It's bowl season, and that means everyone in college football land is talking about the coaching skills of a man in Alabama. This time, however, it's not the disciplined style of Alabama's Nick Saban, but the madcap approach of Auburn's Gus Malzahn.
Ever since Auburn began its unlikely run toward this year's national championship game, on Monday night against Florida State University in Pasadena, football analysts have been trying to decipher what's made Malzahn so effective. The man who took a team from a 3-9 record in 2012 all the way to the brink of a national title has been called a mad scientist for his nimble offense, which is hard to characterize and even harder to defend.
Sports writers have called him a modern-day guru, an offensive genius and the architect from Arkansas, as they try to explain just what makes his offense tick. Is it the "hurry-up, no-huddle" pace? Is it the zone read plays or the running game? Is it the veteran offensive line or simply mere luck—particularly in the Auburn-Alabama game that will go down in football history as one of the most unlikely wins?
Yet one topic that comes up again and again in these dissections of Malzahn's styles isn't a particular play or offensive strategy. It's Malzahn's willingness to adapt his play calling to the talents of the guys on his team. As Chris Brown wrote in Grantland, "Auburn's offensive resurgence has largely stemmed from two factors: the lessons of a 30-year-old book about a 50-year-old offense, and the ability of a former high school coach to adapt schemes to his players."
Here's a similar refrain from the Associated Press: "Part of Malzahn’s philosophy is being willing to do what his quarterback does best." As offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told the AP, “I think so many times in our game you may see people that try to make a square peg fit in a round hole and make guys do things they want them to do but maybe they’re not best at, and we just try to take the opposite approach with that."
This year, of course, that's meant letting Auburn's quarterback and trio of talented backs run the ball, but former teams coached by Malzahn haven't always focused so much on the running game.
This seems like it would be an obvious approach: Focus on the strengths of the people you have, let them do what they do best and don't try to shoehorn them into a strategy. But too many coaches (or for that matter, leaders of any stripe) find a strategy that works in one place and try to replicate it somewhere else. Gus Malzahn may be an offensive genius or have a brilliant mind for football. But one of his keys to success—adjusting his game to the raw talent he has—is actually pretty simple.