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The Wishbone: Dis-co-ordinated and Disoriented!

Arkansas State?  Really?  Arkansas State?  

Call us naïve, but we always assumed that when Gus Malzahn left Auburn it would be in a platinum-plated Learjet to become the head coach at a top-shelf BCS-type school.  The situation that has developed this week is a little tougher for us to handle, and for multiple reasons –not least of which that (to put it mildly) we really enjoyed the offense he coached, how it worked, how much fun it was, and what it tended to do to many opponents.

On top of that, there’s the fact that we simply did not see this coming.  Sure, some medium-sized jobs (North Carolina, Kansas) came open and were filled in the past couple of weeks, with Gus’s name being mentioned prominently among the finalists.  And sure, Houston was out there, after Kevin Sumlin packed up and moved to College Station.  But last year he turned down Vanderbilt and didn’t interview with Maryland.  So now he takes… Arkansas State?!  Nope—we didn’t ever really consider them the real threat to steal our beloved manic compulsive genius Offensive Coordinator.

But Gus is leaving—though he promises to stay involved through the bowl game, bless ‘im.  Some will weep (Van and John raise our hands), while others will actually celebrate.  (In case you didn’t know, there was a startling amount of recrimination about the poor performance of the 2011 offense that was aimed directly at Gus, particularly during the latter half of the season—unfairly, in our estimation.)  But, one way or another, all of us will just have to deal with it in our own ways and move on.  The real question is: What do we do now?

Thank the Gus.

The very first thing every Auburn fan needs to do is thank Gus Malzahn for everything he did for Auburn. Malzahn came to Auburn and brought tremendous offensive innovation, which led to overall success, which helped lead Auburn to the National Championship in 2010.  That alone should get the man a statue—were we the type of school that did such things.  But more than that, Malzahn’s offense was often incredibly fun to watch and it felt like his offensive abilities created an advantage for Auburn at times.

Van breaks it down a bit:  I have to admit that I am more bummed by this than by any other assistant coach leaving that I can remember.  I loved almost everything about that crazy offense and how he ran it.  I was awed by it for the first time when he ran it (or something just short of it) against Auburn in the 2006 Arkansas game.  It made a believer out of me; before that, I wasn’t big on the Spread or gimmick plays or the hurry-up or any of that.  I was an old-school, Pat Dye, run the ball between the tackles and on the sweep kind of guy.  But Gus’s offense made watching Auburn play football on Saturdays all that much more fun than it already was.  Every single week, I went into games thinking, “We have the coolest and most fun offense in the country.”  For a while last year I was concerned that Oregon’s was a little better, a little more fun… but then we settled that for good in Glendale.

As a Pat Dye disciple, one reason I have always liked the wishbone/option is that it relentlessly attacks.  It’s never indecisive.  It goes at the defense and dictates what will happen, even as it reacts to individual defensive players’ movements and choices during the play.  The offense I hate worst is the pro-style, drop-back, “survey the field till you get sacked” passing game.  That offense is boring and–unless you have great players at all the key positions–often ineffective.  Gus’s offense was smart, exciting, fast (though never as fast as it could’ve been), fun, and it relentlessly attacked!  From every freaking direction, it attacked!!

Think of the first quarter against Alabama in 2009.  Think of the West Virginia game that year!  Think of how Gus’s offense made Chris Todd into a really decent SEC quarterback, for crying out loud.  Think of all the amazing ways that our offense took advantage of Cam’s abilities in 2010, and how the ways we used him (and the other top players) expanded each week, and how we adjusted each week as teams tried different ways of stopping him and the rest of our offense.  Think of that one certain comeback for the ages, and for the points explosion that followed eight days later in Atlanta.  Think of Cam and Lutz and McCalebb and Dyer and Tate and T-Zac and Darvin and Blake and Fannin and all the different ways that Gus employed all those different weapons to sometimes devastating, overwhelming effect—and all at near- hyper-speed.

Good heavens, but I will miss this offense.

Why Would Gus Malzahn Leave Now to be a Head Coach?

There are several reasons why Gus could have chosen this move.  Some of them actually make more sense once you think about them a little bit.

First, he may have felt that his stock was slipping.  Last year he was the “super-hot” candidate and this year he was still mentioned for some of the big jobs, but he didn’t land a top-quality head coaching job. (Think North Carolina here.)  In last year’s (to the day!) “If the Gus Bus Leaves” column, we discussed this possibility, concluding that if he chose to be picky about job offers back then, he could look like less of a genius a year later, minus Cam Newton and most of the O-Line.  It’s not that he’d grow dumber, just that it’s a lot easier to show off your coaching and play-calling skills when you have incredibly talented and/or veteran players to execute those plays.

Another reason for him to leave now is that perhaps he wasn’t happy with how the Auburn offense had to change in order to compensate for the poor defensive performances this season.  It is clear from watching the games that the Auburn offense slowed down dramatically and became more run-oriented after the first few games.  Was that by Malzahn’s design or was he asked to do that in order to protect the defense?  If he was asked to do it, did it bother him?  We know it was an issue between him and Houston Nutt in 2006.

This one is pure speculation in terms of the relationship between the OC and the head coach.  But here is the other side: both Chizik and Malzahn are competitive guys and they want to win.  If slowing down the offense was the best thing for the team to win, you’d like to think it could and would have been done without creating tension.

Why “The Natural State”-State?

Gus Malzahn leaving for a head coaching job was not a complete shock.  Malzahn leaving for Arkansas State was a shock at first.  But after thinking about it, this move makes a lot of sense.

First, Malzahn is a native of Arkansas and a legendary high school coach there.  He will be able to get recruits for his offense.  Newly-minted Mon Calamari Hugh Freeze left Arkansas State in pretty good shape for someone to come in and be successful right away.

