AUBURN, Ala. — Buried deep inside Gus Malzahn there is a bubbly personality and a trickster, a man who understands and loves catching people off guard with a joke.
The serious look on his face, the 1,000-yard stare filtered by his spectacles and a long history of reminding people he is more robot than man may throw some folks off the scent. But this disguise has been cracked by his own quick-fire rebuttals and deadpan delivery that elicit a small smile on his lips in both public and private settings.
“No, I don’t (have a personality),” Malzahn said, reminding reporters as he wrapped up a press conference in the spring. “You already know that. You know the answer to that question before I answered it.”
Malzahn is good at playing the straight man in this theatre of football starring 10 coaches at Auburn. If Malzahn is the non-comedic device on the stage, the benefactor is Herb Hand, the offensive line coach with a boisterous personality, a whip-fire knack for jokes and a burning desire to try new things and live a life without regrets.
This odd couple was first paired in 2007 at Tulsa, where they meshed their ideas as co-offensive coordinators — Malzahn’s spread passing game mixed with Hand’s zone-read plays borrowed from his time on Rich Rodriguez’s staff at West Virginia — to develop the nation’s No. 1 offense for two straight seasons. It was at Tulsa where they learned from each other, Malzahn loosened up a bit and Hand gained a best friend.
Eight years later, the two finally teamed up again. This time Malzahn is the head coach and Hand is tasked with leading Auburn’s offensive line.
Apparently not much has changed for this theatrical pairing, either. Malzahn says he still doesn’t understand Hand’s jokes.
“Nah, he gets my jokes,” Hand said. “Let me tell you this about the joke thing: I like to have fun. I like life. If you can’t have fun and do your job as well then really you probably ought to think about changing your profession because life’s too short to not enjoy yourself. Gus enjoys himself. He has a funny way of showing it at times.”
Malzahn’s way of enjoying life is focusing primarily on football and family while building a persona of a cybernetic coach capable of only calling plays, deciphering defenses and performing adequate selective human interaction through prompted responses dialed up from his complex operating system. But it’s this approach where one realizes Malzahn has a personality.
The joke is that you believe Malzahn doesn’t understand the joke.
“Our players always loved to kinda mimic him and do those kind of things,” former Tulsa assistant and head coach Bill Blankenship said. “One of the players told a joke in the locker room once. Without missing a beat, Gus says, ‘Jokes. Huh. I don’t tell ’em, I don’t get ’em.’”
This approach by Malzahn garnered him nicknames ranging from “Jimmy Neutron,” “boy genius,” Inspector Gadget” and “G-Unit” from Hand while at Tulsa. Hand lovingly labeled their pairing in association with the classic film “The Odd Couple.”
Hand has taken to calling his new boss simply by his proper title: coach Malzahn. “Got to keep that level of professionalism,’ Hand said.
New titles aside, Malzahn is easily the Felix in this “Odd Couple” arrangement at Auburn, where Oscar, err, Hand, gained Malzahn’s trust during their days at Tulsa. The relationship may have changed a bit, but the unspoken understanding between the polar opposites is still there. Hand will have a voice in developing game plans with Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, too.
“There will be times when I feel like my office is bugged because I’ll be talking about something and the next thing I know he’ll come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about this,’ and it’s the same thing that Rhett and I were just talking about,” Hand said. “So I think I’ve got to get my office traced for bugs.
“He sees the big picture. I’ve always said that Gus is a special person in that his greatest ability is that he brings out the best in people — he really does. He’s brought out the best in me as a coach and as a person and he has an uncanny ability to do it.”
Malzahn and Hand’s marriage of ideas — and the development of their relationship — at Tulsa put both coaches on the map. They checked their egos at the door, Hand said, as they tried to build the Conference USA team into a contender. There was something exciting about mixing two new voices into a strong offense and winning titles along the way.
“They were good for each other,” Blankenship said. “Gus needs somebody to keep it light and keep it easy going and Herb needed some consistency from the leadership. I just think it was a good marriage.”
On game days, however, Hand and Malzahn went from featured players in the “Odd Couple” to “Freaky Friday.” Malzahn would transform from the conservative and reserved coach in the office to a fiery, energetic and frenzied force on the sidelines; Hand served as the calming voice on the headset sitting inside the press box.
They still had a connection, too. Malzahn made sure to share the success of every moment with his pair of eyes in the sky.
“The first time I saw [Malzahn] do that ‘Boom!’ move with his fist, he did it and I think he was actually pointing up to coach Hand in the press box,” said Justin Morsey, an offensive guard for the Hurricane at the time.
Following their two years together at Tulsa, Malzahn and Hand stayed in touch. Malzahn remained conservative and reserved. Hand was outgoing and adventurous, and even appeared on an episode of “Chopped,” a cooking competition on the Food Network.
“From a personality standpoint, we kinda have contrasting personalities, but at the end of the day he’s a really good guy,” Hand said. “I’ve got nothing but love for the guy. He’s kinda got a nerdy cool about him that I love. I like working with him and I like working for him.”
Malzahn and Hand landed in the SEC as assistants in the 2010s. Hand coached at Vanderbilt and when Malzahn was hired as Auburn’s head coach, his first call to an offensive line coach was Hand. He declined the offer and later followed James Franklin to Penn State. Three years later, Malzahn called again when J.B. Grimes left to coach the offensive line at Cincinnati.
“I was really close (to taking the job),” Hand said. “There were a lot of factors that came into play but everything works out for a reason. God has a plan for all of us and I just know where I’m supposed to be and when I was supposed to be here. It’s all worked out.”
Every now and then Malzahn cracks a smile.