Like some other Auburn bloggers, Tuberville IS (WAS) Auburn to me. I was 15 when he took over from Terry Bowden, and living in the football hell that is central Virginia. He's all I know practically of football at all, and the Tommy I knew was a rock in the tempest, a JetGate-defying long-hauler, a man whose cachet was the surprise onside kick and the out-of-the-blue reverse pass. Tommy Tuberville represented rock-solid stability in the face of any challenge. And in the final year of his tenure on the Plains, that coolness under fire disappeared. The CEO mismanaged his players, his assistants, and especially his most important coordinator. And was fired. My world's been shook. Auburn football is wrong side out this winter.
What's more, Chizik fit the bleak, bleak bill for the every-other Tiger coach, a pro-and-con five-year program reboot. At best, I felt that very good excuses could be made for his current record as a head coach, that we could confidently move his indicator from the bright-red realm of "FAIL" to the middling yellow uncertainty just below the center of the dial. IE, perhaps it's not fair to judge a first-time head coach on a scant two seasons at one of college footballs perennial dirt-munchers1. But what was undoubtedly certain was that Gene Chizik had done nothing to prove himself worthy of the job. At least not in a public sense. God knows what the Jays unearthed in the man, or remembered in him, that swayed their decision from his battle-hardened competition. I sure didn't know. He was - and to a large extent, remains - a definite maybe. Would he be Barfield or Bowden?
And so, imagine my surprise when he toed the party line of relentless Dye-inspired mouthsmashin'. After all, what were the fans, the linemen, and the running backs clamoring for? More three-pointin', tooth-rattlin' foobaw, more clouds of dust and grass-plastered helmets. Everyone was ready for ta bust 'em in the mouth. Chizik knew what he had to say.
Even I was ready! Let it be said - if it even need be - that I'm a huge fan of the spread philosophy, and in fact think that the Auburn Tiger offense has put on a "why you need the spread" clinic for the past two years. I was Frankly delirious after the Clemson game. I was eager for more of the Tony Franklin Experience, and ready to inhale deeply. And I loved to see our spread in action! There is little-to-no doubt in my mind that if Kodi Burns had played meaningful snaps in 2007, he would have been the clear starter in 2008. And there is even less doubt in my mind that an experienced Kodi Burns would have made the difference in Death Valley2. But after the LSU game, the game when the Spread Eagle starting darting around the field, hampered though she was - when even that game our passing game almost won, when even the best drive of that game had my father bellowing "Bring back Pat Dye! Bring back Pat Dye! Bring back Pat Dye!" ... I didn't think we were ready here at Auburn. The fans aren't the team by any stretch, and all in all what damns we give don't matter, but Lord Almighty... the monolith was trembling. The center could not hold. And of course, shortly after another heartrending Hat-tastic "almost" in the Bayou, the center gave way. Everything fell apart. We spit out the fireplug and kept in our mouth the lukewarm, offensively stagnant bunch of dudes who were "already out of football." We weren't ready. I had consigned myself to the shield of orthodoxy, and braced for five years of grind-like-a-millstone Big Blue groundpounding. Mississippi State with a pulse and old-school badassitude even in the face of certain box-stacking.
War Damn Eagle anyway, and all that. Like I said, the picture was bleak. And then: Malzahn. Gus Malzahn...
My first reaction was to resume panic. As in, OH GOD WHY ARE WE DOING THIS AGAIN OH GOD. The last thing Auburn needs is more self-inflicted mayhem. Regardless of Chizik's encouraging ability to identify a high-profile guy and go git 'im, it seemed that another spread jockey was to be wrangled awkwardly into place only to have his hopes and dreams splattered as his predecessor's. When I suggested "Winesburg, Alabama" as a name for the 2008 season, I meant it. Bleak.
But as Chizik and Malzahn began to address their public, this initial hysteria quieted. Everyone by now has heard how Chizik is going to let Malzahn have a say in the structure of the offense and the hiring of assistants, and is rightly pleased. But - courtesy of Jay G. Tate - this is what Malzahn had to say:
That's what I did today -- spent time evaluating our strengths.Now, some may dismiss that as coachspeak, pandering, or well-duh-isms. But our current situation dictates what the "Well duh" will be. And this year, what is "well duh" is play to our strengths, balance in the context of the opposing defensive scheme, and stretch the field. None of which was done consistently in 2008. Taken with Chizik's generous proclamations, this is the message I heard:
Well, you got to be balanced, and you've got to take what the defense gives you. People tell me, hey, do you want to run more than throw? Really, it matters on what the defense is going to give you.
We're going throw the ball far downfield, and we're going to do that quite often.
[When I talk to the players,] we will definitely put up exactly who we are, we will put up our goals... we'll have a good sound plan, and we'll have extremely high goals.
We have identified the lethal mistakes that were made and publicly announce our desire to correct them.Hallelujah. This is the real ray of light, the sign that the dawn marches ever earlier after our dark solstice.
So with my worst fears placated for the moment, I gradually started to recall our own brief experiences with the man who first populated my nightmares with fleet-footed midgets:
It's like a horror movie, like, Guys! Guys! Look out! Guys he's RIGHT THERE LOOK OUT GUYS OH NOOOOOO!
Malzahn who, I'm certain, has never been witnessed in the same room with another weirdly insightful man among the nerdier of my heroes:
Good Offense! du-du-du-Du-du-du-du-Du!
So, Auburn Tigers. There may be reason to hope, after all. Chizik may not be the second coming of Doug. Malzahn may get to trick out the offense with his warp-speed wizardry. And we may yet see Auburn be Auburn again.
The dawn marches ever earlier.
1 Just to momentarily address that lurking double standard: Turner Gill went 7 and 17 at Buffalo in his first two seasons at then-ultradoormat Buffalo. So there, Round Mound. Eat you damn shoe.
2 And we'd still have a rough-hewn Tony Franklin, Tommy Tuberville's fading panache, and all those grumbling hangers-on of assistant coaches who didn't really want to be coaching, after all. The Lord works in mysterious ways... toward mysterious ends.