AUBURN, Ala. – Bo Jackson says new Auburn coach Gus Malzahn must build the program from the ground up and start by putting down a solid foundation.
Malzahn inherits a Tigers team with virtually every starter returning next season but plenty of uncertainty at quarterback and many other positions from a team that had a number of issues on both sides of the ball – and away from the field. So Jackson is preaching patience.
“I think what Gus Malzahn is facing right now, he’s facing an empty lot,” said Jackson, the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner and part of the four-man search committee. “He’s got to go move dirt. Lay a foundation and start to build a house. He’s got to rebuild that house. That’s what he plans on doing.”
Auburn gave Malzahn a five-year, $11.5 million deal Tuesday with focus on restoring the team to championship caliber and bringing more discipline to a program that endured a number of off-the-field issues under Gene Chizik.
Jackson used words like “passion,” “tenacity” and “hungry” to describe Malzahn’s pitch and demeanor in his interview with the search committee. He also praised his willingness “to come into a hornet’s nest like this and say, `My job is to rebuild this program, to get these kids back to the winning ways these kids are used to.”’
That challenge extends well beyond Xs and Os.
The Tigers wilted against top competition, getting routed by No. 10 Texas A&M (63-21), No. 6 Georgia (38-0) and No. 2 Alabama (49-0) and also had center Reese Dismukes and freshman quarterback Zeke Pike arrested for public intoxication over the summer. Chizik dismissed Pike from the team.
Search committee member Mac Crawford, a Nashville businessman, said discipline was one of the first topics brought up with Malzahn.
“We talked about it a long time and we were very satisfied with the answers that he gave to us,” said Crawford, a former Auburn fullback who was chairman of the board at CVSCaremark and CEO/chairman of CaremarkRx.
Freshman quarterback Jonathan Wallace said discipline was an issue last season “but that’s something that can be fixed.”
“Just a matter of us being accountable with each other,” said Wallace, who started the final four games. “That’s the biggest thing, just looking out for each other and making sure that we’re not doing anything that we don’t need to be doing.”
The Tigers do have big holes to fill, despite returning 18 players who started on offense or defense in the finale against Alabama. They’re losing their only consistently productive receiver, Emory Blake, No. 2 rusher Onterio McCalebb and leading tackler Daren Bates. Defensive end Corey Lemonier also hasn’t said if he’ll return for his senior season or enter the NFL draft.
But Malzahn said it goes beyond talent to attitude.
“We do have some talent, and we have some deficiencies, and what I’ve got to do is identify the deficiencies and address those immediately and also the mindset,” he said. “The mindset and expectations mentally and physically of our players. So we’ve got some work to do, but I know the areas we need to improve on and we’re going to address those.”
Crawford has experience reviving companies, and finds correlations in Malzahn’s challenge.
“Let’s face it, this is a turnaround situation,” Crawford said in a phone interview Wednesday. “This is a team that won three ballgames last season, and he has got to get the kids back to where they have a winning attitude, heading in the right direction. We’ve got good kids at Auburn.
“I’ve always done turnarounds in my corporate career and any time you go in, getting the right people in the right places and doing it the way you think should be done — that’s what Gus has to do. You just can’t expect it to happen overnight.”
Malzahn does have a track record for reviving offenses quickly, even before Cam Newton’s arrival in 2010. The Tigers improved from 110th in scoring in 2008 to 16th the following season with Chris Todd at quarterback.
Malzahn also directed Tulsa offenses that led the nation in total offense in 2007 and 2008.
Wallace, one of three quarterbacks with multiple starts returning, said he attended every Auburn home game during the national championship season two years ago. He also saw what Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel did this season with a similarly uptempo offense.
“It’s exciting. It really is, just being able to go there and just run all over the defense if you execute as well as you need to,” said Wallace, who signed after Malzahn left for Arkansas State. “It’s a really fun offense. You’ve really got to put in all the work that’s needed to be very successful in this offense.”