Outback Bowl 2020

Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn before the Outback Bowl between Auburn vs. Minnesota at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Jan. 1, 2020.

Gus Malzahn is a football guy, through and through. He always has been, for as long as he’s been in the public eye. He pores over film study, he’s at peace out on the practice field, and he lights up talking about X’s and O’s.

But the clipboard is not the only reason he’s a coach. Malzahn does it for his players, too.

And in a time of so much uncertainty, that much is crystal clear.

Malzahn and his colleague Butch Thompson held teleconferences with the media on Wednesday afternoon with the safety of their football players and baseball players at the front of their minds as the sports world scatters under fear of spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The athletes have gone home. Coaches are supporting their switch to online classes. They’re spelling out instruction on social distancing. They’re detailing the disease’s symptoms. There’ll be more to come.

There’s no football. There’s no baseball. But they are still teams.

“The number one thing is the safety and well-being of our players during these times, with the way things are changing,” Malzahn said over the phone.

“This week it’s all been about health and safety,” he added. “We put football on the backburner, just making sure they are safe and protected.”

It’s a no-brainer. Malzahn as a football coach saw his spring practices all canceled seemingly in a blink. Thompson as a baseball coach was midway through a season when he saw it all evaporate last week just days before hitting conference play.

But when Thompson met with his team recently, as the season was being postponed on the way to being canceled and the sports world was falling apart all around them, Thompson looked at his hurting young players and wasn’t thinking about the diamond.

He was just thinking about them.

“There’s just some things that are bigger than baseball, and we found it,” Thompson said simply.

That’s it. There’s plenty to come. Auburn football coaches could theoretically dish out in-home training instructions to players hoping to keep them right and ready in the event the team fields a season this fall. Auburn baseball players could have decisions to make soon if the NCAA comes through with eligibility relief for them after their season was ended just as it got going.

But Wednesday wasn’t the time for any of that, Malzahn and Thompson both seemed to say.

“As of right now, it’s more about checking on them, making sure their academics are right,” Malzahn said. “You can give them a workout or something like that. But, as far as the X’s and O’s, there will be a time that’ll be appropriate. But right now, it’s about their health and well-being and their safety.

“We’re going through unprecedented times right now,” Malzahn also added. “It seems like everything is changing daily.”

It isn’t changing for the good — not according to anyone’s hopes. Auburn’s teams are following the guidelines laid out by the CDC and health officials strongly advising against the gathering of people in efforts to slow down the virus’s spread through the world population. That includes the game those athletes love, which brings thousands together in stadiums for beautiful experiences on gamedays. That even includes, now, the simple get-together for practice.

But some changes will stick, surely: Auburn’s athletes won’t forget, Thompson said, this experience for fear of ever taking that for granted again.

“I have heard it over and over in my career as a player and a coach, ‘Never take anything for granted’. I think that will have a new meaning when these young guys get back out on the baseball field again,” Thompson said.

“I have heard my whole career, ‘You play this game like it’s your last one’. I think going through this experience there is going to be some growth and improvement and understanding for us to never take things for granted again. I think that’s going to be a lesson learned in this process.”

Yes, there are still lessons to be taught.

After all, they’re coaches.

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