Heading into the National Championship game, both Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn have every reason to be proud of the job they’ve done this year. While for vastly different reasons, both were honored by being named as finalists to several Coach of the Year awards. Let’s take a look at each job.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn took over a downtrodden squad that went 3-9 last season while going 0-8 in the SEC. None of their 3 wins came against a school from a major conference and they were thoroughly embarrassed by their two biggest rivals, Georgia and Alabama. The two schools combined to beat the Tigers 87-0 over the final 3 games of the season. Texas A&M also handed Auburn their worst home loss in history with a 63-21 win. This wasn’t a team devoid of talent though. Auburn had Top 10 recruiting classes in 2010, 2011, and 2012. What it showed was that the loss of Gus Malzahn from the coaching staff had a profound impact and that Gene Chizik was largely not responsible for a resurgent Tiger team in 2010.
The first thing Malzahn had to do was rebuild these kids psyche. I’ll never forget the seen from The Natural, “Losing is a disease, as contagious as polio.” where the team tries to bring in a psychologist to get the players minds right. While it was meant as a joke in the movie, there is a good bit of truth to it. The mental makeup, especially of kids from 18-22 years old, is vitally important to their preparation and on field performance. Having his players gain their confidence and buy into his plan was the first job well done that Malzahn accomplished. From there, it was much easier to get talented kids coached right and in the right position to be successful. If there was one other really key move, it was probably the decision to take a bit of risk at quarterback with Nick Marshall. Marshall isn’t your prototypical QB, but in Malzahn’s offense, you don’t have to be. He’s good enough through the air to keep teams honest and deadly on the ground running the Tigers zone read with speed to beat teams to the edge.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had to try and build on and improve a team that went 12-2 last season and won the ACC and Orange Bowl. In the offseason he would lose 11 players to the NFL draft and 6 assistant coaches. Coming into the season, there’s not many people who thought that FSU would be better than 2012. The talent and nucleolus was there to have a successful season, but there were some major question marks to overcome. First he did a fantastic job of replacing assistants with quality coaches that not only were familiar with a lot of the philosophies and schemes he wants to implement, but had experience with those philosophies and bought in to them. Second, he grew as a coach. Before the season, in what I’m sure was a bit of an odd ceremony, the team leadership council awarded the “Most Improved Person on the Team”…to the head coach! A lot of speculation has been that he was able to back away a bit and be more of a big picture guy with a lot less stress due to a better support staff of x’s and o’s guys and not just great recruiters. I have no idea if that is really what’s happened, but if it is true you have to hand it to Fisher to be willing and able to take those necessary steps to be a better head coach.
Fisher has also done an outstanding job of getting his players to fully by in to “the process” made famous by Nick Saban. Listening to interviews with FSU players is like listening to copies of Jimbo Fisher. Clutter, preparation, focus, attention to detail, etc may sound like buzz words and catch phrases, but I truly believe that these kids believe it and the results on the field and how they’ve gone about their business lend to that being the case. I think that’s how a team that lost 11 players to the draft is able to either not have a dropoff or improve. It’s another talented guy buying into a system, stepping into a position when it’s his time. It’s how a team like Alabama is able to be so good year after year. Hopefully, for FSU fans, it’s where the Noles are headed.