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The Malzahn era begins in Jonesboro

I entered the football facility at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro last spring eager to spend some time with the school’s new head football coach, Hugh Freeze.

I was writing a feature story on Freeze for Arkansas Life magazine.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “The rain is falling steadily on this spring morning as the coach sits in his office in the school’s football complex, which is located in one end of a stadium where the seats are rarely filled to capacity. Hugh Freeze still looks like that young man Michael Lewis described in ‘The Blind Side.’

“He greets a visitor warmly and then looks back on a Nov. 29, 2010, speech to the Little Rock Touchdown Club. On that late fall day, his life began to change. The club was meeting for the final time of the season on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Several hundred people, including some of Little Rock’s top business leaders, had gathered for lunch at the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock to hear the first-year offensive coordinator at ASU.

“Freeze, who does lots of motivational speaking (he’s a favorite of FedEx founder Fred Smith), was at the top of his game that day. He wowed ’em. Freeze was scheduled to leave the state on a recruiting trip after the speech. He never made it. As it turned out, things were changing quickly in Jonesboro.”

I was seated next to the podium as Freeze finished his speech that day in November 2010. Just as we were concluding the meeting at 1 p.m., the ASU athletic department announced in Jonesboro that a 4 p.m. news conference would be held on campus.

At that news conference, Dean Lee, the ASU athletic director, made it official: Steve Roberts, whose final two seasons in a nine-year stint as ASU’s head coach had ended with 4-8 records, was out.

As news of Roberts’ departure made its way across the state, a cry went up from those who had heard Freeze speak in Little Rock: “There’s no need for a search. The best man for the job is already on the staff.”

The “search” didn’t take long. On Thursday of that week, Freeze was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach at ASU.

Even the most optimistic Red Wolf fan could not have predicted what would happen in the fall of 2011. Arkansas State went 10-2 during the regular season, won the Sun Belt Conference title and earned a spot in a bowl game at Mobile, Ala.

Freeze, of course, parlayed his success at ASU into the head coaching job at Ole Miss.

After one year, he was gone.

You know the rest of the story.

Last Friday afternoon, I visited with Gus Malzahn in the same office where I had chatted with Freeze a year ago.

I sensed an urgency in the building that exceeded what I had felt in early 2011. Sure, there was excitement at this time last year. Now, though, there is also what I can best describe as a feeling of grim determination: A determination to meet the high expectations created by Malzahn’s arrival on campus; a determination to show that last year wasn’t a fluke; a determination to indeed start building the Boise State of the South, the tantalizing label that Malzahn has hung out there.

I’m now writing a feature story on Malzahn for the April issue of Arkansas Life, and I’ve decided to try to answer the question that football fans across the country were asking when it was announced that Malzahn would leave his job as offensive coordinator at Auburn University, where he made $1.3 million annually, to take a pay cut and move to Jonesboro.

The question was this: “What was he thinking?”

I determined that to adequately answer that question, one must drive 70 miles south of Jonesboro to the poor Delta farming community of Hughes, where Malzahn’s coaching career began in 1991.

George Schroeder, the former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter who had met Malzahn when the young coach brought his Hughes Blue Devils to War Memorial Stadium for a state championship game in 1994, tried a year ago to explain to a national audience what makes Malzahn tick.

In a piece for that ran just before Auburn defeated Oregon in the BCS national championship game, Schroeder wrote: “Serious fans understand Malzahn came to Auburn from Tulsa, where his offenses were prolific, and that he broke into college coaching at Arkansas, where it didn’t work out so well. Recruiting junkies know he was at Springdale High before that, with a talented bunch of players running an almost unstoppable attack. Spread offense devotees might remember him from Shiloh Christian in the same town, where passing and scoring records fell and a private school powerhouse was built.

“But the roots go deeper. They go back to a small school in a fading town. Back to when a bus trip to Little Rock was an indescribably big event.

“‘It was a little overwhelming,’ Malzahn says, recalling the scene that night 16 years ago at War Memorial Stdium as a ‘three-ring circus’ — barely controlled. For the kids, sure. But also for the coach, a bundle of nerves who figured it was his one shot, and he’d better not blow it.

