AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn wasn't sure what sort of team he'd have during his first year as Auburn's head coach. But he told his players before every game and during every halftime that somehow they'd find a way to win in the fourth quarter.
Auburn's dramatic 43-38 win over Georgia Saturday echoed that statement, as the Tigers needed a fourth-down prayer from quarterback Nick Marshall to shock their rivals. It gave the Tigers their 10th win of the season and kept them in the SEC Western Division and BCS hunt nearly a year removed from a disastrous 3-9 season that got former coach Gene Chizik fired.
Auburn went from near the bottom of the SEC in offense to ranking second (499.9 yards per game) and scoring 39 points a contest.
It's been a special year, and Auburn is a win over Alabama away from making it back to the SEC title game for the first time since 2010.
The Plains are oozing vitality, and Malzahn's presence has fueled that. His return has helped drive the Tigers back into the national spotlight and helped instill a confidence the program and fan base desperately needed.
"We came a long way," running back Tre Mason said.
"Having faith and being confident in your team and making sure everyone else has confidence and the faith to win -- that's a big part of us winning."
• • •
Growing up in Fort Smith, Ark., Malzahn's life mostly revolved around sports.
He didn't have many hobbies, but dabbled in every athletic competition he could. While he fancied himself as just an "OK" baseball player, he walked on at the University of Arkansas as a receiver in 1984. After two seasons, Malzahn said he realized he wasn't good enough to play and transferred to Division-II Henderson State, where he started to get the coaching itch.
The school had a good physical education department and a knack for producing coaches, Malzahn said. While he continued his playing career, he dove into coaching and truly found something he could wrap his life around.
"All I ever wanted to do was play at the next level or coach," Malzahn said. "I never even thought about anything else. That never entered my mind; I always wanted to be a coach."
In 1991, Malzahn got his first shot, becoming the defensive coordinator at Hughes High School in eastern Arkansas, close to the Mississippi River. Though he was thrilled about the opportunity, Malzahn admits he was lost when it came to organizing or forming a working game plan at first.
"That's where I really learned football," Malzahn said. "I didn't really have a clue."
He absorbed everything he could from coaches around him and learned from his own mistakes in order to construct his own philosophy. A year later, he was the head coach, and in 1994 he was playing for his first state championship.
Malzahn's name grew around the South when former Shiloh Christian athletic director (and current ESPN college basketball analyst) Jimmy Dykes hired him in 1996. That's where all the knowledge he had accumulated over the years merged to create his form of the no-huddle, hurry-up offense.
"Ever since then, that's probably been the best decision I've ever made as a coach because that's who we are now," Malzahn said of starting to run the hurry-up.
Equipped with a "bunch of guys who could throw and catch," Malzahn first started running the no-huddle his first year. When they ran it, they owned the momentum, but they lost it when they returned to the huddle, he said.
Once he and his staff realized this, Malzahn decided that if he was going to bring a state championship back to Northwest Arkansas, he had to do what no one else was doing.
A year later, he and offensive coordinator Chris Wood changed the names of every play and simplified the language in order to make it more accessible. He had no clue what to expect, but players digested it quickly.
His new offense picked up steam almost immediately, as Shiloh Christian set the national high school record with 66 passing touchdowns in 1998. Malzahn won back-to-back state titles in '98 and '99, and finished his five-year stint with a 63-8-1 record. Current Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee broke the national record for career touchdown passes with 171 under Malzahn.
What really struck Lashlee, who first met Malzahn as a seventh-grade quarterback for Shiloh Christian, was Malzahn's pursuit of perfection. Lashlee said Malzahn brought "extreme discipline" to the program and obsessed over why only nine out of 10 passes were completed instead of a perfect 10.
"He pushes you to be the best that you can be by not accepting anything less than your best," Lashlee said.
"Everything was going to be done right or it was going to be repeated."
