AUBURN — In typical Gus Malzahn fashion, he received his mid-life revelation not in the BMW sports car he bought but in what he gave up in his coaching professional life.
Without the second-by-second pressure of calling plays for the past month, Malzahn joked his wife Kristi said he looks calmer on the sidelines after three straight wins against LSU, Louisiana Monroe and Mississippi State.
“I thought I look more calm,” he said. “I feel more calm. I will get fired up every now and again. That's OK. Nothing wrong with that.”
Malzahn mentioned it was Kristi who noticed a different demeanor since making the decision to delegate play-calling duties to his offensive staff. She has been side by side with her husband throughout his entire coaching career after she married him at 19 years old. They’ve gone through high school stops through their home state of Arkansas, several coordinator jobs in college football and the four-year tenure as Auburn head coach.
That road included plenty of ups and downs, but this year, he endured a valley that inspired the play-calling change.
“The last two losses have probably hurt me worse than any of the others,” Gus Malzahn said Sept. 20 when he gave play-calling responsibility to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. “I fully understand our fan base is disappointed, and they should be. The bottom line is we've got to coach our players better, and that starts with me.”
The results suggest Malzahn should be comfortable with his decision and mannerisms on the sidelines because since handing over the play calls to Lashlee, Auburn (4-2, 2-1 SEC) leads the Southeastern Conference in total offense (560.0 yards a game) this month and have gone from 121st among 128 FBS teams in negative plays to 88th in the nation.
“We kind of learned our guys a little bit in what we can and can't do,” Lashlee said. “We've probably been able to — I don't want to say simplify because we still have our whole playbook — but we've tried to simplify game plans knowing what we're good at, and rep those maybe more so.”
Since the beginning of October, Auburn has had only seven total plays in two games end behind the line of scrimmage as compared to nine per game in the first month.
“That’s really a tribute to the offensive staff,” Malzahn said. “They looked at it and looked at the areas that we needed to improve and not do some things and maybe do some other things. It’s not just one thing, it’s just more of an approach and a point of emphasis. We’re proud of our players for making that change too and being able to execute certain things.”
After outscoring the last three opponents 114-34, Malzahn sees no reason to change the play calling scheme this week as they host No. 17 Arkansas (5-2, 1-2 SEC) for a 5 p.m. kickoff on ESPN. The play on the field and Malzahn’s blood pressure are at the exact optimal level heading into the second half of the 2016 season.
Malzahn approaches Arkansas week for the fourth career game against the school in his home state he attended for two years, coached at for one year and lived in for the better part of his life.
“I see things differently now. Like I said before, it's been refreshing from my standpoint,” Malzahn said about not calling plays. “At the same point, Rhett and the offensive staff has raised their level and they've done a very good job. I feel very good about the rest of the season the way we've been doing it."