On Dec. 4, Gus Malzahn stood at the podium in Auburn, Ala., adorned in his Pat Dye-issue navy blazer and orange tie. He was introduced as the Tigers' new head coach, said a few words and politely fielded a few questions. All the while he fidgeted, eyes darting around a bit as if he had somewhere else he wanted or, more accurately, needed to be.
Hey, Coach, what's the first task you need to tackle?
"It will be recruiting, immediately," Malzahn said.
No sooner than he stepped off the stage he had a phone to his ear. Yes, he had some big fish he wanted to go after. Yes, he had some prep stars already committed to other schools that he believed he could still lure to the Plains. And yes, there were a handful of junior college guys he wanted to bring in to fill some gaps while he rebuilt the program. (Hey, it worked with that Cam Newton guy.)
But before all of that, there was one first, most crucial process that had to begin. Convincing those who had committed to Auburn under his now-fired predecessor to stay on board, even though all of the coaches who had once wooed them were now gone.
"Retaining the recruiting class is the single biggest challenge of taking a new job, especially when you are thrust into that seat so late into the game," said former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, who took over in Knoxville on the ridiculously late date of Jan. 15, 2010, barely three weeks before signing day, thanks to Lane Kiffin's now-infamous departure for USC. "These are high school kids. They want stability. Their parents want stability. And they all want to win. Now. They made a decision based on large part on the personality and promises of a coach who was not you. And that coach might still be calling, but now from another school."
Dooley laughed. "It's like grabbing a girl for the last song played at the prom and hoping she's already gotten over the guy that just dumped her during the song right before this one."
For Malzahn, his would-be dancing partners weren't so easily swooned. By Dec. 16, less than two weeks after he was named head coach, at least six Auburn recruits had decommitted. A class once slotted as high as sixth in ESPN's rankings seemed doomed to tumble all the way out of the top 20.
"It's hard for kids not to get caught up in the emotion of people being fired and people being mad and all the columns being written and radio talk show chatter and all of that," said Larry Fedora, who took over at North Carolina following a painfully long, drawn-out ousting of first Butch Davis and then interim head coach Everett Withers. "As hard as it seems, you have to give everyone a chance to calm down. The ones you were going to lose you were going to lose anyway. But for some of the kids who are on the fence, you have to let them take their time and deal with it. Just not too much time."
"Even if you're panicking on the inside, you have to look calm on the outside," Malzahn admitted last December. "That goes for coaching and recruiting."
For Auburn, the biggest losses came via the state of Georgia, home to four of the players who once promised Gene Chizik they would be Tigers but were now looking elsewhere.
So Malzahn invaded the Peach State. He took individual meetings with those still claiming to be committed to try to lock them down for good, particularly defensive end Carl Lawson, a March 2012 commit and the second-ranked player in the ESPN 150. (Even so, Lawson paid visits to Clemson and Tennessee last week.) He also sat down with Chizik signee Trey Johnson, the nation's second-ranked inside linebacker, and a new name to the list of Georgians, uncommitted ESPN 150 defensive lineman Montravius Adams.
"What did Coach Malzahn say when I talked to him?" a Georgia prep star asked himself as he recalled the meeting. "He said, 'This is not a rebuilding project' about 100 times. He had his national championship ring on, and he reminded me that he was the offensive coordinator when Auburn won the championship. He said the seniors now are all guys he recruited for that team back then."
In other words, Malzahn worked to sell the precious commodities of stability and continuity. No doubt pointing toward what he accomplished at Arkansas State last season while Auburn was flailing (10-3 versus 3-9), it's not a stretch to promise that Auburn's winning could return in a hurry.
And oh by the way, he and Newton are still BFFs.
"Yeah," the high schooler admitted with a chuckle, "I liked that too."
As the new year rolled around and the defections stopped, those previously committed started to feel that sense of stability settling in. Chizik recruit and ESPN 150 quarterback Jeremy Johnson reaffirmed his commitment to Auburn, as did Earnest Robinson, an ESPN 300 athlete, and wide receiver Jason Smith. All are Alabama natives.
"When the home state guys start signing, it sends a message to the others -- and more importantly their parents -- that it's OK to go back into the water," said a competing SEC recruiting coordinator. "But more importantly, it says the same to the out-of-state guys. There's a sense of, well, OK, they must finally be doing something right over there."
Inch by inch, as mid-January approached, Malzahn and his staff were no longer treading water. They were finally getting the Auburn battleship turned around. With a large group of once-lost former signees back in the fold and others at least back in the conversation, it allowed the new Tigers staff to lock up six junior college transfers, most notably Georgia wide receiver Nick Marshall, who will play quarterback at Auburn.
There have been setbacks. On Saturday, coveted running back Derrick Green passed over Auburn and Tennessee to sign with Michigan. But no fewer than six players have verbally committed to Auburn since Jan. 14, including Orlando, Fla., teammates Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker, wideouts who had previously committed to Texas A&M and Nebraska, respectively. Based solely on those defections, Malzahn's first Tigers class has jumped back to 15th in the ESPN class rankings and is expected to move up by Feb. 6.
"It's been a complete overhaul with the 2013 class since Malzahn took over," said RecruitingNation's Greg Ostendorf. "Despite the decommitments, Auburn is currently trending and has a chance to make up some ground before signing day."
This weekend, Lawson, fellow former commit and local product (not to mention top-ranked inside linebacker) Reuben Foster and undecided big man Adams will make their official visits to Toomer's Corner. Ink just one of those players and Malzahn will have salvaged a top-10 recruiting class from what was looking like a spiraling post-firing disaster just six weeks ago.
"There was a lot of work to do, and there still is a lot of work to do," Malzahn said last week during a quick stop by practice for Saturday's Senior Bowl. "But it's fun. Good thing. As soon as we get this group signed, we'll start working on the next one."