Football innovators Spurrier, Malzahn good friends
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hates to finish second-best at anything, yet he's got no choice but to yield on one thing: his friend and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is the better golfer.
''I don't like that, but he is,'' said the humbled Malzahn. ''He's really good.''
Spurrier and Malzahn share reputations as college football innovators, a preference for visors and a friendship. The two square off again this weekend when the fifth-ranked Tigers (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) host the Gamecocks (4-3, 2-3) on Saturday night.
Both coaches have kept defensive coordinators awake nights trying to slow down their imaginative offensive schemes.
Spurrier's ''Fun-n-Gun'' offense at Florida won six Southeastern Conference titles and the 1996 national championship. Malzahn's offense won Auburn the 2010 national title - he was the Tigers offensive coordinator - and brought them to an SEC title and the national championship game in his first year head coach.
And the past couple of years, Spurrier and Malzahn have bonded about what they do better than most in the game.
''I think these are two of the friendliest staffs in the SEC,'' Spurrier said.
That closeness will be tested this week as both teams try and keep on track for their goals. For Auburn, it's a shot to win the powerful SEC West and remain in the mix for the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff. Spurrier and the Gamecocks had similar aspirations when the year began until fourth-quarter collapses in losses to Missouri and Kentucky in their past two league contests.
Spurrier said it's always difficult to face a friend on the opposite sidelines like Malzahn.
And the two share much more than an affinity for visors.
''I think most all of us coaches that are offensive coaches that call the plays, we sort of all like each other,'' he said. ''We have so much in common.''
Like taste in defensive coordinators. Auburn's second-year coordinator Ellis Johnson spent four seasons (2008-11) under Spurrier turning the Gamecocks into one of the country's top defenses.
After a disastrous 0-12 season as Southern Miss' head coach in 2012, Johnson joined Malzahn's Tigers.
Johnson groomed current South Carolina defensive coordinator to take over that role when he left for Southern Miss.
''I just think it's harder to play against close associates, your friends,'' Johnson said. ''But after 40 years it's getting where I can't find a team that doesn't have one of my good friends on it, so I guess I'm getting used to it.''
Johnson said Malzahn and Spurrier manage things differently. Both, though, lead offenses they developed, tweaked and brought to the field fully formed to wreak havoc on opposing defense.
Johnson squared off against Florida's Spurrier while a defensive coordinator at Alabama from 1997-2000 and against the Gamecocks' Head Ball Coach while leading Mississippi State's defense from 2004-07. Spurrier was a master at exploiting any opening, no matter how small - just like Malzahn's done at Auburn.
''That's the two things both of them do. They have a complete command of their offensive systems because they invented them,'' Johnson said.
Malzahn admired Spurrier's style and attack with the Gators and hoped he could carry himself in a similar manner when he became a head coach.
''He's got that air about him,'' Malzahn said. ''When you look up to somebody, you have that respect. It's really more of a respect deal. Then you get to know somebody off the field.''
Malzahn will sometimes bounce ideas off Spurrier, not X's and O's but about issues running a team, tapping into his wisdom after five decades in the game.
Spurrier admires what Malzahn has accomplished - Spurrier said this summer Auburn wouldn't have won its latest national title without Malzahn - and how his offense has taken the game forward.
Plus, it's easy to like someone willing to plod the same ground as you.
''It is sort of interesting,'' Spurrier said. ''I think we all sort of like each other a little bit more than they do because we try to do it the same way.''
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.