"He believes successful people are successful for a reason," Dufner said. "Maybe they have certain characteristics or similar traits, and they're consistent in the way they do things. I was student at Auburn at one time, just like those players, and I had to do things to become successful, so he believes it gives these kids a chance to see what success looks like."
Dufner, though, was the one who left feeling inspired.
"His preparation, the way his mind works, the way he prepares his team to play, it just blew my mind away," Dufner said. "It was very surprising. There weren't a lot of note cards or things written down. It just seemed to come from his memory. They were in a bad place at the end of last year, but he gave them the blueprint for how to be successful."
This season has had its share of surreal moments. Auburn boasts the nation's top rushing attack, a statistic that must make every Arkansas Razorbacks fan grind their teeth when they realize what might have been. Auburn, of course, wouldn't be anywhere near the BCS title game if not for a 73-yard tipped touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 from Marshall to Ricardo Louis with 36 seconds left to beat Georgia. Auburn might not be here if not for a 109-yard field goal return by Chris Davis with no time left and the score tied to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. But for Malzahn, the seminal moment of the entire season happened during halftime of the one game Auburn did not win, a 35-21 loss in Baton Rouge to LSU.
"We were on the road, in one of the toughest places to play in all of college football, it was raining hard, and we got off to really bad start, down 21-0," Malzahn said. "We were fighting some things from the last year. I had a lot of questions about us. I was curious how we were going to respond to adversity. Were we going to quit?"
The locker room, players recalled, was as silent as a morgue until a handful of players stood up and vowed the team would not lay down the way they had the previous season in situations like this. A furious second-half rally fell short, but Malzahn, normally no fan of moral victories, was beaming. "I knew then we had something special," he said.
As the years have gone by, Malzahn says he's learned to appreciate the journey more than the results. He can barely remember the victories, but the losses, he can recount every detail. He knows it's not healthy, but he can't help it. It's the way he's wired. That's why the path he took to arrive in Pasadena, Calif., this week is more satisfying than another national championship could ever be. "I've been fortunate enough to win state championships and national championships, and after you win it, it doesn't get any bigger than that," Malzahn said. "But as soon as you get out of that locker room, my mind goes to next year. That's it. It's over. As I get older, it makes me enjoy the process. That's what I get the most joy out of. Because you build up in your mind what it'd be like if you win, and it usually isn't what you think. It's great, but it's never what you think."