It became a media punchline: Gene Chizik ushering in to the Rane Room in an orange or white windbreaker, taking a seat opposite about a dozen cameras, clearing his throat and saying, “All right … I thought we had a good practice today.”
Other than an Aug. 17 rant when Chizik sounded off on the entire team (especially the quarterbacks) — using words like “sluggish” and “sloppy” — Chizik basically played good cop the whole year, constantly pumping up practice even though the gameday product clearly didn’t match.
Junior defensive end and team spokesman Dee Ford’s voice cracked after the Georgia loss, expressing how badly he wished the public could see those practices. Why? Because he believed Chizik wasn’t full of it.
There will be none of that public relations spin cycle this spring. Not to say new head coach Gus Malzahn won’t praise his players for putting in good work, but based on his first post-practice commentary Wednesday, this is no place for cheap compliments.
“We've got a ways to go as far as learning how to practice at the pace and the tempo that we want. But that's to be expected,” Malzahn said. “We didn't play fast enough today. We weren't really even close, but we'll get there.”
Malzahn can proclaim “It’s a New Day” as much as he likes, and he will. You know he knows what happened last fall. This team lost control of the season, and while many of the figures responsible are gone, many still remain in uniform.
The only solution to fix that problem is set a hard stance from the first whistle, and Malzahn already has taken care of that.
“When I first got the job, it was evident we had some players with mental scars and all that,” Malzahn said. “But it's a new day. We've got good enough relationships with our guys. The standard's high and we're just looking forward to the future.”
So the mindset is right. Five months remain before opening kickoff, and it’s going to take every hour of every day for Auburn to make amends for its first winless SEC campaign in 32 years.
Let’s not start patting the Tigers on the back too much yet, because it’s more important they peak after Labor Day, not St. Patrick’s Day. But when reporters watched Auburn practice football for the first time since well before the 2012 debacle, there was a clear sense of structure and organization last year’s team so obviously lacked.
“It’s about learning how to line up correctly, learning how to process information quickly and having great body language and hustling,” Malzahn said. “It's all that combined.”
By the way, before we go: just so we’re clear, all the coaches and most players will continue to pretend 2012 never happened when they’re asked about it.
That’s cool. Toeing the company line isn’t exclusive to Auburn.
But they will keep being asked about it. Because as unfair as this sounds, nothing is completely fixed until the real games produce results.
Sports Writer Aaron Brenner covers Auburn for The Star and the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer. Follow him on Twitter @wareagleextra.