High school coaching career[ edit ] Malzahn got his start as the defensive coordinator at Hughes High School in Hughes, Arkansas in He became head coach in and in Hughes reached the state championship game with an upset of Pine Bluff Dollarway. Hughes fell just short in the title game, losing to Lonoke High School on an interception in the final minute. From to , he transformed Shiloh Christian into one of the most dynamic offensive prep squads in the nation.
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Malzahn could remember tiny details from plays, and the flaws that were their undoing, even if they had occurred years ago. His mind, his players had learned, was like a digital archive. A part of Mustain wanted to catch a glimpse of his coach hard at work, unaware he was being watched or studied by one of his students. A part of him wanted to witness something he could tease Malzahn about. Instead, it was a bit like stumbling upon John Nash during the scene in "A Beautiful Mind" when the professor is scribbling on walls, furiously trying to crack codes only he can see or begin to understand.
Malzahn was bent over, his face six inches from his desktop, carefully arranging eight different colored Sharpies until they were perfectly aligned.
He then proceeded to diagram his play sheets on manila folders, tracing and retracing then outlining! He could have had some graduate assistant do it, but instead he insisted he do it himself.
Van Emst Gus Malzahn is not a genius. And no one is more adamant about this than Gus Malzahn. He cringes, in fact, whenever he hears the word attached to his name. When informed his own players, current and former, are the guilty parties, he rolls his eyes and breathes deeply out his nose. Agree, and you label yourself as an egomaniac.
Eventually, he musters an answer. But with Auburn facing Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Monday, with the Tigers just one year removed from going , most of the college football world is still struggling to find the right way to describe how Malzahn, just seven years removed from coaching high school football in Northwest Arkansas, has outsmarted so many of his more experienced peers.
He sees everything. Away from the football field, Malzahn is polite and soft-spoken. He answers questions with the cadence and the honey-infused drawl of a Southern Mister Rogers. But there is an intensity always simmering just beneath the surface. The story of how he arrived at the summit of college football might be a story of last-second miracle victories, tipped passes, sideline tightrope walks and fortuitous bounces.
To really understand it, you have to see how every piece of the foundation was built. As a young boy growing up in Fort Smith, Ark. He would spend hours that bled into full days throwing a baseball against a brick wall. He would plant himself in front of his television and obsessively study Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys, then lie in bed at night reconstructing route combinations.
His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, but eventually his mother remarried, and his stepfather, a salesman named Ray Ruhman, forged a connection with his stoic stepson on the baseball diamond.
A more pragmatic person might have broadened his worldview, prepared for a life outside the painted lines. But Malzahn, whose family was always a few rungs short of middle class, had no dreams outside of sports. And when it came to football, he was plum eat up with it. When he turned 15, he volunteered to coach a youth football team run by the local Boys Club. He knew, even then, it was what he wanted to do with his life. He decided to pass on the scholarship and walk on with the Razorbacks.
He found both, though his time on the field came primarily as a punter who averaged Still, his head coach, Ralph "Sporty" Carpenter, thought highly of him, and planned to recommend him for jobs, but Carpenter died suddenly after that season. My wife, Kristi, was a real trouper. He taught history, coached basketball and begged the best athletes to come out for the football team. He learned how to drive a tractor so he could cut the grass on the practice field, making sure every pass of the mower left a perfectly straight line.
He had a hard time concentrating when he was supposed to be teaching because his mind was always drifting back to football. He was left with one assistant, plus a volunteer from the local junior high who would occasionally help out with practice. On a whim, he reached out to Barry Lunney Sr. Malzahn, for all his success, is still haunted by it. I still feel bad for those kids because we could have won that game. We could have won had I done a better job. In , he left Hughes to take a job as the head coach at Shiloh Christian, a private school in Springdale with a rich football tradition.
