By John Zenor
Gus Malzahn still chews bubble gum furiously on the sidelines, calls out “Boom” after big plays and celebrates victories at Waffle House.
Just like he did when he was a high school coach instead of a millionaire leading No. 6 Auburn from misery to Southeastern Conference and national title contention.
Malzahn has directed college football’s biggest turnaround this season with the same hurry-up, no-huddle offense and single-minded focus of a coach that not only leaves no stone unturned but studies film of the dirt underneath.
“I think that’s what makes him great,” said Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, Malzahn’s protege and former prep quarterback. “In season, it’s nonstop ball.”
The philosophy has worked for Malzhan every step of the way since his beginnings as a high school coach in Arkansas, where he led teams to three state titles and seven championship games. It helped Auburn win the 2010 national title when Malzahn was offensive coordinator and his superstar pupil, Cam Newton, was capturing the Heisman Trophy a year removed from junior college.
Now, Malzahn has the Tigers (10-1, 6-1 SEC) a win over No. 1 Alabama away from the league championship game in Atlanta and still in the BCS title hunt.
The Tigers got their biggest break with Saturday’s 73-yard Ricardo Louis touchdown catch on a tipped ball with 25 seconds left to beat Georgia. The environment has changed from his high school days, but it’s an old play that was called “Little Rock” when Lashlee was a player, because that’s where the state championship game was played. The deflection was an unexpected twist.
Of course, Malzahn and wife Kristi headed to Waffle House to celebrate, even if it was so packed they had to leave without chewing on anything more substantive than Dubble Bubble. (Malzahn goes through about 25 pieces a game).
A guy whose offenses are designed for speed hardly has time to wait for a table. Or to gradually rebuild from Auburn’s worst season in six decades when he can do it seemingly overnight.
Malzahn’s first job last December upon his hiring after a year at Arkansas State, though, was repairing battered pysches of players who had just endured a 3-9 season and lost all eight SEC games, some of them in embarrassingly lopsided fashion.
He stressed that the players all got clean slates. The first team meeting, Malzahn said, was “pretty tough.”
“There were a lot of blank stares,” Malzahn said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. “They just went through a storm and you could tell.”
Lashlee said the offensive coaches even went so far as to not watch a single game together from 2012. It helped send a message to players and avoid any preconceived notions about individuals based on a nightmarish season. The Tigers were putting in a new system anyway.
Malzahn let his players decide on a goal. Their choice: To produce the season’s biggest turnaround.
“Once he sets that goal, he’s single-minded toward being driven toward that goal and he leads us all in that direction,” Lashlee said. “That’s probably why usually when he sets a goal, he achieves it.”
Then came a physical spring and hard-hitting preseason camp that did take a toll with a few injuries, but has resulted in a team that reclaimed its physical style.
“We even lost some guys, but we had to get that back,” Malzahn said.
He offers his typical no-frills explanation for Auburn’s approach this season.
“Our whole goal, it’s a very simple goal, was to get better each practice and each game,” Malzahn said. “It was nothing else. We felt like if we did that, we could be a pretty solid team by the end of the year. That was our whole mind-set. We never let our mind go any further than the next game.
“I truly believe this team has improved each game.”
Along the way, Auburn has beaten the Bulldogs and No. 10 Texas A&M with late touchdowns and survived a handful of other scares. Lashlee said Malzahn told his players before both games they would go down to the wire “and we’re going to find a way to win at the end.”
Malzahn typically arrives at the office by 7 a.m. and leaves about midnight. It is “nonstop ball” time, after all.
“He definitely isn’t up to date about the current news outside of Auburn football,” Lashlee said.
H-back Jay Prosch said Malzahn does relax after wins, when his job is done for the moment.
“He’s almost a different person,” Prosch said. “In practice and during the game, he’s definitely zoned in and extremely focused. After a win, he’s high-fiving in the locker room. He’s almost like a little kid. So happy. That’s awesome for us to see him so happy. It’s like a reward for us, like we did something really good. It’s awesome after a win to see him in the locker room.”
The season has supplied plenty of chances for players to see that side of Malzahn. And for the coach to load up on carbs at Waffle House or go “Boom” on the sidelines.
“It means something good happened,” he said.
Malzahn’s not sure when the “Boom” tradition started, though Lashlee thinks he recalls hearing it during his prep playing days in the late 1990s.
Josh Floyd, the quarterback on Malzahn’s first state title team in 1998 at Shiloh Christian, doesn’t recall hearing it. He is intimately familiar with Malzahn’s winning formula of a thriving running game and ever-rising confidence.
“He’s kind of got the ability to instill confidence in a group,” said Floyd, now Shiloh Christian’s head coach. “When I played for him, he always made us really confident.
“He’s just got the ‘it’ factor.
% AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed to this report.