helped Auburn to reach this lofty plateau while helping to run Gus’s offense would be rewarded.   And the Tigers would at least be trying to maintain continuity in the offensive scheme.

However, Malzahn is the scheme.  He has been coordinating this offense alone for over ten years.  He doesn’t even have a paper play sheet on game day—he carries it all in his head.  He implicitly understands what a defense is trying to do to stop him, allowing him quickly to make great adjustments.  Someone who has not been in that role, with this scheme, could not do that.

The first place we looked for a possible Malzahn disciple was back at Tulsa, where Gus ran the offense (to much success) in 2007 and 2008.  The current OC there, Chad Morris, is in his first year, and the Golden Hurricane has blown up and down the field the way it did under Gus.  However, he’s only been on the job for a year; last year he was a high school coach in Texas (albeit one who won three state championships).  He is said to be on the list of candidates for the job at Texas.  We certainly think he’s worth keeping an eye on.

At Auburn, the graduate assistant for offense is a guy named Rhett Lashlee, who is from Arkansas.  If anyone could be considered a Malzahn protégée, it probably would be him.  He coached at Springdale H.S. with Gus from 2004-2005 and went with Gus to Arkansas in 2006, as the graduate assistant on that staff.  However, if Malzahn leaves, we would guess that he would take Lashlee with him to help install his system at his new program.

3. Hire a new offensive coordinator from outside, preferably running a Spread offense.

This begs the question—is it really the Spread itself we like, or just the results Gus has gotten while using it?  If a coach as brilliant as Gus came along and ran, say, the Run & Shoot or the Single Wing to similar effect, wouldn’t we embrace that, too?

But sticking with the Spread concept here, who are the leading candidates?

Dana Holgorsen of Oklahoma State has been the trendy name of late.  Will Muschamp is surely eyeing him from his new perch in Gainesville, and ol’ Swiper himself, Mac Brown, would probably also relish bringing the OSU attack to Austin.  We know Pitt already inquired about making him their new head coach.

Boise State’s Bryan Harsin is on the ascendance, and there’s David Yost at Missouri and Phillip Montgomery at Baylor, not to mention Justin Fuente, co-OC at TCU (who had a surprisingly good offense to go along with their always tough defense this season).  These are guys who are well respected and whose teams are very productive on offense.

Steve Addazio is of course available.  Hahaha. Just kidding.  We threw that one in for our Gator friends out there.

One school that jumps out on the list of top offensive squads is San Diego State.  Aaaaand hello, Al Borges.  Glad you’re doing well, Al, and thanks ever so much for 2004.  But… um… no.

Rich Rodriguez has an OC named Calvin McGee.  He was at West Virginia with Rich Rod as well, and the offense has not been the problem at Michigan.  The rumor mill says that Florida talked to him before Meyer retired.  Another to keep an eye on.

Finally, there is the (upcoming) enemy:  Oregon.  Their titular OC is Mark Helfrich.  He coached at Boise State and Colorado and is now in his second season at Oregon.  The rub is this: being OC at Oregon is like being OC at South Carolina under Spurrier, or being DC at Alabama under Saban—yes, you have the plaque on your door, but everyone and their mama knows who it is that’s really running that phase of the game.  And even if you are some sort of genius, you are never going to get a lot of the credit for it, because everyone already thinks your boss is the reason for your success, not you.

A Surprise Option 4! As we were wrapping this column up today, word came along that Gus has rejected the Vanderbilt offer and will remain at Auburn, at least for now.  Of all the offensive coordinators Auburn could have, “Gus Malzahn” is a clear #1 on our list, so this represents the best possible outcome we could have seen.

Beyond that, though, is the fact that now he can (presumably) devote all of his time to preparing for the BCS Title game, without having his attention divided between the Tigers and some other team whose reins he would be preparing to take up.  The thought of our team coming up short in Glendale because part of Gus’s brain was already in Nashville (or elsewhere) was almost too horrifying to contemplate.  Imagine losing the game not because of failure, but because of our own success on offense backfiring and causing our top coordinator to be distracted.  Yeesh.

Hopefully we can all just file the above list away for at least another year, and continue on with the man who is simply the best in the business.  That’s the way we wanted it all along.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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