A more calm Gus Malzahn? Auburn's coach has 49 million reasons to breathe after a rebound year
Ball is still life for Malzahn, but he now has some space to be himself as he leads the Tigers
ATLANTA -- The image of Gus Malzahn as an internet troll is hard to conjure.
But it was all there in front of Auburn's mild-mannered coach at some point after a brutal loss to UCF in the Peach Bowl. Part of the fallout from that 34-27 decision included a months-long campaign by UCF to claim a national championship after finishing their season undefeated, 13-0.
Auburn's coach was kiddingly reminded Thursday he could have poured hot lava on that argument with a tweet that ready something like: Auburn lost to the national champions.
Just imagine how that would have played in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
"I couldn't do it," Malzahn said, completely dismissing the idea. "It hurts our team."
In a previous incarnation, Gus might have blanched at such a suggestion. This time, he knew it was a good-natured ribbing.
Besides, the more Real Gus, the better. Remember, "We beat the dog crap out of them," following the first Georgia game?
This is a glimpse at a looser Gus Malzahn. Not many coaches have their choice of $49 million paydays. That was the case late last season when Arkansas came hard trying to woo the Hogs' former offensive coordinator back to Fayetteville.
Reports had Arkansas making about the same seven-year offer the week of the SEC Championship Game. Malzahn picked Auburn -- for better or worse.
While Auburn is a better program than Arkansas, the winds of change can switch there in a heartbeat.
"It sure can," quarterback Jarrett Stidham agreed.
Last year, the Tigers beat Georgia and Alabama on their way to the SEC title game. The Bulldogs got even in Atlanta in that very game. That preceded the UCF loss.
The 2017 campaign was more than a net success. Gus looks like it as a jumping off point.
"I felt we were really close last year," Malzahn said. "One game away from the Final Four."
That can be sold to a sometimes-fickle Auburn fan base … until the next time they decide to get fickle.
When the two offers became apparent, Malzahn had a career choice few coaches face: Staring at half a hundred (million), at which place was he more comfortable?
In Arkansas, he became a nationally prominent high school coach. But Auburn -- after a one-year stop at Arkansas State -- provided a professional pinnacle. In eight years as an offensive coordinator and head coach, he has been a part of a national championship (2010) an SEC title (2013) and last year's look at a second SEC crown.
Behold, then, the only current SEC coach who has beaten Nick Saban. Actually, Gus has done it twice.
That, plus a new contract that might actually outlast Saban, would make anyone feel more secure.
"I have noticed it," Stidham said. "I didn't know him before last season, but now that I've been there, on and off the field, especially the during summer, I kind of tell he's got a little bit different approach.
"I really like the vibe he's putting off."
That vibe has rubbed off directly on Stidham. The only other returning starting quarterback Gus ever had was Nick Marshall in 2014.
Stidham returns from a 10-win season in which he threw for 3,158 yards. His reward is getting more control of the offense.
That means less checks with the sideline out of Malzahn's spread and more in-game play-changing at the line for Stidham.
"Just the fact he's got a year under his belt," Malzahn said. "He's going to make the checks, more than anything get us out of the bad plays."
If that's not a clear picture of a more laidback Gus, try this: Malzahn and his wife Kristi took a nine-day trip to Israel. Gus going anywhere away for nine days away from ball is a feat. This one was life-changing.
"The Bible," he said proudly, "is real.
Stidham also revealed his coach has custom ping pong paddles at home.
"Ping pong paddles with his face on them," Stidham said.
Wait, what? Actual Gus swag? The paddles were Christmas gifts from Gus' two daughters. That doesn't lessen the need for comment from the usually buttoned-up coach.
"I used to really enjoy playing ping pong," Gus said somewhat shyly.
It's more than that. Apparently, the coach fancies himself a ping pong pro. Tight end Tucker Brown apparently reveled in beating his expert coach on his own turf.
"[Brown] thinks he's the best ping pong player that there is," Stidham said. "In the spring, Coach Malzahn and Miss Kristi had all the position groups over there for dinner.
"Tucker said, 'I'm going to whip Coach Malzahn at ping pong.' Tucker ends up beating him. I still don't know if Coach Malzahn will admit it. He got beat by Tucker Brown in ping pong."
We'll keep a sharp eye on Brown's depth-chart status after that affront. As for his coach, he has 49 million reasons to forget the loss ever happened.
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