Malzahn took the backroads to Atlanta

The coaching tree that produced Gus Malzahn is so unlike the ones that typically yield the famous figureheads of southern college football. For Auburn’s man comes from pulpwood, not walnut.

He comes from a place where his game films were shot on a neighbor’s borrowed video camera. And to get any kind of footage on an opponent often required he drive sometimes for hours, scouring the bottomland of northeast Arkansas for someone with a tape he could dissect.

The first head coaching job for the man about to play for the SEC championship — a coach of the year for any award-giving group worth its bronze — was at an Arkansas high school that was small two decades ago and is so much smaller now that it dropped football.

That Malzahn took Hughes High to its only state championship game in 1994 — and was a dropped halfback pass away from winning the thing — may have been one of his singular coaching achievements. Although the folks who draped every tree in Auburn with toilet paper after the Tigers beat Alabama on Saturday may quibble.

“Hughes is in an isolated area, and it seemed that any time we needed something we usually had to travel to get it. He learned a lot at Hughes, I promise you,” said Charlie Patrick, the athletic director who hired Malzahn to his first head coaching gig and who remains a close friend today.

“I taught him how to drive a tractor, so he could cut the football field,” Patrick added. “He came up in system where you had to do a little bit of everything from driving the bus to driving the tractor. You had to improvise a lot.”

Big-time college coaches just don’t come up the way Malzahn, 48, did. He was 14 years a high school head coach in Arkansas, at three different schools, before taking his first college assistant position at Arkansas in 2006. The past two coaches he beat — Georgia’s Mark Richt and Alabama’s Nick Saban — both coached exclusively in college. As did the next one he faces, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel.

Asked this week about the atypical career arc of his opponent, Pinkel said, “I’d say it’s pretty darn good. Are you kidding me?

“I’ve been a head coach 23 years. I went through kind of the traditional way, always coaching in college. He’s done a phenomenal job obviously. He’s very good at the X’s and O’s, techniques, fundamentals. Scheme-wise they do a great job. Obviously he can unite people, get players to play as a team, not as individuals. You can see that in the way they play.”

This one is for all the high school coaches out there who lose themselves in their job with little or no chance of ever advancing to the big-money positions. This one makes all of them look a little smarter; it lends their experience a little more weight. This one puts a lie to the notion that there is but one right path to prominence.

“I’m a high school coach who just happens to be coaching college,” Malzahn once said.

“The route he took kind of makes you feel good because when you go the high school route, you very seldom get the opportunity to go on to something else,” said Patrick, still a high school teacher in Arkansas.

Didn’t the fellow who started at Hughes High just out-coach the one widely regarded as the smartest guy in the stadium?

The victory over Alabama underscored one of the most jarring of reversals. Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for Gene Chizik when Auburn won the BCS championship in 2010, replaced Chizik in December after the Tigers went winless in the SEC. In a single season, with largely the same cast of players, Malzahn has them a game away from a potential conference championship and perhaps a place in the BCS Championship game.

“Coach Malzahn called some of us into his office before we started two-a-days and asked us the goals for the season,” said defensive end Nosa Eguae. “Across the board we all said that we just wanted to have the biggest turnaround in college football history. … We didn’t even put wins and losses on that. We just wanted to worry about having the biggest turnaround.”

The man who orchestrated said turnaround does not seem all that different than the one who used to do his work without nearly as many headlines. That coach is still this coach, right down to maintaining the habit he formed during his high school days of eating postgame meals at Waffle House.

He was a winner in Arkansas, claiming three titles in seven appearances in a state title game (two at Shiloh Christian, one at Springdale High). He has done nothing but win at Auburn. Apparently that quality does transfer.

Malzahn, however, will never win the news conference. He is as dry as hay, about as expansive as a hiccup, much like someone who never had much need or use for media relations.

But he seems to get through to the people who matter. When he returned to Auburn and promised his players that there was a new day coming, they bought it. Perhaps they sensed the same quality as the AD who decided to make his second-year defensive coordinator (yes, the offensive mastermind started on defense) the head coach at Hughes.

“He’s just got a lot of confidence, always has. It always seems to work out for him,” Patrick said.

“When we first got here, we knew we had some talent,” Malzahn said. “They had been through a storm the year before. It was just real simple: Let’s get our edge back, let’s play together, let’s improve each week. At the end of the year, our goal was to be a pretty good football team.”

The man who values simplicity is, oddly enough, the same one Patrick called The Doodler, because of his penchant for sketching out plays whenever they popped into his head, on whatever medium was handy. The high school Malzahn was a mad scientist who devised such gimmicks as one they called the Starburst (five players clustering around the ball on the kickoff return, then running off in different directions each pretending to have the ball). At that time, he loved the offensive innovation of the Dallas Cowboys and Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators — even wearing a visor a la the Ol’ Ball Coach.

The college Malzahn, the author of a book on the no-huddle, hurry-up attack, is the innovator now.

Nineteen years ago, Malzahn’s vision of the big time was busing to Little Rock for a state championship game. “Overwhelming,” he once described it. Now look at him, trying to get his team back on the tracks after one of the most memorable, emotional victories in college football.

If the Tigers take their cue from him, they’ll be centered in no time.

“I feel very humbled and very honored to be doing what I’m doing,” he said earlier this week when asked about his career journey. “There are a lot of really good high school coaches that could be doing the same thing. They just haven’t been given the opportunity.

“Like I’ve said before, I’ve been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time throughout my career, not just college, but in high school, with great people around me. This situation is no different.”

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