Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers take on the Arkansas Razorbacks late Saturday afternoon at Auburn.
Much like Hugh Freeze (whose Ole Miss Rebels lost to Arkansas last week in Fayetteville), Malzahn can thank Arkansas State for opening the door for what quickly became a job as a head coach in the Southeastern Conference.
Football fans across the country were stunned when the news leaked out in December 2011 that Malzahn — one of the most highly paid and innovative offensive coordinators in college football at the time — had accepted an offer to be the next head coach at Arkansas State in Jonesboro.
After all, Malzahn reportedly had turned down an offer a year earlier to be the head coach at Vanderbilt and was strongly considered for the job of head coach at Maryland.
By the end of the 2011, it was rumored that he was in the running for head coaching jobs at Kansas and North Carolina.
To understand Malzahn, you must drive through the soybean, rice and cotton fields of east Arkansas to the poor farming community of Hughes. The population in the 2010 census was 1,441 (it’s even smaller now), down from a high of 1,919 in the 1980 census.
The Hughes entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture admits 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 peple.”
That translates to “not much happens here.”
But it was at Hughes where Malzahn’s career as a coach began.
It was at Hughes where he first became a hot coaching commodity, albeit at the high school level.
It was at Hughes where Malzahn started to refine his coaching philosophies, further growing to love the sport and its challenges.
George Schroeder, a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter who went on to national acclaim as a college football reporter, was in Arizona in January 2011 as Auburn prepared to play Oregon for the national championship (a game the Tigers would win).
In a piece for the Sports Illustrated website, Schroeder remembered the time in 1994 when Malzahn brought his Hughes football team to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock for the Class 4A title game.
“They’d arrived a few minutes late, and as they were about to take their seats high in the stands, the coach turned around, pointed to the state championship game unfolding below and addressed the stunning reality. 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.”
He’s a man who still describes himself as “a high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”
When asked to name the coaches he looked up to when he was getting started in the business, Malzahn doesn’t list college head coaches. He lists men such as Don Campbell of Wynne High School, Frank McClellan of Barton High School and Barry Lunney Sr., whose final two high school coaching stops were at Fort Smith Southside and Bentonville.
Malzahn was born in Irving, Texas, in October 1965. His parents divorced when he was 6. After a year in Little Rock and a year in Tulsa, his mother wound up in Fort Smith, where Malzahn lived from the fourth grade until his graduation from Fort Smith Christian High School in 1984. He loved sports and had decided by junior high that he wanted to coach for a living. He was a wide receiver and safety in football while also playing basketball and baseball.
“That’s just what I did,” Malzahn says. “I played everything.”
Malzahn also enjoyed coaching younger kids at the Evans Boys Club in Fort Smith. He coached soccer, baseball and football — basically anything that gave him a chance to be in a gym or on a playing field.
Malzahn was offered a football scholarship to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia after high school but decided to walk on as a football player for head coach Ken Hatfield at the University of Arkansas.
“It took me about two practices to figure out I wasn’t good enough to play at that level,” he says. “But I stuck with it for a year and a half.”
Malzahn transferred to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, where his best friend from Fort Smith Christian, David Little, was on the baseball team.
After a semester, Malzahn moved to the other side of U.S. Highway 67 in Arkadelphia to play football at Henderson. Malzahn played during the 1988 and 1989 seasons for Coach Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter. Those were the final two seasons of a long coaching career for Carpenter, a colorful Hamburg native who died in 1990.
“Coach Carpenter was kind of a legend when I got to Henderson,” Malzahn says. “Everyone knew him or knew about him. It was one of those special deals to be a part of that group.”
Malzahn had married his girlfriend from Fort Smith, Kristi Otwell. Carpenter, known for taking care of his players both during and after college (it was Carpenter who gave a graduate assistant named Charlie Strong his first big break by getting him a job at Florida), eased the transition.
“I had just gotten married to Kristi, and he was really concerned about helping her, helping us and seeing that we had what we needed to succeed,” Malzahn says of Carpenter.
In 1991, Malzahn applied for a position as an assistant coach at West Memphis High School. That job went instead to a coach named Bobby Crockett, who left his job as an assistant coach at Hughes. Malzahn was hired to take his place.
“I didn’t even know there was a Hughes,” Malzahn admits. “It turned out to be a great place for a young coach. I could make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes.”
Hughes represented a bit of culture shock for a man who had grown up in Fort Smith and attended college at Fayetteville and Arkadelphia. He and his young wife lived in a mobile home with Gus teaching everything from geography to health. After one season as an assistant coach, Malzahn was promoted to head coach for the Blue Devils.
One of the most popular books in the country among high school coaches is a book Malzahn wrote. It’s titled “The Hurry Up No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy” and came out in 2003. Eleven years earlier, as the new head coach at Hughes, Malzahn bought a book titled “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football.” In those early years, his offenses depended on the run.
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.”
After one more season at Hughes, Malzahn was hired a Shiloh Christian, a private school in Springdale that opened in 1976 as an outgrowth of the First Baptist Church. In 1986, Texas native Ronnie Floyd came to the church as its senor pastor. In addition to growth at the church, the dynamic, driven new minister oversaw growth at the school.
A winning football program was important to Floyd, especially since his son Josh was the quarterback.
The athletic director at Shiloh was Jimmy Dykes, now the head women’s basketball coach at Arkansas. When Malzahn saw a note asking him to call Dykes, he knew what it was about.
Gus and Kristi Malzahn headed from the Delta to the Ozarks.
It was at Shiloh that Malzahn moved from a run-oriented offense to the wide-open passing attack for which he would become known. He was the Saints’ head coach from 1996-2000. His 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, the man who had feared he would never get back to War Memorial Stadium for a state championship game, led the Saints to four consecutive title appearances. They 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 Springdale’s choice to replace veteran head coach Jarrell Williams.
