Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn as the program's head coach in 2013. His Tigers went 12-2 that season, winning the SEC title and coming within a play of winning the national title. Malzahn called plays with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee at his side, and all was right with the world.
That arrangement continued through 2014 and '15, but in the midst of the 2016 campaign Malzahn turned over play calling to Lashlee, and thus began a game of tug of war Malzahn has continuously played with himself.
For the past five seasons now, Malzahn has publicly gone back and forth as to whether he can best serve his program by doing what he does best -- getting his hands in the dirt and calling plays -- or by being a so-called "walk-around" head coach.
Sept. 27, 2016: "In this day and time in this league, to be the head coach and call an offense is not realistic, at least for me,” he said. “It hit me after that first game. What’s best for our team, 100 percent is what’s best. We’ve got very good offensive coaches that will definitely do a great job with that, I believe. I think we’ll get nothing but better.”
Jan. 21, 2017, on the hiring of Chip Lindsey: "Chip is the quarterback coach and the offensive coordinator. I think I told him -- my old offensive clipboard, I'm retiring it. That's probably the best way to answer that."
July 18, 2019, after Lindsey's departure: “Through the years, you get advice and all of that. And, of course, I made a mistake.... When I decided to go back and call plays, that’s really who I am. I’m an offensive guy. That’s what got me where I’m at…. When (Lindsey) left, just the reality is what it is now. Just decided to getting back to being me and call plays. It’s been a very refreshing thing.”
And then on Tuesday, Malzahn once again turned the offense over to his new coordinator, this time Chad Morris.
“Chad Morris, in my opinion, is one of the best offensive minds in all of college football,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to turn him loose, and I’m very excited that he’s a part. I trust him 110 percent. He’s going to take our offense, and he’s going to run with it.”
Of course, the coordinator has proven to be a major variable as to whether or not Malzahn wrestles the play sheet back. Morris is one of the most accomplished offensive coordinators in the business; his 2019 coordinator, Kenny Dillingham, had one prior year of non-play calling coordinator experience before arriving at Auburn.
So, yes, it makes all the sense in the world for Morris to run the offense, particularly when you factor in his downfield passing game will aid the development of rising sophomore quarterback Bo Nix.
But the health of Auburn's offense in 2020 isn't necessarily what we're interested in here. No, we're more intrigued to see how Gus will handle standing and watching yet again. As the man himself said last summer of the last time he turned over play calling: "I wasn’t really good at standing back and watching."