AUBURN, Ala. – Rodney Garner, during his first official sit-down alongside eight of his fellow new sheriffs in town, hunkered down in the Rane Room, decorated with Auburn trophies and historical treasures.
A former Auburn player and coach, and coming home after the past 15 years at rival Georgia, Garner sat with his back turned to the 2011 BCS Championship Trophy.
With respect to those champions, that crystal football means zilch now to his players, in the wake of Auburn’s 3-9 calamitous season.
“We’re not going on what they did here in the past. Unless we’re going to (talk about) the national championship season, the past wasn’t very good,” Garner said. “So let’s move past that. We’re going to deal with right now in the present, and going forward.”
Garner would tap his fist on the table for emphasis, every time he illustrated how it’s gonna work going into spring scrimmages, the 2013 football season and beyond.
Auburn’s assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator declined to speculate what went so wrong last year or any other season, in the realm of many rumors about former coach Gene Chizik losing touch with the Tigers on and off the field.
All Garner knows is it won’t happen again. Not on his watch.
“It’s been (about discipline and accountability) from the first day we got here,” Garner said. “It’s going to continue that way. It ain’t gonna change. I’m not flexible. I’m not negotiable.”
Head coach Gus Malzahn’s “It’s a New Day” terminology has quickly rolled over to his assistants.
“I mean, that’s kind of been Gus’ M.O. from the get-go. It really is,” tight ends and special teams coach Scott Fountain said. “It’s his philosophy, it’s the way he wants to do things. I think our kids are really buying into it.”
With an overstocked blend of returning starters, lettermen and incoming freshmen looking to compete for playing time, all starting positions are vacant. The slate is clean.
“I think the worst thing you can do is watch guys that somebody else coached and grade them,” cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith said. “I don’t see how that benefits you. I think the only person you can really trust is your assessment, and the people that you’re around. If I want to judge them, I don’t need to look at last year, the year before or the year before that. I don’t have time to look at that. I’ve got to focus on trying to get my guys to have a relationship with me.”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee expressed anticipation for working this spring with the two returning quarterbacks – junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace.
Meanwhile, running backs coach Tim Horton would guarantee no star treatment to 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason, with junior college standout Cameron Artis-Payne enrolled for spring courses.
“We’ve had two days of ‘mat’ drills, and there’s a little learning curve,” Horton said. “Just by having (Artis-Payne) here in the offseason program, and then starting next week to learn the offense – this is a big spring for him. With a new coach and a new staff, it doesn’t matter who’s played in the past. He’ll have an opportunity to earn a spot.”
Several coaches had hoarse voices, admitting they had spent much of Thursday morning with initial winter workouts, interacting with their players in a physical setting for the first time.
“You have to challenge the kids. We even challenge each other in the classroom, making sure we’re going to class every day. So far, nobody has missed a single class,” wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said. “It’s making sure we’re doing the right things off the field, and that will carry over.”
Garner admitted as an alum, “it was hurtful” watching Auburn’s program sink to the status of laughingstock, not to mention a winless SEC campaign. But the past is the past – fairly irrelevant to Garner and the eager coaching staff.
“You’ve got to hold them to a championship standard, and that’s what we’re asking them to do,” Garner said. “We want guys to buy in to Coach Malzahn’s vision, and his dream. Everybody has to be willing to sacrifice something to be a champion.”