“Bypassed by the interstate, and by progress, Hughes is six miles from the Mississippi River but much further from the beaten path. The hamlet of less than 2,000 people is only 15 miles from Interstate 40, but the high school principal once described it to me as ’15 years ago.’ The school was known for its basketball; there wasn’t much football tradition. It was the perfect Petri dish for a coach who was as hungry to learn as he was to win. Or just hungry, period.

“Malzahn recently made news because, after turning down an offer to become Vanderbilt’s head coach, he accepted a new contract at Auburn that will pay him $1.3 million a year. When I met him in 1994, he made less than $25,000. Along with a young family, he lived in a trailer. He taught world geography to seventh graders, health to the high school kids — and football to himself.

“‘I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,’ Malzahn says, and when you laugh, he insists: ‘No, I’m serious. I really didn’t.'”

So there you have it. This is a man who often describes himself as “a high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”

His roots are in this state, and they’re deep. And his career path has been anything but traditional, so why stop now?

He’s also driven, trying to learn new things about the sport each day.

“Auburn players tell stories now about how at all times, text messages will pop into their phones,” Schroeder wrote in January 2011. “Malzahn will be watching film and will glean some tiny bit of information — say, a nuance in a receiver’s route — and he’ll send it to them, right away. They’re convinced the coach eats, sleeps and breathes football. Well, check that. Based on when those texts arrive, they’re not sure he sleeps at all, just eats and breathes.

“In Hughes, back before text messages — heck, before email and the Internet had become a way of life — the players understood their coach was putting in long hours. Saturdays and Sundays, the three football coaches would gather to watch film at one of their homes — there wasn’t a TV available at the school — and devise the game plan. It’s all pretty standard stuff. But at Hughes, which played in the state’s second-smallest high school classification? In the early 1990s? It was revolutionary. And already, Malzahn’s ability to tune everything out and intensely focus on football was beginning to emerge.”

Let’s allow Malzahn to answer a few more questions.

Why turn down Vanderbilt a year ago and its reported offer of a $3 million annual salary?

“The timing was not good,” he told me. “We were about to play for the national championship. You may only get to do that once in a career, and I’m not good at doing two things at once. I never would have been able to live with myself if I had done a bad job because of distractions and we had lost the championship game.

“We won the national championship and then we won more games in 2011 at Auburn than we thought we would. So it all worked out.”

I pressed him a bit. Did he not later regret having passed up the opportunity to be a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, especially since Vanderbilt did better than expected in 2011 and earned a berth in the Liberty Bowl?

“I’ve always been a guy to take it a season at a time,” Malzahn said. “I’m always focused on the task at hand. I’m not one to look back or look ahead.”

At the end of the 2011 season, the Auburn offensive coordinator determined he was ready to be a head coach at the college level.

For a time it appeared he might be the head coach at the University of North Carolina, but that didn’t work out.

For a time it appeared he might be the head coach at the University of Kansas, but that didn’t work out, either.

Gus Malzahn thus finds himself in Jonesboro trying to build the Boise State of the South.

He said he’s pleased with his first signing class and said he’s committed to recruiting all parts of Arkansas hard in future years. Given the relationship he still has with high school coaches in the state — and the relationship that his new defensive coordinator, Forrest City native John Thompson, has — it’s not hard to believe that ASU will do well in recruting Arkansas talent.

Malzahn said that while he expects a successful 2012 season, he’s thinking long term and wants to build the program “the right way.”

Looking out the window of his office at that stadium that rarely has been full, I asked him if there will come a day when the 30,000 seats are filled consistently.

“There’s no doubt that’s going to happen,” Malzahn answered without hesitation.

Being the Boise State of the South would fill those seats. Such a program will take a number of years to build.

Is Gus Malzahn in Jonesboro for the long haul or just passing through like Ray Perkins and Hugh Freeze? That’s one question I cannot answer.

Unlike Perkins and Freeze, Malzahn is an Arkansas native, which gives Arkansas State fans a reason for hope.

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