Following is an updated version of a story which appeared on the AuburnUndercover.com web site last August.
Gus Malzahn at Auburn practice
SPRINGDALE, Ark. - Away from football, Gus Malzahn is reserved, soft-spoken. He dotes on his wife and daughters and shares his devout faith. But the game that has been such a force in his life is never far away.
On the practice field, on the recruiting trail, on game day, Malzahn is driven not just to succeed, but to excel. It was that way when he was a 26-year-old head coach at Hughes High School, back in Arkansas. It was that way when he was winning state championships at Shiloh Christian and Springdale High School. And it’s that way today as he prepares for the biggest game of his life against Oregon in the BCS National Game.
Malzahn, who won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, turned down an offer of $3 million per year on Monday, choosing to stay at Auburn and be the highest paid offensive coordinator in the game at $1.3 million per year. Five years after he coached his last game at Springdale, he’s one of the hotter names in the business.
It was pushing 9 p.m. when Malzahn walked into the interview room at Jordan-Hare Stadium last August. His high-octane offense had just run up and down the field. But Malzahn wasn’t smiling. There had been a turnover and a handful of penalties. Those were the things on Malzahn’s mind, not the 82 points his offense had scored.
Malzahn seeks perfection. He’ll never get it, but the competitive fire that burns within him won’t let it be any other way.
Malzahn was a good high school football player in Fort Smith, Ark. He almost won a state championship as a coach at Hughes. But it was in Springdale, just up the road from the University of Arkansas, that he became known not just as a successful football coach, but an offensive innovator headed for big things.
His influence is still felt there today. When the conversation is about football, they still talk about Gus. No last name is needed.
Malzahn never sought fame or fortune. He just wanted to coach the game that he’d played more with desire than with talent. He went to Arkansas as a wide receiver, wasn’t good enough and finished his career at Henderson State. His love for the game never waned. And his drive grew only stronger.
“I just took it year by year and in the moment,” Malzahn says. “I really never had early dreams of ‘I want to be coaching Division I football.’ It was more of ‘I want to win a state championship.’ You get that, then you think about the next step.”
Josh Floyd was Malzahn’s first quarterback at Shiloh Christian. Together, they shattered national records for offense. And they were champions. Today, Floyd sits in the chair in which Malzahn once sat. He won his third consecutive state championship this season. And he’ll send his quarterback, Kiehl Frazier, to Auburn to play for Malzahn.
Floyd says he talks to Malzahn at least once a week. Sometimes the conversation is about football. Sometimes it’s not.
“First of all, I think he’s a great man.,” Floyd says. “He’s a good, Christian man that really cares about the kids. I think that goes a long way. I think any coach that starts with that has a chance for kids to believe in him.
“He has a great way of giving you confidence in what you are doing. I think he makes you feel confident out there on the field, whether that’s through repetition, staying simple at different times. He’s extremely detailed and organized. I think those things carry over to the field, for sure.”
It is because of Malzahn, Floyd says, that he is coaching today. Malzahn turned a junior high school running back into a record-setting quarterback.
“He helped change my life,” Floyd says. “I was a running back in junior high that could throw a little bit. We’d run the halfback pass. He came in and we totally shifted gears and went to a spread offense. We needed somebody that could throw the ball. We broke national records together here at Shiloh. Because of that, things have been a lot different for a lot of people.”
Munching on a Mexican dinner, Robin Beach chuckles as he looks back over the years. He played against Malzahn in high school. Beach played for Greenland, Malzahn for Fort Smith.
Malzahn as an Arkansas wide receiver
“And by the way, we smoked them,” Beach says, laughing at the memory. “The thing about Coach Malzahn is he has an air about him that commands respect. When you start talking to that man about football, you understand you are talking to one of the greatest offensive minds in this country today. I don’t care what level.”
Beach is Frazier’s stepfather, the man who has raised him since he was a baby. He’s a lifelong Arkansas fan, but he’s proud his son, who could have gone almost anywhere, chose to go play for Auburn and Malzahn.
“This guy eats, sleeps and breathes this stuff,” Beach says. “He is very, very intelligent. It goes unnoticed because of his brilliance that this guy will work and work and work and work. He is relentless in his pursuit of excellence. Nobody is going to outwork him. He will not let that happen.”
Malzahn got his first college coaching job as Arkansas offensive coordinator in 2006. Then-head coach Houston Nutt took back control of the offense early in the season. Controversy swirled. Malzahn said little, but left for Tulsa when the season was over. There, he led the nation in total offense.
“Gus never complained,” Beach says. “That’s not his nature. People respect him for that. Go around this town and this area, they’ll talk to you about Gus with reverence in their voices. He is a legend. He is highly, highly respected, not just by coaches but by everybody.”
Eliah Drinkwitz spent nine seasons coaching high school football in Arkansas. He was with Malzahn at Springdale in 2004 and became offensive coordinator after Malzahn left. When he was offered the opportunity to join Malzahn at Auburn as offensive quality control coach, he made the move with his wife and daughter.
Malzahn’s influence in his home state, Drinkwitz says, goes well beyond the X’s and O’s that led to championships.
“Coach Malzahn definitely changed the way football was perceived in the state,” Drinkwitz says. “He took it very seriously. He made it something that wasn’t just about the game but affecting kids in a positive way. He really got FCA going strong in Springdale.
“He began to say ‘Let’s not just impact these kids now, but in the future.’”
Malzahn wrote a highly popular book, “The Hurry-up, No-huddle: An offensive philosophy.”
Rhett Lashlee followed Floyd as Malzahn’s quarterback at Shiloh Christian, and Malzahn has been a major force in life ever since. He walked on and played quarterback at Arkansas. He coached on Malzahn’s staff at Springdale and was a graduate assistant for Malzahn at Arkansas in 2006. Now he is a graduate assistant at Auburn.
“Coach Malzahn is a special person and an unbelievable football coach,” Lashlee says. “He certainly has had a huge impact on my life.”
Malzahn, Lashlee says with conviction, will go on to even bigger things.
“Really, I’ve known him more as a head coach than an offensive coordinator in my lifetime,” Lashlee says. “He has those qualities. He did it for 15 years. He’s been successful at different levels everywhere he’s been. He certainly can be a great head coach, but he’s very focused now on winning a championship at Auburn.”
Malzahn likes to hug his players. He’s a confidant and a father figure. But on the field, he demands that they strive for perfection. If they don’t, his eyes can bore a hole. In return, his players believe in him without reservation.
“Coach Malzahn is a genius,” senior offensive tackle Lee Ziemba says. “There’s no other way to put it. He’s a great man. And he’s a genius.”
Says Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton: “He’s a perfectionist. He wants you to do everything right. If you don’t, you’re going to hear about it.”
At Hughes High School, Malzahn began to put together the hyper-paced, no-huddle offense that would become his signature. It had elements of the spread and elements of a hard-nosed running game. He won state championships, went to Arkansas, then to Tulsa and finally to Auburn.
“He’s always looking to get better, always on the cutting edge,” Floyd says. “He’s usually ahead of the game. Three or four years ago, people were saying it wouldn’t work in the SEC. A lot of people don’t understand what the offense is about. Our numbers are very similar here. It’s a pretty balanced offense. You have to be able to run the football.”
Malzahn makes that point every chance he gets. Auburn, he insists, does not run the spread.
“We are a two-back, downhill running football team,” Malzahn likes to say. They are also a football team that has broken virtually every Auburn offensive record.
On autumn Friday nights back in Springdale, men will stand along the fence and remember the way it was when the man they all call Gus won games and changed lives.