Malzahn’s step back led to giant leap forward

By: Wally Hall
Published: Sunday, January 5, 2014
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn walks around before the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida Atlantic on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn walks around before the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida Atlantic on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Some interesting things happened on the way to the conclusion of the 2013 college football season, including a switch in the balance of power.

In the last season of the Bowl Championship Series, two of the preseason favorites - depending on your preferred reading - were beaten.

Alabama was shocked by Oklahoma, although in the end the Crimson Tide simply weren’t fast enough and the offensive play-calling was suspect at best, and The Ohio State University was upset by Clemson and a coach named Dabo.

Throw Texas into the mix - the Longhorns lost badly to Oregon in the Alamo Bowl - and the three most arrogant programs in all of college football lost.

Now Nick Saban, heralded as unbeatable and considered the king of college football, is riding a two-game losing streak, and some are wondering how much more of a raise he will get after losing the Sugar Bowl, since he received a $2 million raise after losing to archrival Auburn in the regular-season finale.

College football needed some parity, and while Auburn is from the SEC, which is still the most powerful and best football conference in America, it is still the second college in Alabama.

Auburn is coached by Gus Malzahn, a native of Fort Smith who spent a tumultuous year as the offensive coordinator at the University of Arkansas, where he was called “High School” on an almost daily basis because he was hired after winning a state championship at nearby Springdale High School.

There is no need to go into that year, but it did catapult Malzahn’s career from the high school ranks to the college ranks. He left Arkansas for Tulsa University and then moved to Auburn, serving as offensive coordinator at both schools, which included a national championship with the Tigers. Then he took over as head coach at Arkansas State, the other school in Arkansas, before returning to Auburn this season.

One final note on that. Years later, looking at Malzahn’s record, Houston Nutt might still be the head coach at Arkansas if he had done things differently. Still, Nutt left Arkansas with enough money to retire and went to Ole Miss, where he was given twice as much to leave. So, in a financial sense, it worked out for him very well.

It also worked out for Malzahn. Had he not felt like he couldn’t work under those conditions at the UA and taken a step back with the move to Tulsa - where he led the nation in offense two years in a row, which led Gene Chizik to hire him and turn over the Tigers offense to him - he might have been a career assistant.

The springboard for Malzahn’s chance to become the head coach of an SEC team came because of what he did at Arkansas State. Malzahn assembled a staff quickly and led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record, then weeks after saying he had found a home in Jonesboro returned to Auburn.

It is what any coach with ambition would have done.

Tonight, his old team, ASU, takes on Ball State at the Go-Daddy Bowl in Mobile, Ala. It is an unprecedented third consecutive bowl appearance for the Red Wolves. Malzahn and Hugh Freeze proved ASU has a program that can succeed.

As for Malzahn, there is no reason to expect him to be intimidated Monday night when the Tigers take on top-ranked Florida State in the BCS Championship Game. He wasn’t when he faced Saban in the Iron Bowl and called for Chris Davis to be prepared to return a last-second field-goal attempt by Alabama. Davis returned it 109 yards for a stunning victory.

No, the BCS Championship Game isn’t the biggest challenge Malzahn has faced. Surviving and advancing his career from Springdale High School to the biggest stage in college football in only eight years was, and he has earned this opportunity by creating an offense to fit his quarterback and taking advantage of a little luck.

Florida State is undefeated, but so were a lot of other teams when they faced Malzahn and his play-calling acumen.

Sports, Pages 21 on 01/05/2014