Gus Malzahn preaches importance of respect, sportsmanship at high school awards luncheon

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 12, 2013 

He started things off with a joke.

Knowing he had crossed state lines and was standing in enemy territory, the first words out of Gus Malzahn's mouth conceded that he wasn't "going to try to convert" any Georgia fans into Auburn backers.

From that point on, it was clear: Malzahn was in his element.

Far from the sometimes-stiff, unfailingly-focused manner he takes with media members, Thursday showed a different side of Malzahn. Looking loose and without a camera or recorder at hand, the keynote speaker at the Columbus Valley Area High School Awards luncheon provided anecdotes and lent insight into his coaching philosophy.

It was the type of ceremony that hit close to home for Auburn's head coach.

"I'm an old high school guy," he said. "This is important for the kids."

Not surprisingly, his opening remarks dealt with the Tigers' bounce-back campaign, from 3-9 (0-8 in the SEC) last season to conference champions a year later.

"I've been asked that all season," he said. "'How did you get things turned around so quickly?' ... The most important thing was our coaching staff developing relationships with our players."

He also touched upon other areas of Auburn's season, from still being "mad" about an overturned onside kick late in the final quarter of the LSU game (the team's only loss), to the moment when he felt his team could "compete with anybody" (the team's 45-41 road victory against then-No. 7 Texas A&M).

Of course, no play this season will be remembered more than Chris Davis' 100-yard field goal return as time expired to beat arch-rival Alabama 34-28. In a way, though, it was a double-edged sword; while it lifted the team into the national title discussion and clinched the SEC West title, it was also Auburn's most difficult challenge of the season.

With an SEC Championship game matchup against Missouri on tap, Malzahn said his team had to find a way to put Davis' touchdown "in the rear-view mirror."

"Everyone was patting them on the back," he said. "And you couldn't walk outside of the athletic complex without seeing the touchdown on TV somewhere."

As its play last Saturday showed, though, Auburn didn't suffer any sort of emotional letdown, sprinting past Missouri 59-42. For all of the game's great plays, it was a moment afterward that has remained with Malzahn.

Following his remarkable performance — which saw him rush for 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries — Tre Mason had every right to start his postgame media session talking about himself.

He didn't.

"The first thing he said was, 'I've got to give it to my offensive line,'" said Malzahn, who noted he was sitting right beside his junior running back when the words were uttered. "I was more proud of him saying that than I would be if he won the Heisman Trophy."

That's why Malzahn believes football is the "best team sport ever made." It takes 22 people, he said, 11 on the field at each time. In his mind, nothing is worse than a guy celebrating a score by himself.

It takes a team effort to score, after all.

Why not take the same tack with celebrations?

Crazy as it might sound, Malzahn said the Tigers actually practice being in synch on post-touchdown jubilation.

"I expect our players to be team players," he said. "If you watch us play, when we score a touchdown, all 11 guys should be celebrating together."

At the same time, there is always a place for sportsmanship. Compared to his time in the high school ranks, Malzahn noted all too often showing respect for one's opponent is an afterthought at the college level.

He hasn't let that change the way he operates, though.

"I don't care if we win, lose or draw," he said. "I want them to walk across the field, shake hands with the other team and tell them, 'Good game and good luck.'"

Exhibiting proper reverence for others was a concept Malzahn touted in every manner, listing the types of on-field behavior he refuses to tolerate.

No trash-talking.

No arguing with referees.

No hanging your head after making a mistake, be it a dropped pass or a fumble.

"In life," he said, "there are going to be a lot more adverse things than what happens on a football field."

And it is there, when players are away from the gridiron and going about their every day lives, that Malzahn cares about most.

Yes, he has unquestioned control of them within the confines of the gridiron — and irrespective of everything else, he acknowledged, Malzahn was well-aware his title as Auburn's coach gave him a platform few others can match. As high-profile Division I athletes, his players are held in similarly high esteem.

It is Malzahn's hope they use that lofty pedestal for the better.

"Our players have great influence over little kids," he said. "If you use your influence in a positive way, I think the Lord will reward you."

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