It wasn’t just any coin that Pensacola, Fla., resident Mike Varias handed to Malzahn. It was Varias’ challenge coin, which he received upon retirement after 23 years of service to the U.S. Navy.
“It has my name on it and number of years of service,” the 1990 Auburn graduate said. “For the things that the coaches do as well as the players, I thought it would be a good gesture.”
About 9,000 fans turned out Sunday to lay their hopes upon the altar of the Tigers’ latest football coach. Cataula, Ga., resident Jimbo Willis, 48, was first in the Malzahn line, arriving at noon for the 3:30 p.m.festivities.
If it wasn’t clear when 83,000 fans turned out for A-Day, Auburn’s spring intrasquad game, it was obvious Sunday, as Malzahn signed posters reading “It’s a new day.” Auburn fans place a lot of hope in Malzahn, the former offensive coordinator who returned after one year as Arkansas State’s head coach.
Auburn fans need hope after watching the Tigers suffer through a 3-9 season in 2012. It was the school’s worst football season in decades.
It was bad enough for Auburn to fire Malzahn’s former boss, Gene Chizik, just two years after they won a national championship together.
Folks can argue whether that 2010 championship run was more Malzahn than Chizik, but it’s hard to argue that Chizik’s only losing season in four years at Auburn happened during Malzahn’s one season in Jonesboro.
“I watched you two years ago, when you were offensive coordinator,” one man said as Malzahn gave his Sharpie best. “You were awesome. I know you’re going to take this team back.”
Malzahn answered the man as he did most others.
“I appreciate you saying that,” he said. “War Eagle.”
Malzahn heard and saw a lot while signing an estimated 750 autographs in an Auburn Arena suite.
Some fans were curious about the Tigers’ biggest unresolved issue in preseason camp, but Malzahn only expressed hope for a quick resolution to the race.
Athens’ Brad Curnutt, 44, who was right behind Willis in line, said speculation he heard among fans centered on junior college transfer Nick Marshall winning the starting quarterback’s job.
Another man asked if Malzahn had any recommendations on which quarterback’s autograph to seek. The coach just smiled.
Other Auburn fans wanted to show support for Malzahn’s offense, with one man showing off his “HUNH” T-shirt. The acronym on the front of the shirt stands for Hurry Up No Huddle.
On the back, the shirt made reference to recent concerns raised by coaches that run more conventional systems: “Quit whining (you have 3 timeouts).”
More than anything, fans came to express hope for better than what they saw on the field in 2012 – far better, if possible. Sylacauga’s Tom Bassett, 45, said he expects a 7-5 season, but son Mason forecast a 9-3 finish.
It seems they believe that Malzahn’s return makes it all possible.
“I’m praying for you,” one woman told Malzahn before asking his favorite Bible verse, to which he answered “Phillippians 4:13.”
The woman replied, “That’s a good one.”
The verse speaks to the hope many Auburn fans have for Malzahn: “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.