Do you want to understand what makes Gus Malzahn tick?
Well, don’t spend the weekend in Pasadena (though the warmer weather would be nice).
Don’t head to east Alabama to visit Auburn, either.
Drive instead through the rice, soybean and cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta and visit the poor farming community of Hughes.
Hughes’ population in the 2010 census was 1,441. That was down from a high of 1,919 in the 1980 census.
The Hughes entry in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes that the second largest town in St. Francis County is “typical of the towns in this part of the state, although it is not known for any major historical events or as the home of any significantly famous people.”
Translation: Not much happens here.
But if you really want to understand why the head football coach at Auburn University is so driven, go to Hughes.
It was at Hughes, far from the limelight of American sports, that Malzahn’s coaching career began.
It was at Hughes that Malzahn learned to love the challenges of being a football coach.
It was at Hughes that Malzahn began to refine his coaching philosophies.
Remember the Hail Mary pass that Auburn used back in November to beat Georgia?
In the Auburn playbook, the play is called Little Rock, as in the city that hosts the high school state championships in Arkansas each year. Malzahn thought back then that such a play might be necessary to get his team to War Memorial Stadium.
George Schroeder, the former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter who’s now the lead college football writer for USA Today, was in Arizona three years ago this week as Auburn prepared to play the University of Oregon for the national championship (a game Auburn would win). Schroeder was writing for the Sports Illustrated website at the time and remembered the weekend in 1994 when Malzahn brought his Hughes squad to War Memorial Stadium for the Class 4A title game.
“They’d arrived a few minutes late, and as they were about to take their seats in the stands, the coach turned around, pointed to the state championship game unfolding below and addressed the stunning reality,” Schroeder wrote. “The next day, his bunch would play for a title, too. ‘This,’ Gus Malzahn told the Hughes Blue Devils, ‘is the big time, guys.’ For those wide-eyed kids from a tiny farming community in the Mississippi River Delta, there was nothing bigger. For their 29-year-old, third-year head coach, too.”
Hughes lost to Lonoke the next day, 17-13.
“I thought I’d never be back,” Malzahn told Schroeder. “I thought I’d never get a chance again.”
This is the man who will try to lead Auburn to a national championship on Monday night in just his second year as a college head coach.
He’s a man who often describes himself as a “high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”
Two years ago, soon after he had taken the head coaching job at Arkansas State University, I sat down with Malzahn at his office in Jonesboro. I asked him about the coaches he had looked up to when he was just getting started in the business.
He didn’t list college head coaches.
He listed Don Campbell of Wynne, now retired and soon to be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
He listed Frank McClellan of Barton, also retired and already in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
He listed Barry Lunney Sr., formerly of Fort Smith Southside and now at Bentonville.
And he said his football bible in those days was a book titled “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football.”
Schroeder described that 1994 state championship loss to Lonoke: “In the final moments, the Blue Devils drove inside the 10. But a halfback pass misfired. A sure touchdown pass was dropped. Their last chance was intercepted. And the head coach still second-guesses himself. He knows he should have run the ball because there was still time and that was the Blue Devils’ strength. He remembers the awful empty feeling, that this was his one shot at the big time.”
Malzahn coached one more season at Hughes and then moved across the state to Shiloh Christian, a private school at Springdale that had started in 1976 as an outgrowth of the First Baptist Church.
In 1986, a Texas native named Ronnie Floyd came to First Baptist as the senior pastor. In addition to the growth at the church, the dynamic minister oversaw growth at the school.
We all know how important high school football is to Texans. Having a winning football program at Shiloh Christian was important to Ronnie Floyd, especially since his son Josh was the quarterback.
The Shiloh Christian athletic director was Jimmy Dykes, now an ESPN commentator. When Malzahn saw a note on his desk at Hughes High School asking him to call Dykes, he knew what it was about. He knew he would be heading from the Delta to the Ozarks.
At Hughes, his offense had depended primarily on the running game. At Shiloh, Malzahn moved from a run-oriented offense to the hurry-up passing attack for which he’s known. He coached the Saints from 1996-2000. The 1998 team set what at the time was a national record with 66 passing touchdowns, and Josh Floyd almost set a national record with 5,878 yards of offense (5,221 passing yards and 657 rushing yards).
Malzahn, who had feared he would never get back to War Memorial Stadium for a state championship game, led the Saints to four consecutive title game appearances. His teams lost 54-30 to Frank McClellan’s Barton Bears in 1997, defeated Hector 49-14 in 1998, defeated Carlisle 47-35 in 1999 and lost 30-29 in overtime to Rison in 2000.
Following the 2000 season, Malzahn was the choice of the Springdale School Board to replace highly respected Springdale High School head coach Jarrell Williams.
“What people don’t remember is that there were still a lot of questions about whether I could coach in the state’s largest classification,” Malzahn told me that day two years ago. “I guess I was the only one crazy enough to try to fill Coach Williams’ shoes. He was Springdale football.”
The memory of the Williams years cast a long shadow over Springdale High School football during the 2001 season.
