There were a number of reasons Gus Malzahn was fired by Auburn on Sunday after eight up-and-down seasons, but none was as ironic or as frustrating as the regression of the offense. The struggle there represented the crumbling of the foundation of the program and the core of Malzahn as a coach.
Remember, it was Malzahn who wrote the book on the hurry-up, no-huddle. It was a philosophy, he wrote, that “allows the offense to be the aggressor and keep constant pressure on the defense.” And initially that combination of aggressiveness and pressure worked out brilliantly for him, first as Auburn’s offensive coordinator during its championship season in 2010 and then again as head coach three years later. It was exciting and new and helped change the way college football was played.
Operating at breakneck speeds, Malzahn turned Nick Marshall into a star and gave defensive-minded coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban fits. Auburn went all the way to the BCS National Championship Game that first season of 2013 with Malzahn at the helm, and the SEC rookie head coach was labeled a genius.
After Auburn narrowly lost to Florida State that night in Pasadena, a proud Malzahn told reporters, “We’re going up. … Our goal is to get back here. I really believe we’ll do it.”
But they never did. Malzahn’s genius ran out and his book on offense never came with a second volume. He struggled weighing his roots as a playcaller with the need to oversee an entire program. And as he flip-flopped his position calling plays, opposing coaches studied what he did and evolved, while Malzahn stubbornly remained the same.
Blue-chip offensive recruits like Duke Williams, Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers flamed out. Meanwhile, a star quarterback never materialized, which was perhaps the most striking indictment against a coach who had been billed a QB whisperer ever since he helped mold Cam Newton into a Heisman Trophy winner as offensive coordinator.
Jeremy Johnson was supposed to be the heir apparent to Marshall and Newton, and instead he went bust. Sean White was arrested and kicked off the team. John Franklin III transferred. And Jarrett Stidham never quite lived up to the hype, appearing to be more or less a game manager than the difference-maker he was promised to be.
The tempo diminished. The excitement waned. The only hurry became the haste with which some Auburn supporters wished to show Malzahn the door.
It was the summer of 2014, and Malzahn took a seat inside an empty locker room after practice. He had only a few minutes, but he would gladly spend them discussing the evolution of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Coming off a magical 2013 season with Marshall returning for his senior year, Auburn was ranked fifth and all seemed possible.
Malzahn wiped away a bead of sweat, adjusted his visor and relived the birth of his offense back in northwest Arkansas two decades earlier. Once he went all-in on the uptempo pace, he said, he never had a doubt. “It was successful right off the bat that first year,” Malzahn explained. “It was easy.” He had to overcome some hurdles to get it going in the SEC — a tumultuous foray into college as offensive coordinator under Houston Nutt at Arkansas went unmentioned — but his offense eventually had found a home in Auburn first as an OC and then head coach.
“It’s who we are,” Malzahn said. “We do everything fast.”
Going fast fit his personality, he said, copping to being a “pretty impatient” guy. He had no patience for doubters, either. He could still hear how coaches tried to talk him out of his offensive philosophy: You’ll wear your guys out, you won’t be able to execute fast pace. When it gets cold in December you won’t be successful. Rather than give in, he leaned on the best advice he said he’d ever received: “Do what you know and stick with it.”
He felt the ground moving beneath him and was unworried. The hurry-up had become ubiquitous in high school and was filtering up rapidly through the college ranks. Traditional run-heavy programs such as Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Tennessee had adopted similar styles of play. Even Alabama had recently hired Lane Kiffin to change with the times. Did Malzahn wish his offense was still a rarity? “Maybe a little bit,” he said, “but we’re still pretty unique.”
Malzahn was pleasant and candid, but the final question appeared to lock him up: Who do you study on offense? Do you research other teams during the offseason?
“No,” he said bluntly. “We try to do what we do better.”
Not even high school teams just for ideas?
It was unusual to hear a coach say he didn’t visit with colleagues and swap ideas. If nothing else, football coaches are a fraternity.
But Malzahn kept his circle unusually small, most notably including fellow hurry-up disciples Art Briles and Hugh Freeze. One coach who worked with Malzahn said he maintained a siloed program. Another pointed out how his staff was intentionally stacked with acolytes, his former players or low-level assistants.