Lashlee said he saw that firsthand in the state semifinals during his junior year after throwing what he described as a "really stupid interception" with a comfortable two-touchdown lead with about four minutes remaining. As Lashlee jogged off the field, two assistant coaches escorted him one way, as another coach was restraining an irate Malzahn, who was trying to inch closer to him.
Malzahn, who refrains from cursing, was screaming.
"I'm gonna kill him! I'm gonna kill him!"
That's when Lashlee says he really understood how much Malzahn cared about his players getting it right -- every time.
"I kind of believed him at that point," Lashlee said.
He also noticed Malzahn's commitment to finishing. During Lashlee's sophomore year, No. 1 Shiloh Christian faced No. 3 Junction City in the 1999 state semifinals, where Malzahn's Saints trailed 24-0 and later 51-35 at the half.
Inside a subdued locker room, Lashlee said Malzahn calmly stood in front of the team and confidently listed the reasons why they were going to come back and win 72-64.
"Well, we came out and we won 70-64," Lashlee said with a laugh. "He was close."
Malzahn's 2001 move to Springdale High, which was the biggest high school in the state, served as another turning point. Following legendary coach Jarrell Williams, Malzahn reached the state game in 2002 before winning a state championship in 2005. Springdale went 14-0 and outscored its opponents 664–118 along the way.
In 2004, current Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who was the head coach at Stephenville High School in Texas, needed a spark coming off of a 6-4 year and no postseason. A friend of a friend told him about Malzahn.
"[Malzahn's offense] was innovative, it was cutting-edge, it was fast and it was something that no one else in Texas -- and something that no one else that I had researched -- was doing," Morris said. "That's what I wanted. I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing. I wanted to be innovative, and that's what he was."
Morris, who didn't even know how to pronounce Malzahn's last name at the time, called the Arkansas coach to pick his brain. Malzahn was reluctant to say much so Morris and his entire offensive staff flew up and watched Malzahn's team play. Morris waited on the sideline after the game and introduced himself to a "shocked" Malzahn.
Malzahn was reluctant again, so Morris flew up again the following week to watch Malzahn in the state championship. Morris' persistence grabbed Malzahn, so he told Morris to call him in January. A couple months later, Morris and his staff visited Springdale, spending four days hunkered down with Malzahn, meticulously picking his brain.
"Ever since then, wherever he was at my staff would go and visit," Morris said. "We'd go and talk ball and we still do that to this day."
Malzahn's rise at Auburn didn't take long.
He left the high school ranks in 2006 to serve as Arkansas' offensive coordinator for a year. He didn't get to fully implement his system under Houston Nutt. Another former high school coach, Todd Graham, gave him a chance to run his system at Tulsa, and he led the nation in total offense during his two-year stint (2007-08).
When Chizik called in 2009, Malzahn jumped at the chance, figuring if the Tigers had a solid defense and he could score some points, Auburn would be in the BCS hunt.
In 2010, he coached the SEC's best offense to a national championship with his Heisman-winning quarterback, Cam Newton. Two years later, Malzahn led Arkansas State to a 9-3 record in his first collegiate head-coaching gig before his return to the Plains.
To Malzahn, Arkansas State wasn't a stepping stone. He thought he'd be there for a few years to "get it right," but Auburn was too big to pass up.
"It was really difficult leaving Arkansas State," he said.
• • •
It was easy for Ellis Johnson to take Malzahn's phone call.
Only three days removed from being fired as Southern Miss' head coach, Johnson said he jumped at the opportunity to speak with Malzahn, who was having "mixed feelings" about the Auburn job.
Johnson said Malzahn was calling various coaches to gauge their interest in Auburn. For Johnson, Auburn sounded perfect. He almost had pension in the state after spending eight years on Alabama's coaching staff, he thought Auburn had the resources to be a consistent title contender, and he was closer to his home in South Carolina.
He was also attracted to Malzahn's scheme because it wasn't a traditional spread. Its run-first base had much more success in the red zone, while keeping defenses on its heels. It blended triple-option, power, deep play-action and formation deception. He'd seen it live while coaching at South Carolina and Mississippi State and always respected the job Malzahn had done.
