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December 16, 2012
Still decked out in Auburn apparel, former running backs coach and top recruiter for the Tigers Curtis Luper arrived at the Alabama All-Stars' afternoon practice on Wednesday to watch his son, Cameron Echols-Luper, prepare for Saturday's Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. The embroidered words Auburn Family formed the letter 'T' on his back.
Though his clothes may have been inspired by the previous coaching regime, the family theme at Auburn is still something that Tigers recruits -- committed and de-committed alike -- proclaim as ingrained in the culture of the football program.
"The program hasn't changed; the Auburn family is still committed," three-star defensive back and Auburn commit Kamryn Melton said. "I've talked to Gus (Malzahn), and the new coaching staff is going to be great. After the all-star game, some of us are taking an official visit out there."
If the Auburn football program is a family, then new head coach Gus Malzahn could be likened to a stepfather trying to get on the children's good side. In his defense, he's essentially mom's high school sweetheart.
After all, Malzahn was the offensive coordinator of Auburn's 2010-11 BCS National Championship team, just the school's second all-time, despite its long tradition as a power program in the SEC. This season, as Auburn struggled through a three-win campaign, Malzahn led Arkansas State to a 9-3 record as head coach and the Red Wolves ended 2012 with the 23rd-ranked offense in the FBS.
Still, it won't be easy holding together Auburn's recruiting class, which sits at No. 13 in the 2013 Rivals Team Rankings -- even with the de-commitment of five-star inside linebacker Reuben Foster.
"When I made my commitment, I saw family, I saw friends, I saw fathers, and I saw wisdom and that's what I based my commitment on," said Foster, who set the tone of Saturday's 21-16 Alabama win over Mississippi with a hard tackle on the first play from scrimmage. "It's like a way of life that you have to deal with for four years, and you don't want to deal with being unhappy. I know coaches come and go, but when you don't know them, it's hard to commit to a school, so I am just looking at my options."
It's not just Foster who's apprehensive when it comes to Auburn. Fellow five-star recruit and Alabama All-Star Dee Liner wouldn't so much as comment on the coaching change when interviewed by Rivals.com earlier in the week. His stern attitude toward Auburn's transition was underscored by his light mood when joking with Foster and Luper at practice.
Though it may seem discouraging that two top players in Auburn's class could be distancing themselves, there are still players committed to the Tigers who don't see the concept of family changing, even though the faces representing it are suddenly different.
"I was disappointed when (Gene) Chizik got fired, but when they hired Coach Malzahn, he had been the first person to give me an offer," four-star pro-style quarterback Jeremy Johnson said. "I gave it a chance to see who they were going to hire first, and they hired the right guy for me and a person that I've already had a relationship with."
One of Johnson's Alabama All-Star teammates, four-star wide receiver Earnest Robinson, bridges the gap from committing to the family atmosphere of one coaching staff to the environment a new one brings.
"When I made my commitment, I made it for the coaches," he said. "I knew they had a bad start this season, but I wanted to be a part of the leadership of the offense when I got down there."
Robinson will certainly have his chance. He and Johnson took the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game as an opportunity to bring players such as Foster and Liner back into the fold.
"We're great friends; I hate that (Foster) left the class," he said. "I think that we just need to find players like Reuben who can change the game. We just need to see what's going to happen. I take a lot of responsibility. Everything falls back on me, and I need to help my coaches and make smart decisions. We need smart players in the program."
Malzahn and Co. are doing what any new coaching staff with a top recruiting class already in place would do: speak with players such as Foster, Johnson and five-star Alpharetta, Ga., defensive end Carl Lawson.
But there is a feeling that Auburn is simply hoping to weather the storm.
Although a new patriarch will be leading the next generation of the Auburn family, the Tigers' future stars have taken it upon themselves to shoulder the burden of the transition that lies ahead.
"Every team has its ups and downs," Johnson said. "This year was one of their down times, and this 2013 class is looking to turn things around and get the team back headed in the right direction."