“What people don’t remember is there were still a lot of questions about whether I could coach in the state’s largest classification,” Malzahn says. “I guess I was the only one crazy enough to try to fill Coach Williams’ shoes. He was Springdale football.”
Malzahn said the memory of Williams cast a long shadow during the 2001 season.
“The job I did wasn’t good enough for the people of Springdale, and I knew it,” he says.
Across town, Shiloh was winning another state championship without him, defeating Augusta 34-20 in the 2001 title game.
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 being an Arkansas high school coaching icon at age 37.
Malzahn’s legend grew at Springdale when his 2005 squad went 14-0, outscored its opponents 664-188 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 Arkansas.
Gus Malzahn had come a long way from Hughes. Sportswriter Kurt Voigt even wrote a book about that 2005 Springdale team.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written in Arkansas about what happened next.
Malzahn joined Houston Nutt’s staff at Arkansas in December 2005. Many believed that Frank Broyles, the school’s athletic director at the time, had forced Nutt’s hand.
Nutt mispronounced Malzahn’s name at the news conference that was held to introduce the new coordinator, and Malzahn was never fully accepted by his fellow Razorback coaches (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 evident, it surprised few people inside the state when Malzahn accepted an offer from the new head coach at Tulsa, Todd Graham. The two men had become friends when Graham was coaching a high school powerhouse in Allen, Texas. Graham had purchased a video Malzahn hosted on the hurry-up, no-huddle offense and discovered they had some of the same ideas.
With Malzahn as 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 move 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 110th in the country in scoring the previous season.
In 2010, Auburn won the 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. Some reports had Vanderbilt offering him as much as $3 million a year to be its head coach.
Malzahn later told me he had no regrets. He believed acceptance of the Vanderbilt job in December 2010 would have taken his focus off preparing for Auburn’s appearance in the national championship game. Auburn increased his annual salary from $500,000 to $1.3 million, making him perhaps the nation’s highest paid assistant football coach.
At Arkansas State, Hugh Freeze had moved up after one season as ASU’s offensive coordinator to replace Steve Roberts. Prior to the 2011 football season, 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 actor Ray McKinnon.
There was excitement surrounding Freeze’s hiring, but even the most optimistic Red Wolf fan could not have predicted the success that would follow. ASU went 10-2 during the regular season, won the Sun Belt Conference championship and earned a spot in a bowl game at Mobile, Ala. Freeze parlayed his instant success at ASU into the head coaching job at Ole Miss, where he replaced Nutt.
Despair on the part of ASU followers turned to elation when Malzahn made the decision to return home to Arkansas.
In late 2010, Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee had called Malzahn at Auburn to ask him about Freeze.
At the end of the conversation, Lee joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”
When Freeze left for Ole Miss, Lee again talked to Malzahn to pick his brain about possible successors. Once more he joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”
This time, there was a long pause.
“I would consider that,” Malzahn finally said.
On Dec. 8, 2011, Malzahn called Lee in his office. They had a second long conversation that Thursday night once Lee had gotten home.
Malzahn had decided he was ready to be a head coach at the college level. He hadn’t been offered the job at either North Carolina or Kansas, and the thought of returning home to Arkansas was appealing. The pay would be much less than he was making at Auburn. He knew that.
On Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, Lee and Malzahn talked three more times by 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 removed the Red Wolf bumper stickers.
For three hours that evening, Lee visited with Malzahn and his wife in their home. He then pulled out late in the evening. Too nervous to sleep, Lee drove straight back to Jonesboro, arriving at 6:45 a.m. Sunday.
By then, ASU President Chuck Welch and Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU graduate, were in the loop. By the following Wednesday, Malzahn was being introduced as the next ASU head coach before a large crowd at the Convocation Center in Jonesboro.
Things had moved quickly.
“I’m an Arkansas guy,” Malzahn told me soon after arriving in Jonesboro. “I’m still a high school coach at heart, and I’m a firm believer in being able to win at the major college level with high school talent from Arkansas. Kristi and I loved Auburn, but we were 10 hours from our family and friends. This is my chance to come back and build something big, to put it on the national map.”
Little did he realize how soon Auburn would be calling him back to the SEC.
Malzahn led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record and a Sun Belt Conference championship as quarterback Ryan Aplin thrived in his offense, passing for 3,342 yards and 24 touchdowns.
To the east at Auburn, the alumni had grown weary of Chizik despite that national title just two seasons earlier.
Malzahn got the call. He would never have the chance to build what he had described as the “Boise State of the South” at Arkansas State, but the opportunity to be a head coach in the SEC West was too much to resist.
On Nov. 16, 2013, Auburn faced a fourth-and-18 against Georgia with 36 seconds left. Malzahn called a play named “Little Rock,” and quarterback Nick Marhsall hit Ricardo Louis on a tipped 73-yard pass to give Auburn the win.
Two weeks later in the Iron Bowl, Auburn returned a missed field goal 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the game against Alabama in one of the great finishes in college football history.
Auburn beat Missouri in the SEC championship game and led Florida State 21-3 in the national championship game before falling 34-31.
Malzahn seemed to be living a charmed life.
Things have been tougher since then.
Auburn was 8-5 in 2014, losing in the Outback Bowl.
The Tigers were just 7-6 in 2015, needing a victory in the Birmingham Bowl for a winning season.
There was lots of grumbling earlier this year when losses to Clemson and Texas A&M were sandwiched around a win over Arkansas State. Some speculated that Malzahn wouldn’t finish the season. The heat has eased somewhat with three consecutive victories going into the game against the Razorbacks.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, it has been quite a ride for the coach who thought “I would never get a chance again” after Hughes lost to Lonoke at War Memorial Stadium in 1994.