He also respected the vision Malzahn had. He didn't talk wins and losses; he talked rebuilding from the bottom and restoring the culture.
"He felt like it was going to be a building situation," Johnson said. "I don't think he meant it was going to take three years to clean it up. I think he felt like it was going to be a struggle to get these kids back [to being confident], back to playing with some swag and some energy. He deserves a lot of credit."
• • •
Malzahn first approached his new team early last December with a powerful message: Auburn was going to have the biggest turnaround in college football. He preached starting over and forgetting the past by not bringing it up or repeating it.
After being afraid to show their faces during and after the 2012 season, players needed a confidence boost. Their hanging heads needed a nudge and they craved a fresh start.
"We just knew and believed that we were going to get this thing turned around, just by his demeanor and his energy," senior defensive end Dee Ford said.
"He came in and said it was going to be a new day. I know people got tired of us saying that, but we really believed that and we worked like we believed it."
Malzahn didn't want to cut corners or have any gray area. He wanted to inject trust and belief into a team that was drowning in self pity, as anger stayed with players after a tumultuous 2012.
"They went through a storm and you could tell it," Malzahn said. "But the thing about this team is that anytime you go through adversity in a storm it makes you stronger. Everybody is seeing that right now because they're a strong, unified group and you learn from your experiences."
Malzahn is so programmed with football that it's hard to find him away from the football facilities. It doesn't mean he's stressed, Ford said, but it shows how serious he is, and it's rubbed off on some players.
"He stays focused on the task and he keeps us focused," Ford said. "He's a no-B.S. guy. He shoots you straight and shoots you forward.
"He expects more from you so he's not going to put up with any mediocrity that comes."
At the beginning, mediocrity was an issue. Johnson said the team struggled with the little things, like coming up early on sprints, not exploding out of runs, lacking intensity and not being able to finish consistently.
Johnson also saw frustration, resentment, finger-pointing, a major lack of confidence, and gave the team's work ethic a "B-minus." The "new day" approach sounded good, but players had trouble making internal changes.
"They were into that first part, but the second part, they had to change their old habits if they didn't want it to be the same old day," Johnson said.
That's where Malzahn really stepped in. He was steady with his leadership and fair, yet firm, with his words, Johnson said. He never wavered and was demanding but positive, which helped players buy in.
"He expects the best from everyone," Mason said. "He doesn't let little things creep in. If he sees you jogging, he points that out. Everything to him has to be winning football.
"All the little things have to be done right."
• • •
When news of Chizik's firing broke, Malzahn sounded like a no-brainer. He was an offensive genius and familiar with the program, but athletic director Jay Jacobs wanted to be sure. He talked to other worthy candidates, but he couldn't get over Malzahn and his exhaustive plan to turn Auburn around.
Jacobs remembers Malzahn being serious, meticulous and passionate, which caused Auburn's search committee to unanimously vote in Malzahn's favor.
"Anytime you have a chance in any business you're in to hire somebody that outworks other people and is smarter than most and has the quality character that he has, you have a chance to be successful," Jacobs said. "I'm not sure anybody thought the turnaround would be this big this quickly, but Gus took parts of a team and pulled them all together. Now, it's a well-oiled machine.
"Auburn football is back."
In less than a full season, Malzahn has helped revive a program in arguably the nation's toughest division and conference. He and his staff have developed their players' bodies and minds. There's confidence, swagger and smiles.
But that's where that trademark Malzahn steadiness comes in. There's no time to celebrate just yet.
"I'm very proud of them, but like I told them the other day, we can't pat ourselves on the back now," Malzahn said. "We'll do that at the end of the year and look back at all the fun stuff, but, hey, we gotta focus on what we're doing. We can't let any of that creep into our mind, and keep doing exactly what what we've been doing to get us here."
His players wouldn't expect him to say anything else.