Gus Malzahn is going into his seventh season as the head coach at Auburn, which seems almost unfathomable to some. It’s almost as if the years have flown by, starting with the magic of 2013, and culminating (to this point) in tempered expectations yet again. However you slice it, Gus has been a part of getting Auburn to the highest peaks in school history. His work coordinating a national champion offense in 2010, and coming within seconds of another title in 2013 speaks for itself. However, there are the shortcomings when you look at preseason expectations and how some of his teams have concluded seasons.
2014? Ranked sixth to start the year, finished #22 at 8-5.
2015? Ranked sixth to start the year, finished unranked at 7-6.
2018? Ranked ninth to start the year, finished unranked at 8-5.
Of course there have been two SEC Championship appearances (one title), and three major bowl appearances (Championship Game in 2013, Sugar in 2016, Peach in 2017). Still, he’s fallen victim to something that we saw under Tommy Tuberville as well — preseason expectations don’t always work out at Auburn. Do the Tigers play better under the radar? The results speak for themselves. In Auburn’s three best seasons since 2000, they started ranked 17th, 22nd, and unranked, and finished with a combined 39-2 record.
Auburn has begun the year ranked in the top ten six times, and has never improved their ranking by the end of the season. Only the 2006 team finished still ranked in the top ten — going from fourth to ninth — and the 2014 squad was the only other bunch to finish ranked at all. Sadly, it’s a trend.
Now, to get off of that tangent, what’s a more positive trend with Gus Malzahn is the proliferation of his tutelage. I know that I started this article off talking about something completely different from the title, but now we can get back on track. Gus has one of the more surprisingly large coaching trees around, and you can point directly to his pioneer work as the father of the Hurry-Up No-Huddle offense.
Even the official Hurry-Up offense Wikipedia article points to the scheme’s origination as coming from Auburn, although nearly a century earlier. If you want to read more about how things work in this offense, you can turn to a great little bit of prose from five years ago on this very site.
Malzahn’s offensive influence can be seen in the overarching style of play in college football as a whole. Since Nebraska won three titles in four years with the triple option from 1994-1997, teams have generally shifted to either a spread offense or a pro-style offense. Both attacks have had success, but even the pro-style teams have taken on philosophies of the HUNH as of late. The majority of national champions since Texas won in 2005 have used a more wide-open offense, eschewing the under-center game, and going with either a spread offense or a no-huddle attack. Only LSU in 2007, and Alabama in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015 really ran a more classic offense. Texas, Florida, Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State, and Clemson have all taken on the philosophies championed in large part by Gus Malzahn.
How widely spread is the direct influence from Gus? Let’s dive in.
CURRENT HEAD COACHES
There are currently five head coaches in college football who’ve either worked for Gus or for a Gus disciple.
- Chip Lindsey - Troy - Chip was Auburn’s offensive coordinator for the last two seasons, leaving after 2018 to briefly take the same role at Kansas under Les Miles. Soon after WVU hired away Neal Brown, Troy came calling and Chip returned to the place where he’d coached quarterbacks in 2010. His first work under Gus came in 2013, where he was an offensive analyst at Auburn. That season’s success parlayed into the offensive coordinator job at Southern Miss one year later, and after a few seasons away, he was able to return to the Plains.
- Eliah Drinkwitz - Appalachian State - Drinkwitz also spent time as a Gus trainee during a successful run at Auburn before becoming a major offensive coordinator and subsequent Sun Belt head coach. He was on board in 2010-11 before going with Gus to Arkansas State. After seeing how things were done with Cam Newton, he was able to earn the OC job at Boise State and NC State before he was hired in Boone.
- Jake Spavital - Texas State - We’re going throwback with Spavital. Most people remember him first as the offensive coordinator for Texas A&M when Johnny Manziel played in 2012-2013. While he’s coached under some of the hottest offensive minds in the business, like Kevin Sumlin, Dana Holgorsen, and Sonny Dykes, he got his start under Gus. Right after graduation, Spavital went to Tulsa to work under Gus as a offensive quality control analyst, and his career took off from there.
- Mike Norvell - Memphis - Friends do things for friends, and Gus’ old buddy obviously helped turn him on to what Kenny Dillingham was doing on Beale Street. Norvell worked with Gus previously back in the Tulsa days of 2007-2008, coaching wide receivers while Gus was coordinating the offenses. After spending time with Todd Graham, Norvell got the head job at Memphis, where he’s won 26 games in three seasons.
- Brent Dearmon - Bethel (previous) - After a couple of seasons working with Gus at Auburn in 2013-14, Brent Dearmon spent time at the lower levels figuring things out. He ran the offenses at Arkansas Tech (nicknamed the Wonder Boys — fantastic), before getting the head job at Bethel College. Last season Bethel led all divisions of college football in scoring at 55 points per game, and he turned that into an analyst job under Les Mile at Kansas.
