Pundits can draw many similarities between the 2013 editions of the Auburn and Missouri Tigers. After combining to win just two conference games last season, both teams recorded seven wins, beating top-10 teams on their way to winning Southeastern Conference division championships.
After their turnaround seasons, the Tigers will meet Saturday afternoon for the SEC Championship. But while the final stretches may run parallel, the roads to Atlanta featured different twists and turns for each school.
With 10 years of head coaching experience already under his visor, Gary Pinkel took over as Missouri’s head coach in 2001. That same season, now-first-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn took over a new program of his own: Springdale High School in Northwest Arkansas.
Malzahn cracked the college ranks in 2006, coaching at different levels for four programs in seven years. While Malzahn bounced around, Pinkel built a structure in Columbia.
“We kind of do what we do here,” Pinkel said. “We’ve got a system in place; we’ve got a program in place. We develop players psychologically and mentally and physically and get schemes, offense and defense. January, you do the right things, February and March, April, May, and hopefully you have a good football team.”
That stability paid off for Pinkel. He took over a struggling program, steadily improving it until it burst open in 2007, winning 12 games and the Big 12 North. The Tigers went on to 10-win seasons in 2008 and again in 2010.
From 2005-2011, Missouri never won fewer than seven games. Pinkel sees this constancy as the main difference between Missouri and Auburn.
“The programs are a lot different,” Pinkel said. “Gus has done a remarkable job with that program in such a short time. They had a coaching change, obviously. We’d been to eight straight bowls. This is the fourth time in the last seven years we’ve had double-digit wins.”
Malzahn made stops at Arkansas and Tulsa as an offensive coordinator before taking the same position at Auburn from 2009-2011. He presided over Cam Newton and the Tigers’ high-powered 2010 offense, beating Oregon to win the National Championship.
He took the head coaching job at Arkansas State, leading the Red Wolves to a 9-3 season. Auburn fired Gene Chizik, and Malzahn was back in navy and orange before Arkansas State even played its bowl game.
But even after just one season away, Malzahn returned to a damaged team. He repeatedly calls what the team went through a storm, but really it was just a 3-9 campaign, the school’s worst season since 1998. He said his previous experience at the university helped him turn the program around.
“It really helped me, the fact that I’d been here before,” Malzahn said. “I recruited some of the players, I have relationships with some of the players, and I kind of knew the dynamics, the maturation, the fan base and all the things with that, so that really helped me. But at the same time, they’ve been through a storm, and so our new staff, we had to earn our players’ trust, and we had to get where we trusted them. So it was a work in progress, but it definitely helped, me being here before.”
Malzahn’s goals for rebuilding the knocked-down team began in the mental aspect before moving to the statistical aspect.
“We didn’t have any expectations as far as numbers and wins and all that,” Malzahn said. “It was just real simple: Let’s get our edge back, let’s play together, let’s improve each week. And at the end of the year, you know our goal is to be a pretty good football team.”
Last winter, Missouri sophomore center Evan Boehm and his longtime friend, an Auburn student, talked hopefully about their schools meeting up in the SEC championship game. While the turnaround seemed like a long shot, Boehm said it seemed likely to him once Malzahn took over.
“When I heard coach Malzahn was coming back, and he was going to be the head coach,” Boehm said of his hunch. “He ran a special offense when he was down there, and he was the offensive coordinator. I had a feeling that they were going to be just as good as they were when he was there.”
Both coaches were charged with resurrecting programs at which they’d recently had success. Before that began, Pinkel said dealing with the defeat was tough. The 2012 season marked the first time Pinkel’s team failed to make a bowl since 2004. He called last December a difficult month.
“I love Christmas music, but I’ll tell you one thing, when we weren’t going to a bowl, I didn’t listen to any Christmas music,” Pinkel said. “I didn’t want to feel good.”
The next month, Pinkel called his seniors into his office. He told them to imagine a group of alumni sitting around at the end of the year, reflecting on the season. What would they say about the 2013 Tigers, he asked.
The seniors put forward a list of goals, including an SEC East championship. Pinkel said he was on board, adding that it’s always his goal to win a conference title.
“You don’t do this to have a good showing and be the best we can be,” he said. “You always want to win a championship.”
Missouri senior receiver L’Damian Washington told reporters at preseason conference media days that Missouri would win 11 games this season, nearly twice as many as 2012.
Malzahn feels that ambition helped both teams.
“Well, I think about both teams being very hungry,” Malzahn said. “We were counted down at the bottom to start the year and have improved. This time of year, there’s not a lot of teams that improve this late, and I feel like we’ve improved each game, and if you look at (Missouri), they can probably say the same thing.”
The hunger led the teams in different directions, but both avenues ended at the same spot: the Georgia Dome for a chance at an SEC Championship.