"The first thing a football coach needs when he is starting out is a wife who is willing to put up with a whole lot of neglect. The second is a five year contract. He needs five years so he can set up his program surround himself with people who are winners, people who believe in what he's trying to do."
- Bear Bryant
Patience is hard.
It's hard to be patient and wait for a coach to build a program when he's being paid $4 million to field mediocre teams along the way. It's hard to be patient when you're asked as a fan to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for the right to shell out hundreds or thousands more dollars to actually buy tickets to watch a coach field mediocre teams during the rebuilding process. It's hard to be patient when you see coaches arrive at other programs (some of whom aren't making $4 million per year) and start winning immediately. It's hard to be patient when you remember the better days of Auburn football when Auburn could take on any team anywhere and be competitive. It's hard to be patient when the rest of the SEC West is rising and our rival Georgia is doing well.
Most of all, it's hard to be patient when your expectations were inflated because you saw this coach take a team with less overall talent than this year's team to the national championship game. I mean, why can't he do that every year?
Unfortunately, that's not the way football works. Rebuilding usually takes time. Continuity in the coaching staff is important. When Pat Dye arrived at Auburn, he went 5-6. The next year he went 9-3 then 11-1. For the next two seasons, Auburn had high expectations and was ranked #1 at some point in September but both teams struggled to four loss records. Finally, in year six, things started rolling and Auburn finished in the top 10 for four straight seasons. It took Lavell Edwards eight years before he turned BYU into a power. Frank Beamer was 24-40-1 in his first six seasons at Virginia Tech before going 168-51 over the next seventeen seasons.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to fan patience is the modern sports media. If you have a bad season it's impossible to shake questions about your competence and job security. It's doubtful Bear Bryant would have survived his midcareer downturn in 1968-70 where he went 20-13-1. Darrell Royal lost four games per year between 1965-67 but kept his job. Shug Jordan won six games or fewer between 1964-67 but was allowed to work out the kinks. If Paul Finebaum had a show in the 60s, each of these men would have likely been out of a job. Because they were allowed to work it out, all three found their second wind and now have stadiums named after them.
The point here is not that Gus Malzahn will definitely right the ship and build a dominant program if we just give him time. The point is that if you have a coach you believe in who fields teams that represent Auburn the right way on and off the field, you give him enough time to do his job. In Gus' case, the best time to judge him as a coach will be after the final whistle of the 2017 season which will be his fifth on the Plains.
I still believe Malzahn can build a consistent winner at Auburn. Here's why:
1. Our Staff Is Battle Tested
Malzahn has put together a great staff. Malzahn and Muschamp are two of the top strategic minds in the game today. Garner, T-Rob, Thompson, and Craig are consistently ranked among the top recruiters in the country. Horton has produced the Conference's leading rusher the last two seasons. Grimes' offensive line unit has been solid. Fountain's special teams have been consistently good. Alabama produced NFL linebacker after NFL linebacker thanks to Thompson. Garner has been sending players to the NFL for 25 years. These are men who have been successful before and will be successful in the future.
2. Our Team Is Young
Auburn fans expected to see an experienced team. Due to injuries and poor performance, we now have a young team. Auburn's quarterback is a redshirt freshman. Our top two running backs are Peyton Barber, a sophomore, and Kerryon Johnson, a true freshman. Our starting offensive line is comprised of three juniors and two sophomores. They're supported by two freshmen H-Backs. On defense, six of our eleven starters were either freshmen or sophomores. Several other freshmen (including Tim Irvin and Jeff Holland) saw a lot of action. The young players are playing well but they're still very young. Their best years are ahead of them. This squad reminds me of the 2007 or 2011 teams where we were introduced to the players who made 2010 and 2013 so special.
3. The Team Is Representing Auburn Well On and Off the Field.
The team is representing Auburn well on the field. They are fighting and clawing and haven't given up. Off the field, the program has been relatively scandal free since the old regime left. The coaches (unlike the recently departed Sunny Golloway) represent Auburn well in public.
The 1998 and 2012 Auburn squads are good counter-examples to show what it looks like when a staff loses a team and the players run wild. Auburn's team quit on Chizik somewhere around the Texas A&M game. The newspapers and rumor mill were filled with crazy stories about our athletes. 2015 Auburn isn't close to that.
So, that's my plea. Be patient. The program is in good shape; the rebuild is just taking longer than expected. We have coaches and players on campus who can right the ship. There's no coach out there that's worth paying Malzahn and Muschamp the combined $12,450,000 buyout they would receive if we fired them this year. All we can do is keep going to the Stadium and cheering the players who will lead us to our next SEC title in 2016 . . . or 2017.