COORDINATORS AND POSITION COACHES
- Kenny Dillingham - Auburn - OC - This one’s a bit of a stretch for the Gus tree right now, but Dilly is an offshoot of the Norvell branch. He’s entering his first season working directly for Gus in 2019, but he’s been under the influence of Gus’ guys since 2014.
- Kodi Burns - Auburn - WR - Kodi, however, is all Gus. After playing for Malzahn in 2009 and 2010, Kodi went to Arkansas State as a GA in 2012 before returning to the Plains the next season. He left for his first position coach job at Samford, and came back to Auburn in 2016 to coach the wideouts.
- Travis Williams - Auburn - LB - Now, while we don’t think of Gus as a guy to spread influence to the defensive side of the ball, his coaching style and management skills certainly transfer to guys on defense. Travis Williams was a GA at Auburn for three years under Gene Chizik, and he came back to work under Gus in 2014. After two seasons as an analyst he was promoted to the Linebackers job, and he’s proven to be one of the best recruiters in the Southeast.
- Ryan Pugh - Troy - OC - After playing on a national championship team under Gus, Pugh immediately got into coaching and spent the 2012 season at Auburn as a GA. From there he spent time at Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, and LSU before getting his first gig as an OL coach at UTSA. Just three years later Chip Lindsey snagged him to run the offense for the Trojans.
- Brandon Hall - Troy - DC - Hall’s another defensive guy that worked for Gus, even if Gus had little impact on how he addressed that side of the ball. He’s gone from a GA in 2013 at Auburn to the defensive coordinator at Troy after a few years at Jacksonville State.
- Dell McGee - Georgia - RB - No disrespect to Cadillac, but if there was ever a guy to want to bring home, it’s Dell. He spent one year as a GA at Auburn in 2013 before coaching the backs at Georgia Southern and now Georgia. In his time with the Bulldogs, he’s had a hand in learning up Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, D’Andre Swift, and he helped recruit top backs like James Cook and Zamir White.
- Herb Hand - Texas - OL - Ah yes, Herb. He goes a LONG way back with Gus, coaching the offensive line at Tulsa when Gus was coordinator. After stints apart, and an appearance on Chopped, Herb returned to Gus and Auburn as line coach in 2016 and 2017. Whatever you think of his coaching, he’s had some top jobs, and he’s currently serving under Tom Herman at Texas.
- Rhett Lashlee - SMU - OC - And here’s Gus’ first offensive coordinator and right hand man for the early portion of his Auburn tenure. After playing for Gus in high school, Rhett turned GA for him during the Chizik years. Once Gus took the head job, Rhett became the offensive coordinator, and had a couple of pretty good years before things turned south. After 2016, he curiously jumped to UConn, and he’s now leading the way at SMU.
- Ryan Aplin - UNA - OC - If you remember this name, Aplin was actually the quarterback that Gus faced in the first game of 2010 when Auburn beat Arkansas State. A few years later, he was learning under Gus at Auburn before setting out on his own.
- Jonathan Wallace - Air Force - TE - Always more of a clipboard guy than a quarterback who was going to spend a good amount of time on the field, Wallace was one of the more cerebral players for Gus for several years, even if he didn’t have the physical talent to play quarterback in the SEC. He took to the GA route in 2016-17 at Auburn after graduation, and went to Bethel College under Brent Dearmon in 2018. Now, he’s moved up to the Mountain West, where he’s coaching tight ends in Colorado Springs for Air Force.
- Carnell Williams - Auburn - RB - Cadillac’s a brand-new offshoot of the Gus tree, coming in for his first year under Malzahn. His coaching experience is much shorter than most on this list, as he spent just a couple years at IMG Academy before coming home. So far, all reports on his recruiting are solid, and we’ll get our first look at how he affects the running backs this fall.
- Cole Weeks - Troy - TE - Weeks had the benefit of being at Auburn at the right time. He served as a GA under Chip Lindsey, and after Lindsey’s whirlwind offseason, he’s headed to Troy to coach tight ends.
- Barrett Trotter - Auburn - GA - Trotter has bookended pretty much his entire football life after high school in the shadow of Gus Malzahn. He played for Gus from 2009-11, and spent a few years working for the St. Louis Rams before coming back to the Plains this coming season as an analyst.
- Marcus Davis - Auburn - GA - While Trotter had some time away, Marcus Davis has never known life without Gus. He played a ton as a freshman in 2013, and after one year away post-grad in 2017, he returned to the Plains this past season to help with the offense. He’ll continue that role this upcoming year.
So, you can see that there are some very talented young names out there doing big things under Gus Malzahn. You can also see that there are some names with huge potential to become big-time coaches. In particular, Travis Williams looks to be on the fast track to a defensive coordinator job soon, and guys like Dell McGee and Cadillac Williams could soon be star names in the coaching world. Gus’ influence is relatively new, but it’s becoming more widespread, and that’s going to continue as teams stay with the Hurry-Up No-Huddle offense that Gus proliferated.