Malzahn Hire Keys Auburn Turnaround

The hiring of Gus Malzahn set off a chain of events that eventually led to Auburn playing for the BCS National Championship against Florida State.

Auburn, Ala.--When Gus Malzahn was named Auburn's head football coach on Dec. 4, 2012, it was an exciting day for the players who knew him well from his time as the offensive coordinator for the Tigers. Energetic and known for his tireless work ethic, Malzahn is a coach the players believed in and predicted would get things turned around on the Plains.

Now just over a year later nobody could have guessed just how quickly Malzahn and his coaching staff would put the Tigers back on center stage in the the college football spotlight. Winning the SEC Championship with a 12-1 record and preparing to play in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State, the second in four years for the program, Auburn is having one of one of the greatest turnaround seasons in college football history and C.J. Uzomah said much of the reason for that starts at the top.

"I think just being a player's coach," Uzomah said when asked what stands out to him about Malzahn. "He respects us, and any time he says something, we take it to heart."

Malzahn addresses the Tigers in their final on-campus practice before heading to California on New Year's Eve.

A player who didn't know much about Malzahn after transferring in from Illinois the season after his move to Arkansas State, fullback Jay Prosch said it didn't take long to see what all the fuss was about once the coach met with the players and they got on the field in spring practice. Watching him make adjustments in the offense throughout the season, the senior said perhaps the biggest thing Malzahn did was believing in his players and making them believe in themselves.

"That's just all Coach Malzahn coming in and bringing a new system and all the guys getting excited about it and buying into it really," Prosch said. "Then, along with that, them pushing us to the max in the offseason and working us hard and building our confidence back. That's what happened."

While the turnaround started with Malzahn, it only got stronger with the staff he put together on both sides of the football. Starting with coordinators Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson, Malzahn added veterans such as J.B. Grimes and Tim Horton on offense to go along with Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith on defense. Adding former Auburn standouts Rodney Garner and Dameyune Craig and finishing things off with Scott Fountain, the staff was filled with experience and talented coaches. That's what Malzahn was looking for starting with his coordinators.

Ellis Johnson is shown at Auburn's practice on Monday.

"The first thing we wanted to do was get men of character that were great examples for our players," Malzahn said. "That's where we started. Then we went after guys at the same time that had very good resumes.

"We hired our coordinators first," Malzahn said. "I gave the coordinators some ownership. I thought being a former coordinator it was very important that your roots are close. We really have something special with our staff. They have done a wonderful job and they are a big reason why we are here."

Defensive line coach Rodney Garner waves to fans as he prepares to leave campus on the team's trip to California.

With the talent to do damage and a coaching staff to get them headed in the right direction, all that was left for the Tigers was to work hard and get the job done on the field. Building momentum throughout the season as well as the confidence needed to succeed, Uzomah said this team isn't surprised to be playing for it all no matter what others think.

"I don't know if we thought instantly we would have this amount of success, but there wasn't a doubt in our mind we would be able to get back up to this caliber in no time," Uzomah said. "The kids I came in with--Tre (Mason), Quan (Bray), Greg (Robinson)--we wanted to win a national championship and we wanted to have a repeat of the 2010 season and here we are reliving it so it's truly a blessing."

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