The word “paranoid” was often used by colleagues and former co-workers to describe Malzahn, who is said to have once sent a member of the support staff out of practice because he graduated from the school Auburn was playing that week. One coach said Malzahn even made a habit of harping on scout team players about keeping game plans a secret from their family and girlfriends. He picked up the reputation of being difficult with NFL scouts, restricting their access for fear that information would leak.
“He’s a guy that … is very cautious around people, very secretive,” a longtime SEC assistant coach said. “He doesn’t want people to steal their plays. He’s very to himself. His offense is very exclusive.”
But exclusivity is a fleeting thing in college football, where every play is dissected and every tendency is eventually revealed. As the years wore on, the knock Malzahn had entering the SEC — that he ran an overly simplistic “high school offense” — became true once again. It was the same small number of plays run over and over, sources said, adding that if he doesn’t have elite talent, especially in the form of a running quarterback, it doesn’t work.
“It’s got to evolve,” said one former SEC head coach. “He thinks his offense, he can run it against anybody. You’ll beat some of these also-rans and the Vanderbilts and the Kentuckys and all those, but there are good coaches in the SEC and they will shut you down in a heartbeat.”
As defenses caught on, Malzahn did something a younger version of himself might have never imagined. Rather than go faster and apply even more pressure, he slowed the tempo down. The proud aggressor stopped being quite so aggressive.
From 2013 to 2016, Auburn’s offense ranked 25th in the FBS in points per game. But since 2018, the Tigers have fallen to 50th in scoring.
The big play — a hallmark of Malzahn’s early offenses — fell by the wayside, too, as Auburn ranked 62nd in plays of 30 yards or more over the past three seasons.
Malzahn always seemed to be searching for a second act. Having made the incredible leap from high school to the SEC, having shown proof of concept early as head coach at Auburn, he needed his story to turn in a different direction.
The problem: He couldn’t settle on where he was headed.
Malzahn would ping-pong from being the CEO he said he needed to be and the hands-on coach he said he really was. He’d give offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee playcalling duties only to later take them back. Then Lashlee left for UConn, and Malzahn hired Chip Lindsey and handed him the keys to the offense. And true to form, Malzahn would call that “a mistake” and take control once again when he hired Kenny Dillingham as Lindsey’s replacement.
Even this past offseason, Malzahn couldn’t help changing his mind once more as he hired his buddy and former Arkansas coach Chad Morris to run the offense, giving Morris playcalling duties, which he appeared to maintain throughout the season.
It’s unclear how much of the offense changed under Morris and how much of the learning curve was curtailed by COVID-19, which prevented Auburn from holding spring practice or meeting in person for much of the offseason.
Whatever the case, there was no discernible improvement. Quarterback Bo Nix, who looked like he had the potential to develop into a star and was named last season’s SEC Freshman of the Year, regressed as a sophomore. While his completion percentage improved slightly from 57.6% to 60% — still well short of the SEC average of 64.7% — his yards per attempt remained the same as a season ago, and through 10 games he’s thrown one more interception and five fewer touchdowns.
Auburn had to scratch and claw to beat two-win Mississippi State and finish the regular season above .500. Afterward, Malzahn pulled his visor backward and danced in the locker room in celebration.
But less than 24 hours later, the music stopped and a decision was made. As athletic director Allen Greene said in a statement announcing Malzahn’s firing, “We will begin a search immediately for a coach that can help the Auburn program consistently compete at the highest level.”
Despite the “Kick Six” and the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare” and so many other magical moments, consistency was the thing that eluded Malzahn, who went a combined 8-17 against Alabama, Georgia and LSU. Since his first season in 2013, the Tigers were a paltry 20-24 against teams with a winning record.
There was no sense of forward momentum, no progress, no positive change from year to year. Malzahn remained who he was, and the offense remained what it was, for better or worse.
The closest he ever came to replicating the success of the 2013 season was in 2017, when Auburn went on a tear down the stretch and beat two No. 1 teams in Georgia and Alabama to advance to the SEC championship. A spot in the playoff was possible, and redemption.
But Georgia wasn’t fooled a second time around. No amount of speed or motion would surprise it, and after an opening-series touchdown, Auburn didn’t score again in a deflating 28-7 loss.
While Malzahn discovered something truly magical in the hurry-up offense, the trick he could never quite pull off was making it new again.