Malzahn's return signals hope for Auburn

Gus Malzahn has risen from the high school ranks to SEC head coach in just eight years. John David Mercer/USA TODAY Sports

AUBURN, Ala. -- After a year away, Gus Malzahn is back at Auburn. The role has changed, but the goal remains the same.

Last year, Malzahn went 9-3 as the head coach at Arkansas State, his first head coaching gig since Springdale (Ark.) High School in 2005. While the wins kept piling up for Malzahn and the Red Wolves, the opposite proved to be true for the school where he had the most success as an assistant.

Auburn finished 3-9 in 2012 and failed to win a conference game for the first time since 1980. The Tigers, just two years removed from a national championship, fired coach Gene Chizik after the season and turned to Malzahn. The former Auburn offensive coordinator was hired back to The Plains last December.

“It’s a new day, and my goal is to get Auburn back to a championship level,” Malzahn said at his introductory news conference. “The expectation at Auburn is to win championships.”

The first order of business was to build a staff. He brought over Rhett Lashlee, his right-hand man since Springdale, to be the offensive coordinator. On defense, he hired renowned coordinator Ellis Johnson.

“I feel very fortunate to have a guy like Rhett Lashlee that I know a lot about; he knows a lot about me and I've got a lot of confidence in him,” Malzahn said. “And, of course, Ellis Johnson is one of the better defensive coordinators in all of college football. That helps me do my job as head coach.”

From there, Malzahn poached some more talented assistant coaches from programs such as Arkansas, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia. The group was headlined by former Auburn players Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner, two assistants with reputations as top recruiters.

When Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Auburn, he helped put together back-to-back top-five recruiting classes and won the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the nation in 2010. As head coach, he already has 14 commitments for the 2014 class, including one from ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas, the state’s No. 2 prospect.

There is a buzz around the Auburn program again. Credit Malzahn, the coaching staff and the momentum on the recruiting trail. Fans are excited and anxious for the season to kick off.

“We're just trying to get our pride back, get our edge back,” Malzahn said. “Auburn's a great place. At the end of last season, it was very low, and we're just on our way to build this thing back up. We think the future's bright. We've got some really talented young kids and when they grow up, it's going to be a lot of fun.”

Malzahn's journey from high school coach to SEC head coach in less than a decade seemed unlikely, but he never doubted it was possible. He’s known for his innovative mind when it comes to running an offense, but his former boss will tell you that it’s his drive that got him to where he is today.

“I had never met him before, but I knew who he was,” said Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir after meeting with Malzahn. “You could tell he was a very driven guy.”

Mohajir wasn’t the one who hired Malzahn, but he took over as AD shortly after Malzahn coached his first game at Arkansas State. He arrived just in time to see the Red Wolves run off seven consecutive victories to finish the regular season.

“They just kept getting better each week,” Mohajir said. “We played Western Kentucky, stubbed our toe and that was the last time. We never lost a game after that.

“I think they had some pretty good players here, outstanding senior leadership, but [Malzahn] brought some freshmen in that I think were very talented. He wasn't here long enough to really leave a legacy, but I'd say he was here long enough to make an impact.”

Mohajir knew that Malzahn's stay in Jonesboro wasn't likely to be a long one. When he first sat down with Malzahn, he understood that Arkansas State was just a stepping stone for the aspiring coach, who eventually wanted to take the reins at a major program, preferably in the SEC.

“I was tracking it pretty good,” Mohajir said. “After we beat Middle Tennessee, I got a call from [Auburn director of athletics] Jay Jacobs. He was asking for permission to talk to my coach. He was a very good guy, and I appreciated him doing that. I knew that if it came down and the selection committee was going to pick him, that he was probably going to be leaving. There was no question in my mind.”

Malzahn left for Auburn, where he says he and his family spent three of the best years of their life, and Arkansas State went and found another young, aspiring coach, former Texas offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin.

“I'm really happy with our guy,” Mohajir said. “I think he's a good fit, so it worked out well for him and I think it worked out well for us.”

On his first day, Malzahn said he wanted to get Auburn back to a championship level. But he also understands that it will take time.

The difficult decisions of a head coach are already on his plate. When senior safety Demetruce McNeal was arrested earlier this month for possession of marijuana, Malzahn dismissed him from the team. A difficult decision? Yes, but one that had to set the tone.

The first game test is Saturday against Washington State.

“I'm very appreciative,” he said. “I feel very blessed to be doing what I'm doing at a great place like Auburn. It probably crosses my mind how blessed I am once a day, maybe more.”