Let’s also assume that Malzahn’s goal is still the same—to become the head coach of a big-time college football team.  What happened this off-season?  Teams hired head coaches from smaller schools who had proven success as a head coach and who had produced offensive success.  (Southern Miss’s Larry Fedora to UNC; Freeze to Ole Miss; Houston’s Kevin Sumlin to Texas A&M.)  In the interview for the UNC job, Malzahn was supposedly told it would help if he had head coaching experience.  How does he get to his goal?  By taking the Arkansas State job, winning big and scoring a lot of points—all while demonstrating that he can manage all the other day-to-day jobs that a head coach has to deal with.  If Malzahn does that at Arkansas State then he will be a viable candidate for bigger jobs when they come along down the road.  (For example, who thinks Derek Dooley is surviving another bad year at UT?)

Most Importantly:  Where Does Auburn Go from Here?

First and foremost, Gene Chizik needs to answer this fundamental question: What kind of offense does he want? Is Auburn now permanently (at least for now) a “Malzahn-style” spread offense school?  Would some other form of the spread offense do just as well? Might we take a page from Alabama and LSU and go back to a more traditional I-formation pro-style offense (i.e. Al Borges 2.0)? Or might we swing the other way and try to implement a high-flying, pass-heavy spread offense in the air-raid style of an Oklahoma?  Or does he not really care about the particulars as long as the offense scores points, in which case he just picks the best guy regardless of offensive style?

These are interesting questions, and ones Auburn coaches have faced before—recently.  In  2004, having lost Bobby Petrino to Louisville more than a year earlier and having seen the resulting “Nallsminger” offense sputter and die in 2003, Tuberville seriously considered bringing in someone to install a Spread offense.  But he wasn’t convinced during interviews that the Spread-preaching coaches sufficiently knew how to adjust at halftime to unexpected in-game developments.  He hired Al Borges not because he was determined to go with a particular style of play but because Borges seemed to have the best answers for how to adjust to changing conditions and adverse situations during games.

Three years later, with Borges booted out after a precipitous decline in points, yards, and skill-position players on offense, the search was on again—and this time Tubby did choose a “Spread guy,” in one Tony Franklin.  We all remember how that worked out.  Gene Chizik didn’t let that little bit of recent history scare him off of the Spread, though—or the idea of a willful, “mad genius” offensive coach—and thus he made one of the best hires in recent SEC history, in Malzahn.

So that’s the recent past.  Now for the future:  Some potential candidates.

Baylor co-offensive coordinator Phillip Montgomery.  Was on our list last year and the offense was good enough to create a Heisman Trophy winner this year in RG III.  His team finished second in the nation in total offense this season.  But apparently he’s known his head coach at Baylor since high school and there might possibly be a bond there that could prevent him from jumping to another school on his own.  We’ll see.

Oklahoma State coordinator Todd Monken.  He’s a hot name right now, and is probably on Florida’s list also, but the Cowboys have the (oil) money to try and keep him, too.  (It’s unfortunate for Auburn that Florida is currently in the same situation—looking for a new OC.  It almost guarantees we won’t get the top name, if Florida wants him, too.  And then there’s Alabama, also in the market.  Are there enough top OC candidates to go around, right now?)

Southern Miss coordinator Blake Anderson.  Currently a candidate for the USM head coaching job, or he could go to UNC with Fedora.

Boise State coordinator Brent Pease.  He made UGA’s defense look bad, and maybe would be more willing to leave now that Kellen Moore will be gone.  But can he function on a home field that is actually green??  And how much “green” will he want?

Dark Horse Candidates:

Utah State coordinator Dave Baldwin.  He did an excellent job in the Aggies’ game against Auburn.  Utah State was 20th in the nation in total offense this year, too.

Missouri coordinator David Yost.  Truman’s Tigers were 12th in the nation in total offense this year.

Some have mentioned Malzahn’s disciple, Rhett Lashlee, currently the OC at Samford (another team we played this year).  But in all likelihood he will be packing up and moving to Arkansas State soon, to serve as Gus’s non-play-calling OC.  Maybe a couple of years of seasoning there, and Auburn can look him up again.

Grimes n’ Luper!  Because promoting from within and handing control of the offense over to the OL coach and an offensive position coach worked out just AWESOME last time…. Um… Okay, scratch that one.

Chizik at the Crossroads

The very best thing that Gene Chizik did when he was hired was to hire a great coaching staff.  The decisions he made in that hiring process were the primary ingredients that led Auburn very quickly to a celebrated date in the desert in Glendale, and to the National Championship.  (Even if you want to make the ridiculous argument that Auburn’s national title was “mostly or all Cam,” remember that it was Gus and Curtis Luper who lobbied Chizik very hard to even give Cam a chance to play at Auburn.)

Now Chizik has a lot of money freed up to spend and two new coordinators to recruit.  To keep pace with the other top programs in the SEC, Chizik needs to make two very good hires here.  There’s no margin for error.  We can’t have another Tony Franklin (or even another David Gibbs) situation.  He has to hit two home runs.

The template for how to do that should be very familiar to him.  It’s what happened nine years ago—when Tommy Tuberville hired one Bobby Petrino to take over the offense, and you-know-who to take over the defense.  Things worked out pretty darned well that time.  Will they this time?

That’s why we pay him the big bucks…

Howlzahn via @AUlteredEgo, our Michael J. Fox + Auburn GIF-giver.

Related: Young Bartley asks Gus Malzahn about the Wu-Tang Clan / Razing the Roof… gently.

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.

Previous Wishbone columns are waiting for you here.

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