"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."—Political and spiritual leader, Mahatma Ghandi (via North Texas University Center for Sports Psychology)
The Auburn football team had plenty of problems while stumbling through a 3-9 record in its 2012 campaign. There was poor tackling in the open field. A vertical passing game was never established. The SEC's elite teams pushed the Tigers around on both sides of the ball.
However, the most disturbing problem that Auburn had in 2012 wasn't the worst record in the modern era of Auburn football. It wasn't even an SEC-worst statistic like rushing defense.
It was the perception that the Auburn football team was not only physically defeated, but it was also mentally defeated each and every week, particularly in the latter part of the season.
Auburn QB Jonathan Wallace doesn't believe his team quit. "That's the biggest thing right now, not giving up," Wallace told Chris Low of ESPN.com after the 38-0 defeat at the hands of rival Georgia. "The guys aren't giving up, and we just have to keep pushing."
Physically, the players didn't quit. But the 2012 Auburn team never developed the mental toughness that is required to be successful.
Auburn needs a lot of things to happen between now and Aug. 31—when the Tigers face off against Washington State to open the season—for the 2013 campaign to be successful. But the single most important thing new Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn must do is to make his team believe it can be successful again.
In the first two years under former head coach Gene Chizik, the Tigers were known for their resiliency; it was almost a guarantee that if the game was close, Auburn was going to find a way to pull it out. The 2009 West Virginia "Rain Game" and numerous games in 2010 come to mind.
In 2009, West Virginia led 30-27 going into the final quarter. The fourth quarter was all Auburn. A Chris Todd TD pass to Darvin Adams and a Craig Stevens interception sealed a 41-30 win. The Tigers refused to lose in front of the rain-soaked fans.
In 2010, Auburn came back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to beat Clemson in an overtime thriller. It took a 19-play, seven-minute drive at the end of the game for Auburn to beat Kentucky to keep its undefeated season alive. All along, Auburn fans knew their team would find a way to gut it out.
Oh. Some game known as "28-27" to Auburn fans happened in 2010 as well.
Chinks in the mental armor started to show in 2011 when Auburn was defeated by SEC rivals LSU, Georgia and Alabama by a combined score of 132-31.
The wheels came flying off in 2012. And it was the fourth quarter in which the nightmare kept recurring.
In every game leading up to the Texas A&M game Auburn entered the fourth quarter with a realistic shot to win the game. In those seven games, the Tigers were outscored 62-6 in the fourth quarter. Only two field goals (against Clemson and Vanderbilt) kept them from being scoreless.
After a close loss to Vanderbilt, Auburn mentally packed it in. Against the next three SEC opponents (Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama) Auburn was out of the game by the end of the first quarter. The Tigers were outscored 150-21 in those games.
Auburn trailed by scores of 42-0, 28-0 and 42-0 against the Aggies, Bulldogs and Tide, respectively.
The psychological part of the game is extremely important. On the other side of the state, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban thinks that part of the game is so important that he hires a sports psychologist, Tim Moawad of IMG Academy, to mentally strengthen his team.
William Evans of The Crimson White details how Moawad conditions Alabama mentally:
Moawad, with the help of his staff and various professionals brought in by Saban, teaches the young athletes of the Crimson Tide football program the fundamentals of mental preparation. The players enter into classes throughout the summer that concern how mood impacts performance, how the mind processes distracting information like the roar of the crowd and how decisions, especially mistakes, can turn into out-of-control consequences on the field.
“Most college programs, I think, do it the wrong way,” he said. “They bring in a Navy SEAL or a speaker that attempts to motivate the athletes. When you’re trying to motivate every now and then, all you can impact is an athlete’s willpower, and willpower is a short-term fix compared to an athlete’s real self-image. Self-image has to be trained just as speed, strength and skill are trained.”
During training camp and the regular season, world-class athletes, substance abuse professionals and experts in the field of leadership or improvisational training visit the team to facilitate the mental conditioning of the players.
Auburn doesn't have to do what Alabama does to get its team mentally prepared. Malzahn should find what he thinks will work best for his team.
Regardless, Saban's focus on having his team mentally prepared is intriguing. It works, too.
The mental toughness of a team is often developed in the weight room. New strength coach Ryan Russell is tasked with molding the Auburn football team both mentally and physically.
According to WR Jaylon Denson, Russell is accomplishing that mission. Workouts also appear to be much different than they were a year ago.
In an article by Kevin Scarbinsky of The Birmingham News, former strength coach Kevin Yoxall didn't have the authority a strength coach needs to mentally toughen a team under Chizik in 2012:
Some players weren’t going to class. Others weren’t working out. What should have been mandatory workouts became optional, and the authority of head strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall was severely undermined.
When Malzahn was hired, a culture change around Auburn was obvious. That is a main reason he needed to "clean house."
That culture change will happen with a completely new staff. When Malzahn spoke to the crowd at the Auburn basketball game versus Kentucky on Jan.19, he made sure fans knew that the Tigers would "get their edge back."
Maybe all Auburn needs is to find that edge.
If it does, the awful 2012 season will be a distant memory for Auburn fans in just a matter of months.