AUBURN — You could call it going back on his word. You could refuse to believe it until you see it.
Just seven months ago, Gus Malzahn said at SEC Media Days that he “made a mistake” when he listened to advice and gave up offensive play-calling duties early on during the 2016 season. When he took them back following the 2018 season, he said he felt “very comfortable.” Calling plays is what orchestrated his rise from state champion high school coach to national champion offensive coordinator to Auburn head coach.
Even so, he has switched back. Last month, he said first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris will have full control of the offense — including calling the plays.
“I just hired, in my opinion, the best offensive coordinator in college football,” the head coach said Wednesday. “I love calling plays. I mean, I've said that numerous times. But when you got a chance to hire Chad Morris — he's not just good, he's special good in my opinion. And I'm so excited he's here. He's already brought so much just positive energy. Our players, they're very excited. I'm very excited. So looking forward to having him run our offense. And I'm really hoping it's for a long time.”
Malzahn probably never considered the possibility that he would get the chance to hire him. Morris was also a state champion high school coach and highly successful college offensive coordinator. He earned his first shot as a head coach at SMU three years after Malzahn did at Arkansas State. He was at SEC Media Days seven months ago, too, as the second-year head coach at Arkansas.
The two coaches have been close friends for a long time, which has been well-documented. Morris sought out Malzahn to learn the hurry-up, no-huddle offense from him in 2003, when both were still high school coaches. They have always talked about maybe coaching together one day.
That’s why this decision for Malzahn to give up play-calling could be different than the last two. Rhett Lashlee, who called the plays in 2016, was the protégé — he was a quarterback for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian High, then joined him on the sidelines when his playing career was over. Chip Lindsey, who called plays from 2017-18, was also a young, up-and-coming coach — he was an offensive assistant at Auburn in 2013, then came back after three seasons at Southern Mississippi and Arizona State.
Morris, on the other hand, is Malzahn’s peer in the industry. He trusts him. He also knows what he’s capable of. Morris’ two-year stint in Fayetteville was almost all bad — the Razorbacks went 4-18 before he was fired during the 2018 campaign — but his offenses at Clemson were highly successful, especially through the air.
“I think more than anything is just a fresh start, fresh eyes, we’re from the same family, the foundation, but he’s different,” Malzahn said of what Morris will bring to the offense. “I know him and Bo (Nix) have already spent a lot of time together — and Cord (Sandberg) and all that — just talking about the new things we’re going to do. I know our receivers are excited about it and I’d say there’s a good chance we could throw it a little bit more than we did last year and build around Bo’s strengths and all that. But I think more than anything is just the newness, fresh eyes, fresh start and a guy who has been ultra-successful doing it.”
So where does that leave Malzahn? Based on his comments on Wednesday, back in the “CEO” role he has tried out before but didn’t always seem to enjoy. He said he’ll spend a little more time helping out with special teams, which never hurts. He also said that he wants to put even more effort into “one-on-one relationships with our players and being more of a part of everything.”
“Just making sure that, from a head coach's standpoint, that I'm doing the things that a lot of the head coaches in our league that don't call plays are able to do,” he continued.
There is no one correct way to be a head coach in college football, but that way — the one Malzahn is describing — can work and work very effectively. Neither of the head coaches whose teams played for the national championship last month, LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, call plays on offense or defense.
Both had trusted coordinators on both sides of the ball, and Malzahn believes he now has that on his staff at Auburn.
“I really feel like we've got the best two coordinators in our league,” he said.
He already had Kevin Steele, who is the longest-tenured defensive coordinator in the SEC now that Dave Aranda has left LSU to be the head coach at Baylor. Steele just agreed to a three-year contract last month worth $2.5 million annually.
Now, Malzahn has Morris, too. That’s why Malzahn believes he’s not making a mistake by giving up play-calling duties again.
“(He’s) going to take our offense, I really believe, to the next level,” Malzahn said. “So right now, it's a very exciting time for me."