Auburn DC Will Muschamp / Zach Bland, Auburn Athletics
Whenever a new coach is hired, the word “fit” is generally used to describe how well that coach’s abilities match with the desires of his new employer. The word is thrown out as easily as peanut hulls are raked onto the floor at your local watering hole. It’s done almost unconsciously.
The truth of the matter, though, is that determining fit is more like purchasing clothes. You can try that garment on in the store, and it can look and feel fine, but until you get it home and wear it for a little while, you really don’t know if it fits or not.
Last winter Auburn and Texas A&M went shopping for defensive coordinators, and with their fat wallets, neither went looking for a bargain. No, they went high-end and brought home two excellent choices.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn won the bidding war for former Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Auburn is reportedly paying Muschamp $1.6 million a year. Not to be outdone, Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin hired John Chavis away from LSU, and A&M is reportedly paying “The Chief” $1.67 million a year.
There is no fuss from this corner about the abilities of Muschamp and Chavis. They are proven commodities, among the best in the business. I couldn’t mount a serious argument with anyone who would claim either is THE best defensive coach in the college game. They are that good.
There is no doubt these men not only know but also can teach defense. But, are they the right fit for current state of Auburn and Texas A&M’s football programs?
That’s something that’s going to have to be played out on the gridiron. Both coaches are used to plying their trade with more traditionally minded offensive coordinators than new-age offensive gurus Malzahn and Sumlin, who in this instance happen to be the head coaches.
Chavis and Muschamp have generally worked in programs where defense was paramount. The offenses were coordinated to not only put points on the scoreboard, but also to protect field position and in some cases even time of possession. Those aspects of the game work hand in hand with a defensive philosophy that is both aggressive but sound, which is the way Muschamp and Chavis have traditionally coached football.
Time of possession and field position are concepts that make Sumlin and Malzahn gag. To them, punters aren’t strategic weapons but rather unfortunate necessities.
As valuable commodities as Muschamp and Chavis are to their new employers, they are the ones who are going to have to adapt their philosophies. Malzahn and Sumlin are going to do what they do best, up-tempo, no-huddle football, which often yields quick offensive possessions whether they score or not. This could prove frustrating to Muschamp and Chavis, who are used to dictating the tempo of a game through their defense.
No doubt Chavis and Muschamp understood this when they accepted the job, and frankly they are being paid well enough to deal with the frustration. Also, they may be working with enough talent that it won’t matter whether their football philosophies are in lockstep with their boss.
Their defenses won’t be asked to hold opponents under two touchdowns in order to win games. No doubt, Malzahn and Sumlin’s offenses will score enough to take care of that. Muschamp and Chavis may be able to roll with the punches, adapt and be just as effective coaching under a different team philosophy.
However, it will be interesting to see what happens when the Tigers or Aggies lose a game 36-35 or 41-38. How will the defensive coordinators fit with their head coaches at that point? How tense will it get if the defense does need some protection from the offense? Will the head coaches be willing to sacrifice the way they like to coach for the sake of the defense?
Arkansas defensive coordinator Robb Smith / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
You see, former Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was known as a defensive wizard himself until the Tigers lost four of their last five games last year, and he was fired by Malzahn. Some think Chavis got out of Baton Rouge to possibly avoid a similar dismissal, as Les Miles’ seat grows warmer and warmer at LSU.
Considering such possibilities should make Arkansas fans feel that much better about the relationship between Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema and his defensive coordinator Robb Smith. There may not be a better fit in college football than these two.
Bielema and Smith come from the same coaching tree and are longtime friends from a coaching stint at Iowa 1999-2001.
In one season, Smith, along with the other defensive assistants Clay Jennings, Rory Segrest, and the departed Randy Shannon, turned the Razorbacks’ defense around. In 2013, Arkansas’ defense finished a woeful 76th in the nation. In 2014, the Hogs finished the season as the 10th-ranked defense in the nation.
It’s yet to be seen if the 2015 Razorbacks can match that type of performance, but Bielema said he believes the Hogs can be just as solid on defense this season. Even if it doesn’t turn out that way, Arkansas fans can be sure it won’t be because of philosophical differences.