“The job I did wasn’t good enough for the people of Springdale, and I knew it,” Malzahn said.
Across town, Shiloh was winning another state championship, defeating Augusta 34-20 in the 2001 title game. Malzahn questioned whether he had made the right career move. By 2002, though, Malzahn had the Bulldogs in the state championship game, where they lost to Barry Lunney Sr.’s Fort Smith Southside Rebels, 17-10.
Gus Malzahn was well on his way to becoming an Arkansas high school coaching legend at age 37.
Malzahn’s legend grew at Springdale when his 2005 squad went 14-0, outscored its opponents 664-118 and routed West Memphis, 54-20, in the state championship game at War Memorial Stadium in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a high school event in the state.
Sportswriter Kurt Voight even wrote a book about that 2005 Springdale team.
All Arkansans who follow sports are familiar with what happened next.
Malzahn joined Houston Nutt’s staff at the University of Arkansas in December 2005. There are those who believe that Frank Broyles, the school’s athletic director at the time, forced Nutt’s hand. Nutt mispronounced Malzahn’s name at the news conference that was held to introduce the coach, and Malzahn was never fully accepted by members of the coaching staff (some of whom derisively referred to him as “high school”) even though Arkansas won the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship in 2006.
With the tension between Malzahn and the rest of the staff evident, few were surprised when Malzahn accepted an offer from the new head coach at the University of Tulsa, Todd Graham. The two men had become friends when Graham, now the head coach at Arizona State University, was coaching the high school powerhouse at Allen, Texas. Graham purchased a video that Malzahn had hosted. It concerned the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Graham discovered that they had the same ideas.
With Malzahn as the offensive coordinator, Tulsa ranked first nationally in total yards per game and third in passing in 2007. The Golden Hurricane became the first college team to have a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. In 2008, Tulsa led the nation again in total yards, averaging 570 yards per game while ranking second in scoring.
It didn’t take Auburn’s new head coach, a defensive specialist named Gene Chizik, long to lure Malzahn back to the SEC in December 2008. The Tigers finished the 2009 season ranked 16th in total offense and 17th in scoring after having been tied for 100th in the country in scoring the previous season.
Auburn won the 2010 national championship, quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and Malzahn won the Broyles Award as the top assistant football coach in the country.
No assistant coach in America had a higher profile at the time. Some reports had Vanderbilt University offering Malzahn as much as $3 million a year to be its next head coach. Malzahn feared that accepting the Vanderbilt job in December 2010 would take the focus off preparations for Auburn’s appearance in the national championship game. Auburn increased his annual salary from $500,000 to $1.3 million, making him one of the nation’s highest paid assistant football coaches.
Gus Malzahn stayed at Auburn for the 2011 season.
To the west in Jonesboro, Arkansas State relieved Steve Roberts of his duties as head football coach at the end of 2010 and promoted first-year offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to the top position. At the time, Freeze was best known as the man who had coached Michael Oher at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. Oher was the subject of Michael Lewis’ 2006 book “The Blind Side” and the 2009 movie of the same name in which Freeze was portrayed by Little Rock actor Ray McKinnon.
ASU went 10-2 in 2011, won the Sun Belt championship and earned a spot in a bowl game at Mobile, Ala.
Freeze parlayed his success at ASU into the head coaching job at Ole Miss, where he replaced Houston Nutt.
A year earlier, then-ASU athletic director Dean Lee had called Malzahn at Auburn to ask him about Freeze. At the end of that phone conversation, Lee joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”
As soon as Freeze left for Ole Miss in December 2011, Lee again called Malzahn to pick his brain about possible successors. Once more the ASU athletic director joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”
This time, though, there was a long pause.
Finally, Malzahn said: “I would consider that.”
He was ready to be a college head coach.
On Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, Lee and Malzahn talked three more times on the phone. By 10:30 a.m. that Saturday, Lee was on the way to Auburn in his personal vehicle. Paranoid that Malzahn’s home was being watched by the media, Lee had taken the ASU license plate off the front of the vehicle and even removed the Red Wolf bumper stickers. For three hours that Saturday evening, Lee visited Malzahn and his wife in their home.
Lee pulled out of Auburn late that evening. Too nervous to sleep, he drove through the night to Jonesboro, arriving at 6:45 a.m. Sunday. He had made calls on the way back to ASU President Chuck Welch and Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU graduate and strong supporter of the school’s football program.
By the following Wednesday, Malzahn was being introduced as the next ASU head coach before a large, enthusiastic crowd in the Convocation Center on the ASU campus.
Things had moved quickly.
No one, however, could have guessed all that would happen during the next two years.
Like Freeze, Malzahn led ASU to a Sun Belt title and a spot in a bowl game at Mobile.
Like Freeze, Malzahn left ASU after one season to become a head coach in the SEC.
Like Freeze, Malzahn turned around an SEC program and got his team to postseason play.
But this is a far larger game than the one in Birmingham where Freeze took his Rebels a year ago.
This is the national championship game.
This is the famous Rose Bowl stadium.
This is indeed the big time.
This is a long way from Hughes.