Guerry Clegg commentary: Malzahn has cleared the first hurdle, but more to come

sports@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 23, 2013 

In a business assessed almost entirely by wins and losses, it's impossible to know yet whether hiring Gus Malzahn as Auburn's football coach will turn out to be a brilliant move or a bust.

Malzahn has yet to even coach his first spring practice, let alone overhaul the Tigers' inept offense back into his scoring machine. He has yet to develop his first game plan, or enter a hostile SEC stadium on a Saturday night. Then there's that whole Georgia-Alabama finish to the SEC schedule, in which the Tigers have been outscored 134-21 in the last two years.

That disclaimer aside…

For someone whose resume thin on big-time experience raised eyebrows with his hiring, Malzahn merits high marks for his early work.

The mess Malzahn inherited extended beyond the Tigers' 4-8 record in 2012. Gene Chizik was fired not just because of the poor season but because the Tigers had lost hope. Hiring Malzahn was a risky move because most of his experience has been as a high school coach. That raised questions.

Could Malzahn assemble a coach staff that could compete with Nick Saban at Alabama? Could he hold together a recruiting class that threatened to come apart at the seams after Chizik and his staff were fired? Could he win over the doubters, many of whom wanted to hire Bobby Petrino, baggage and all?

Malzahn did more than just fill coaching vacancies. He built one of the strongest staffs in the SEC. He hired Ellis Johnson to run the defense, plus five coaches who are proven recruiters -- Charlie Harbison from Clemson, Melvin Smith from Mississippi State, Tim Horton from Arkansas, Dameyune Craig from Florida State and Rodney Garner from Georgia. Horton, Craig and Garner were recruiting coordinators.

Malzahn's latest move -- hiring Dell McGee from Carver to serve in a non-coaching (read: recruiting) position -- was smart. It was just a matter of time before some big-time college coach recognized McGee's value and brought him on board in some capacity. Coaches get stereotyped based on their present level of employment. And, in fact, many do gravitate to their natural niche. But many coaches can adjust to any level and any role. McGee is one of those coaches.

McGee was a highly recruited running back at Kendrick, made the transition to defensive back at Auburn and played briefly in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals. After building Carver into a state power, McGee has seen recruiting from a different perspective.

Bringing McGee on board made perfect sense. It's a low-risk, high-reward move. Hiring him in a non-coaching role gives him the opportunity to learn recruiting from a different view -- seeing the big picture of managing scholarships and absorbing all of the NCAA's tedious rules.

McGee might stay in that role for the rest of his career. Or it might be perfect entry-level training to become a coach on the field.

The other big question about Malzahn was whether he could recruit. Again, time will tell. But the early results are impressive.

Most head coaches in their first season simply try to salvage the signing class. Many players back off their verbal commitments after the coach recruiting them was fired. So new coaches spend as much time courting those players as putting together the final pieces.

Malzahn's staff did more than salvage the recruiting season. They plucked some prized prospects away from other schools. Malzahn's first signing class was ranked in the top 10 nationally by most analysts. Saban's first signing class at Alabama ranked 10th by Rivals.com and 22nd by Scout.com.

It's all relative, of course. Malzahn's first signing class was only fourth-best just within his division, behind Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, and fifth-best in the SEC. Even if Auburn assembles one marquee signing class after another, time will tell whether Malzahn can pull it all together and win in college football's most competitive conference.

But Malzahn has met the initial challenge. He has restored hope.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. Write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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