AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn knew he couldn’t do it the same way anymore. The results weren’t what they used to be, and he didn’t like what that was doing to him.
So the Auburn head coach made a tough call heading into his 1-2 team’s matchup against LSU — a game covered with storylines about job security and a long home losing streak. He decided to give his prized play-calling duties to his protege, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
Auburn would go onto win that game, and the under-pressure Malzahn suddenly felt like a new man on the sidelines.
“It was very refreshing from the standpoint that I could be there for the special teams, the defense,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “I wasn’t caught up in the next play. It will definitely help me. It will help me during the week, too, to be there more for our players, which is really the most important thing. That’s how it got to where it’s at.”
That is Malzahn’s plan for the rest of Auburn’s 2016 season, which has some new life after the 18-13 upset over a ranked LSU team last Saturday night.
Lashlee will focus on the play-calling responsibilities of the offense Malzahn has crafted over his career as a football coach, with offensive line coach Herb Hand helping out. Malzahn still will be involved in the offensive game plan, but his main focus is on the overall team.
“The biggest difference is I’m not going to be in that film room for 20 hours a day,” Malzahn said. “I’m going to let (Lashlee and Hand) do it now. I’ll still be on top of things and involved, but it’s going to allow me to be there for my players more.”
The role changes for Malzahn and the coaching staff Saturday coincided with the offense’s best production against a Power 5 opponent in terms of yards per play (5.17) since the 2015 Texas A&M game — another game in which Lashlee called the plays.
Malzahn said before the season he wanted to be more hands-on with the offense in hopes of resurrecting it from the struggles of 2015. Those plans didn’t work, as Auburn scored just 29 points in its games against Clemson and Texas A&M.
Those frustrations reached a breaking point with Malzahn, who didn’t like how he was looking on the sidelines. So he changed the way he approached the LSU game, and it went beyond trading his trademark visor for a hat.
“I wasn’t coaching angry out there Saturday, I think that’s very big,” Malzahn said. “I felt like I was too negative the first couple of games. … It was real refreshing for me to be on the opposite end of that, where you don’t live and die with every play and you can kind of look ahead and see the big picture.”
That approach resonated with his players in the build-up to the LSU game.
“He was more calm, more relaxed,” senior defensive back Rudy Ford said. “He just let us have more fun, and he came in energized throughout the whole week. Told some jokes on the screen, played music. So, he just had us all relaxed and let us go play ball.”
Junior kicker Daniel Carlson, who scored all 18 points for an offense that moved the ball better between the 20-yard lines, had never before seen his normally intense head coach like that.
“He was trying to just lead by example and just get us back to enjoying the process during practice and stuff, being a little more relaxed,” Carlson said. “Still obviously getting all the work in, but enjoying the moment. … I mean, he’s a pretty high-strung guy.”
While Malzahn and his players all see the positives from the new attitude, letting go of play-calling was hard. His offensive mind turned him from a high school coach in Arkansas to one coaching in the BCS national championship game at the Rose Bowl in less than a decade.
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But this was a decision Malzahn couldn’t reach with his head alone. It was a “gut thing,” as he called it, that kept nagging at him after Auburn put up just 262 yards of offense in a loss to then-No. 2 Clemson that was quite winnable.
“When you’ve been coaching a long time, when you’ve been doing something for 25 years, that’s what you’re used to doing,” Malzahn said. “That was really my plan in the offseason, was to be more involved like I talked about. Sometimes reality hits you. In this day and time in this league, to be the head coach and call an offense is not realistic, at least for me.”
Malzahn finally gave into what his gut was telling him prior to the LSU game. He’s now 1-0 with his new mindset, and sees better days ahead.
“It’s hard to change, but the time’s right, and I’m looking forward to transitioning that way,” Malzahn said. “After one week, I feel very good about that moving forward.”