Just ask center Reese Dismukes.
At first, Auburn’s starting center said it came after the team’s seventh loss of the season — a 63-21 shellacking at home by Texas A&M — that eliminated the team from bowl contention. Dismukes said he and his teammates were then forced to ask themselves what they were playing for as the lost season trudged onward.
But then Dismukes backtracked on his initial response, if only slightly. Come to think of it, he said, there wasn’t one loss or bad play that stood out from the rest.
Eventually, they all began to run together.
“I think kind of the season as a whole was pretty bad itself,” Dismukes said. “It was all low.”
All those low points led to some finger-pointing.
As offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee noted, “that’s just human nature.” Arriving last December, he wasn’t sure what type of unit he had inherited.
While it wasn’t “completely fractured,” Lashlee could tell the team wasn’t close-knit, either.
“That makes sense because they had had a pretty poor season,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone blamed anybody necessarily there, but it’s human nature. I thought Coach (Gus) Malzahn did a great job when we first got there because you could tell there was a little split, there wasn’t any confidence and probably rightfully so.”
Enter Malzahn’s “new day” mantra.
Lashlee was quick to add, however, that it wasn’t just a saying or a slogan slapped on posters of the incoming coach.
He and the rest of the coaching staff put those words into action.
“For example, as an offensive staff, still to this day, we haven’t watched one full game from last year,” he said. “We never did that. I told our guys if coach said it’s a new day — for us to give these guys in spring ball and winter workouts a completely brand new slate — we can’t go back and have any preconceived ideas about them. You maybe could look back last year and see some things and make you think negatively of somebody. We didn’t need to do that. We gave all these guy completely fresh start.”
Because of that, Lashlee believed the coaches were able to forge a bond with their players almost instantaneously.
“I want to say it helped our relationship with them, maybe gave them some belief in us that we care about them, (that) they’re going to start fresh from winter workouts to spring ball, everybody had a chance to win a starting job,” he said. “It was new, it was fresh, and we developed our own opinions about these guys, and they did about us.”
The players reciprocated that notion. Yes, they could tell the coaching staff wasn’t merely paying them lip service. Every player truly had a new beginning at Auburn.
And if they couldn’t tell it during their first meetings, it was easy to see things had changed when strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell put them through their first workout.
“I don’t think anybody was standing after the first workout. We were dead tired, and we knew it was going to be different,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “We knew the entire structure of Auburn had changed and that we really had to buy in. And once practice started and we kind of saw how meticulous all the coaches were and how they wanted us to be perfect and how we … responded to the adversity that they put on us and the pressure they put on us, I knew we were on the verge of something special.”
Auburn’s incredible turnaround season has unfolded on Saturdays this fall. But it wouldn’t have come to pass without the times away from the field, Lashlee said.
The trips to the bowling alley.
The players moving into the new on-campus dormitory en masse.
Any team-building activity they could come up with, the coaching staff employed, trying to find the cohesiveness destroyed by the depressing 3-9 showing. Undoubtedly, those efforts have paid off. The Tigers are one win away from a BCS title.
Just as importantly, a once-broken unit is whole again.
“We’ve got a team,” Lashlee said. “We don’t have one guy that stands out and gets all the glory. We win as a team together.”