May 21, 2012: Gus Malzahn

The 14th annual Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic will be held Monday, July 30, at Chenal Country Club in Little Rock. This year’s celebrity event will be hosted by new Arkansas State University head football coach Gus Malzahn and members of his coaching staff. Lunch will be served at noon, tee time will be 1 p.m., awards will be presented at 5:30 p.m. and a reception and dinner will conclude the day’s activities at 6 p.m. For more information on playing in the tournament or attending the “Talking Football with Guz Malzahn” dinner, call Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

A version of the following feature story on Malzahn ran in the April issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State University Head Football Coach

Gus Malzahn, Arkansas State University Head Football Coach. Photo courtesy Arkansas State University.

Football fans across the country were stunned when the news leaked out in December: Gus Malzahn, one of the most highly paid and innovative offensive coordinators at the college level, had accepted an offer to be the next head coach at Arkansas State University.

Arkansas State?

In Jonesboro?

Was this the same coach who reportedly had turned down an offer just a year earlier to be the head coach at Vanderbilt University and was strongly considered for the head job at the University of Maryland?

Was this the same man who was being considered at the end of the 2011 season for head coaching jobs at the University of Kansas and the University of North Carolina?

Arkansas State? Really?

ASU is a member of the Sun Belt Conference, several rungs down the ladder from the Bowl Championship Series conferences in the college football pecking order. In 2011, ASU’s coach was among the lowest paid head coaches in the top tier of college football, NCAA Division I’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

When Malzahn, the Auburn University offensive coordinator, made his decision, you could almost hear tens of thousands of college football fans across the country cry out in unison: “Has he lost his mind?”

To understand Malzahn’s surprise choice, you must drive 70 miles south of Jonesboro through the soybean, rice and cotton fields of Craighead, Poinsett, Cross and St. Francis counties. You’ll end your trip in Hughes, a poor farming community. The population in the 2010 census was 1,441, 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 people.” That translates to “not much happens here.”

Yet if you really want to comprehend what makes Gus Malzahn tick, don’t go to Jonesboro or Fayetteville in Arkansas, Tulsa in Oklahoma or Auburn in Alabama. Go to Hughes. It was at Hughes, you see, where Malzahn’s coaching career 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, was in Arizona in January 2011 as Auburn prepared to play the University of Oregon for the national championship (a game Auburn 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.”

The reason folks outside Arkansas can’t figure Malzahn out is because they don’t know about his roots. He’s a man who often 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 getting started in the business, he doesn’t list college head coaches. He lists Don Campbell of Wynne High School, Frank McClellan of Barton High School and Barry Lunney Sr. of Fort Smith Southside High School. Campbell and McClellan are retired. Lunney is now at Bentonville High School.

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 the chance to be in a gym or on a playing field. He was offered a football scholarship to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia after high school but decided instead to walk on as a football player for 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 first to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, where his best friend from Fort Smith Christian, David Little, was on the baseball team. After a semester, he 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, 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, 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 at Henderson,” Malzahn says.

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 now works at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville. Crockett left his job as an assistant at Hughes, and Malzahn was hired to take his place.

“I didn’t even know there was a Hughes,” Malzahn says. “It turned out to be a great place for a young coach. I could make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes.”

Having grown up in Fort Smith and attended college in Fayetteville and Arkadelphia, Hughes represented a culture shock for Gus Malzahn and his young wife. They 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 of the Blue Devils.

Perhaps the most popular book in the country among high school coaches is one 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 primarily on the run.

Schroeder describes 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.”

“I thought I would never get a chance again,” Malzahn told Schroeder.

After one more season at Hughes, Malzahn was hired at Shiloh Christian, a private school in Springdale begun in 1976 as an outgrowth of the First Baptist Church. In 1986, Texas native Ronnie Floyd came to the church as its senior 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 an ESPN commentator. When Malzahn saw a note asking him to call Dykes, he knew what it was about.

Gus and Kristi Malzahn would be heading 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’s 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 the Springdale School Board’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 legend at age 37.

February is coming to an end, the start of spring practice is nearing and things are hopping around the football complex at Arkansas State. A sense of urgency fills the building, given the high expectations created by Malzahn’s arrival on campus.

Just a year earlier, the school was breaking in another head coach as Hugh Freeze moved up after one season as ASU’s offensive coordinator to replace Steve Roberts, now the athletic director at Cabot High School. 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 Little Rock 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 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, were he replaced Houston Nutt.

Despair on the part of ASU followers turned to elation when Malzahn made the decision to return home.

In late 2010, ASU 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, Malzahn called Lee in his office. That Thursday night, they had another long conversation 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, but Malzahn has never been driven by money.

On Friday, Dec. 9, 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 also removed the Red Wolf bumper stickers. For three hours that evening, Lee visited with Malzahn and his wife in their home.

He pulled out late that evening. Too nervous to sleep, Lee drove straight back to Jonesboro, arriving at 6:45 a.m. Sunday. By then, ASU President Charles Welch and Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU graduate, were in the loop. By 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.

Malzahn’s legend had grown 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 Arkansas. He 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 Nutt’s staff at the University of 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 coach, 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 the University of Tulsa, Todd Graham. The two men had become friends when Graham, now the head coach at Arizona State University, was coaching a high school powerhouse in Allen, Texas. Graham had bought a video Malzahn hosted on the hurry-up, no-huddle offense and discovered they had the same ideas about how to run an offense.

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 next head coach. Malzahn says he has no regrets. He believes that a decision to accept 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.

Malzahn took a huge pay cut to return to Arkansas, where he tells people he wants to build the “Boise State of the South,” a team from a non-BCS conference that consistently ranks in the Top 25. In this spring of 2012, he’s just 70 miles from Hughes, where it all started more than two decades ago.

“I’m an Arkansas guy,” Malzahn says. “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.”

“What on earth was Gus Malzahn thinking?” college football fans asked last December.

He was thinking it was time to come home.

– Rex Nelson

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