The Auburn Tigers have experienced one of the most significant turnarounds college football has ever seen this season, and head coach Gus Malzahn is just getting started.
Malzahn's first year at the helm has been nothing short of spectacular. He has taken a program that was 3-9 a season ago to a BCS No. 2 ranking and a spot in the BCS title game against the Florida State Seminoles.
However, when the 48-year-old offensive wizard's intensity gets too fierce, he relies on his wife, Kristi Malzahn, who has played an integral role in helping him focus on the subtler aspects of football, such as simply connecting with his players.
As reported by AL.com's Joel A. Erickson on Jan. 5, the coach feels as though he can rely on his better half when it comes to getting a second opinion on his constant forward thinking.
"I wouldn't be here without her," said Gus Malzahn. "We do this thing together. She is my accountability because I'm a one-track focused mind."
Malzahn elaborated further on the importance of building relationships with those he coaches outside of the gridiron realm:
First of all, even when I was a high school coach, I think it's extremely important that you develop relationships with your players. I think it's very important that your players know that you care about them more than what they can do on the football field. I think even more can be said for coaching college because you've got to win, the pressures to win and everything that goes with that.
According to tight end C.J. Uzomah, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee keeps the sometimes high-strung leader of the staff in check:
You know, Coach Malzahn, anytime something doesn't work, he takes it really personally. Coach Lashlee will be like 'Coach, calm down, it didn't happen on purpose. They didn't mean to drop the ball or run the wrong play, it's okay.' And Coach Malzahn will freak out, and sometimes Coach Lashlee is sometimes, 'It's okay.'
Malzahn can be as stubborn apart from game situations as he has been this season in running the ball relentlessly down opponents' throats. That attitude has spurred the Tigers to first in the nation in rushing offense, but it's also something Malzahn constantly has to check on.
Erickson outlines a story about former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who actually sought out Kristi Malzahn for counsel when he wasn't quite clicking with his then-offensive coordinator before his Tigers debut.
"That situation you're talking about, that was before the first game, and I was extremely hard on Cam and would push him and push him. She just noticed that, hey, you need to make sure he knows you care about him," said Malzahn.
The tough-love approach that Malzahn deploys at times has evidently been reined back enough so as not to be a detriment to the Tigers or any of his previous stops.
Getting through the tough SEC and capping it off with a dominant 59-42 victory over Missouri in the conference championship game makes the swift turnaround engineered by Malzahn especially impressive.
Malzahn's meteoric rise to date has been astonishing, and a testament to his innovative offense as well as his ability to moderate and maximize the effectiveness of his message as a leader of a marquee football program.
According to CBSSports.com's Jason La Canfora, that has generated interest for at least one coaching vacancy in the NFL—the Cleveland Browns, who are reportedly interested in interviewing Malzahn.
Former Browns GM Phil Savage discussed the regime's potential rationale for bringing in Malzahn by comparing the coach's dynamic offensive schemes and leadership ability to that of Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly:
That's high praise, considering Kelly led the Eagles to the NFC East title in his first season in the pros.
Regardless of the outcome of the national championship clash in Pasadena's Rose Bowl on Monday, Jan. 6, it seems the sky is the limit for Malzahn's future.
The AP Coach of the Year can thank mentors who helped him along the way, his players for executing his exciting, fresh concepts and his wife for keeping him even-keeled through the grind.
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