Wally Hall is the managing sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he is a past president and member of the Football Writers Association of America, member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, past president and current executive committee and board member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
LIKE IT IS:
Timing just wasn’t right for UA, Malzahn
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn talks to the media during his weekly NCAA press conference Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, at the Auburn Athletic Complex in Auburn, Ala. (AP PHOTO/AL.com, Julie Bennett)
Gus Malzahn was not afraid, intimidated or in awe of Nick Saban, Alabama or the Iron Bowl on Saturday.
In fact, by most opinions, he outcoached the king of college football, and the last play, the 100-plus-yard return of an attempted field goal to win the game, leaves little argument.
Malzahn had his team ready for a return. Saban’s team obviously was not ready for anything but to block for the kick. A few of those blockers lumbered toward return man Chris Davis, but most just watched him win the game.
Malzahn’s Auburn team was more than a 10-point underdog to the two-time defending national champion, and the Tigers never blinked.
The guy who was ridiculed during his season at Arkansas, called “High School” by some of the other coaches and told his hurry-up, no-huddle offense would never work in the SEC is now a candidate not just for SEC Coach of the Year, but national honors as well.
Auburn was picked to finish fifth in the SEC Western Division, but the Gus Bus is rolling to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game, and maybe, if Michigan State can beat Ohio State, the national championship game.
If somehow Auburn were to win it all, it would mark the fifth consecutive national champion coming from Alabama.
Who should Texas want to interview if it has an opening? Gus Malzahn.
He took a team that didn’t win a conference game last year and went 11-1, improving every week, including a stunning upset of the Crimson Tide.
If he stays at Auburn and continues to win, the two greatest college coaches in the history of that state (not counting Nick Saban) will have come from Arkansas, with Bear Bryant being the other.
Which brings up the much-asked question: Why didn’t Arkansas hire Malzahn?
Right now, with 20/20 hindsight, that’s a great question.
He’s one of the hottest names in coaching right now,but Malzahn, 48, had a few things going against him when Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long was searching for a head coach.
First, his resume included only one year of college head-coaching experience compared with seven years for Bret Bielema, who had led his team to three Rose Bowls (although he passed on the last one to go to Arkansas).
Second, Malzahn’s one season came at Arkansas State, a university that is barely acknowledged by the UA. He inherited a great team and went 9-3. (He left before ASU’s Go-Daddy.com Bowl victory.)
Third, his wife Kristi was involved in a controversial interview with their former pastor, Ronnie Floyd, in their former church, Cross Church in Springdale. A tape of the question-and-answer session went viral on the Internet, and that incident was thought to have cost Malzahn the North Carolina job.
Fourth, he had told everyone in Arkansas he had found his home at ASU and was going to be there a very long time. Apparently, Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU alumnus, believed it and rumor has it he asked Long to leave his coach alone.
In retrospect, those things could have been overlooked, but there is absolutely no guarantee Malzahn would have done any better with the Razorbacks this year than Bielema.
Some of the first words out of his mouth after the victory Saturday was he had taken over a talented team that needed a new direction. Once again, the past four Auburn recruiting classes, including Malzahn’s first, were ranked Nos. 8, 10, 7 and 4 nationally. Incidentally, Alabama was No. 1 in the past three and No. 5 the other year.
Bottom line, though, he took a team that was 3-9 overall, 0-8 in SEC play, and coached those players up and made them better.
Auburn was not real impressive getting to 10-1 and had to have a miracle, 73-yard touchdown play via deflection to beat Georgia. But Auburn got it and in the final game of the regular season, the Tigers were much better than the first game.
Gus Malzahn should be on Texas’ short list.
Sports, Pages 19 on 12/03/2013