He and Kristi felt embraced by the community. It was the ideal place to raise their two daughters, Kylie and Kenzie. He was too competitive for most family fun nights, so he tried to bring them around the football team as much as possible. If they went bowling, he had to win at bowling. If they played board games, he plotted strategy to dominate. He wants to get things done and get it done quick. You could tell he just never stopped thinking about football. He wanted to know exactly what he was supposed to be doing at 9 a.
It was at Shiloh, over the course of several years, that the quirky architect began to emerge. Malzahn realized he was almost too impatient for traditional football. He wanted the strategy of football with the speed of basketball. At times, the 40 seconds allotted between plays felt like an eternity. He and his coaching staff experimented with running a script of hurry-up no-huddle plays at the start of every game, and the team seemed to feed off the adrenaline rush, but as soon as he reverted back to a more traditional offense, his teams regressed.
His first year, Shiloh started the year and finished One night during the offseason, he threw a series of hypothetical questions at his staff: What if we sped things up the entire game?
What if we embraced risk, shrugged at conventional wisdom, ignored time of possession and tried to lengthen the game, not shorten it? What if we tried to get a play off every five seconds and gave ourselves 10 possessions a game instead of six? At first, it sounded like madness.
But the more Malzahn thought about it, and talked about it with Chris Wood, a young assistant coach on his staff who had run the hurry-up no-huddle in college, he wanted to take a leap of faith. Instead of running the play call into the game with a wide receiver, or signaling plays to the quarterback and then asking the quarterback to relay them to the team , Malzahn demanded every player watch the signals from the sideline.
The fullback, not the quarterback, called out the pass protections. The signals also were simplified, arranged by colors blue, yellow, black, green and red and numbers, then named after Biblical characters. An offensive coordinator would stand next to a flip board, and if he posed like David slinging his slingshot in the story of David and Goliath, the players would know immediately what play to run based on color and number combinations. You had to be in a different kind of shape, mentally and physically to do it, but it was like stealing early.
It was such an advantage. Shiloh averaged The following year, Floyd threw for 4, yards and 45 touchdowns and Shiloh averaged 30 points a game. But his players kept putting up video-game numbers and his teams kept winning. But Shiloh taught him patience. It made him focus on being a better man.
He tried to motivate through positive reinforcement instead of fear. He prohibited the use of swear words. But most important, he learned to adapt his model to fit the talent that came out each season for the team. Years later, when he got into the college game and people sneered at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn for hiring a high school coach to be their offensive coordinator, he just chuckled.
Other coaches needed time to recruit players to fit their system. Malzahn simply adjusted his system to fit the players. A part of Malzahn thought he might stay at Shiloh forever. He won 44 straight games at one point, and back-to-back state championships in and His next quarterback, Rhett Lashlee -- now his offensive coordinator at Auburn -- put up statistics even more eye-popping than Floyd.
In one memorable playoff game, Lashlee threw for yards to lead Shiloh to a win. But Malzahn was too competitive to be truly content. He needed new challenges. When the biggest public school in the state, Springdale High, offered him a job in , he knew he had to take it. His players cried when he told them he was leaving. Stoic and serious as he was, he says he cried too.
At Springdale, he met a young quarterback named Mitch Mustain. Neither man could foresee it at the time, but their partnership put them on a path that would shake up the SEC for years to come. Malzahn leads his team out of the tunnel before the Tigers beat Arkansas State on Sept. He threw just passes during his college career at the University of Arkansas, completed 69 of them, and tossed 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
But his story will likely go down as one of the great "what ifs? Because at Springdale, under Malzahn, Mitch Mustain looked as if he was born and bred to play quarterback in the hurry-up no-huddle. He was like a machine in practice. Malzahn wrote a book detailing his ideas on how other high schools could revolutionize their programs the way he did at Shiloh -- "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy" -- and it led to a handful of prep converts.
But in the cliquish fraternity of college football coaches, the larger philosophy barely made a ripple. By the time he was a senior, Mustain was the top recruit in the country. A reporter followed the team around all year to write a book about its quest to win a state title.
Similar authors to follow
The Book of Malzahn
The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy