Last spring, Gus Malzahn got an extensive look at Kenny Dillingham in action. But at the time, he didn't realize it would be a sneak preview of his future offensive coordinator.
Malzahn took a visit to Memphis to watch his old friend Mike Norvell and his Tigers in practice. His biggest takeaway, however, was the coaching ability of an "up-and-coming superstar."
Malzahn sat back and watched as a 27-year-old Dillingham showed impressive guidance in the meeting room with his quarterbacks. Then they traversed over to the practice facility. After the day had ended, Malzahn left the practice field thinking, "That guy there, I'd like to hire him someday."
"It was very impressive with his energy, his detail," Malzahn said of the visit. "He just made a great impression on me."
That impression paid off — literally — as Malzahn hired Dillingham as his new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last week. The 28-year-old replaces Chip Lindsey, who left The Plains to join Les Miles' staff at Kansas and was the subject of Malzahn's opening words at his first time talking to media in 19 days.
"First thing, I'd really like to start out is thanking Chip Lindsey for his time here at Auburn," Malzahn said Thursday evening. "Chip helped us win an SEC West championship. He's a very good coach, a great person, great family. We wish him nothing but the best at Kansas."
After that send-off, Malzahn got to what he admittedly is ecstatic for — the sixth-year coach will be returning to his roots as the primary play-caller of his offense.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
"Moving forward, I'm calling the plays," Malzahn said. "As a matter of fact, I'm very excited about that. Really, that's probably my true comfort zone."
When Dillingham was hired, one of the first sentences in the release from Auburn Athletics stated that Malzahn will call the plays as he did from 2013-16. That transparency was a first, as for the past two seasons, there was an unspoken tug-of-war between Malzahn and Lindsey in terms of in-game calls.
On some days, Malzahn would admit he was calling plays. On others, he turned over full autonomy to Lindsey.
When Lindsey was hired two seasons ago, Malzahn vowed to hang up the clipboard for good, saying it just "wasn't realistic" for a head coach in the modern state of college football to attempt to run an offense.
Now he's doubling back. But he has his reasons, admitting that he has had a genuine change of heart since introducing Lindsey.
“I think at that time, that was very accurate," Malzahn said of his comments two years ago. "I have been the head coach here for six years. The demands of this job each year gets more challenging, but sometimes as a coach you have to evaluate where you are at.
“Sometimes things change and they have so I just evaluated where we are at and it is best for us if I move forward calling plays. I love to do that. That is really who I am at my core.
To Malzahn, the hire of Dillingham is "perfect." Dillingham is used to the situation, as Norvell handled play-calling at Memphis like Malzahn will do at the bowl and next season.
Until the week of the LSU game in 2016, Malzahn had been a play-caller his entire career. At that time, he turned over the reigns to then-coordinator Rhett Lashlee, hoping to assume a CEO-type role.
That never worked according to plan, and for the next two seasons, he couldn't keep his fingerprints off the offensive playbook.
Now, Dillingham will do his job of coordinating game plans and coaching the offense. Receivers coach Kodi Burns will add "passing game coordinator" to his responsibilities.
“I have a lot of good people around me to do the other parts of being a head coach," Malzahn said. "I feel very confident of that and then the fact that Kenny, like I just said, is the perfect complement for that and then Kodi Burns is a guy who has been with me for a long time. Those two guys can definitely help with some of the things during the week."
Malzahn is admitting he hasn't been perfect in his past decisions in terms of an offensive chain of command. But he's confident Auburn is making the correct move.
"It has been a process, I think, too, as a head coach you learn and you grow," Malzahn said. "I think it is fair to say that has happened to me in both areas, but I am very confident right now that this is the right thing to do... I expect us to be quite a bit better."
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman