If you don't know Gus Malzahn, his rapid rise from high school football coach to head coach of Auburn University is stunning. However, if you met him anywhere along the way, you're not surprised at all. No matter where Malzahn was, he prepared like the head coach of a major SEC football program.
Today, I am starting a new series of articles where we will take an in-depth look at all 14 SEC head coaches over the next 14 days.
The first piece of this series will look inside the life of the Auburn head coach and detail how he continues to succeed against all odds.
Malzahn graduated from Fort Smith Christian High School (AR) in 1984. He was a good football player, but not elite. There were no coaches from big-time college football programs begging for his commitment.
While he was not an elite athlete, he was good enough to walk on at the University of Arkansas. Malzahn worked hard and got the most out of his talent while practicing with the Razorbacks.
Malzahn wanted more, though, so he transferred to Henderson State University, a Division II school located in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.
Malzahn finally got the playing time he desired, but perhaps not at the position he thought. While he did catch 24 passes for 288 yards during his two years at Henderson State, it was his punting that kept him on the field.
He averaged 35.3 yards per punt in his junior season and 37.7 yards in his senior season. He had a career long of 64 yards and was selected All-AIC Honorable Mention in his senior season.
Just like with his playing career, there were no big-time programs lining up to hire the coach who would later be tabbed as a mad scientist.
In fact, his first coaching job was not even on the offensive side of the football. Instead, Malzahn was hired as defensive coordinator of a small high school in Arkansas named Hughes High School.
With fewer than 2,000 people in the city, few would have guessed it was the first step for a future SEC head coach. In fact, the high school no longer even has a football program.
Malzahn did what he always does and made the most of the situation.
After just one season as a defensive coordinator, he was promoted to head coach. While he had not yet developed into the offensive mastermind he is today, he found ways to put his players in the best position to succeed.
With very few players and perhaps even less talent, Malzahn guided Hughes High School to unimaginable heights. In 1994, he led the team to the Class AAA state championship game, where it fell just yards short of a state championship despite barely having enough players to dress a full squad.
The loss was devastating to Malzahn. However, he had shown his potential on a bigger stage and people took notice. One program that took notice was Springdale, Arkansas' Shiloh Christian.
In 1994, Malzahn was hired to replace the well-respected Dennis DeBusk.
His first season at Shiloh was filled with mixed reviews. He did lead the Saints to a conference championship and into the second round of the state playoffs, but they finished a mediocre 6-6.
During the spring of 1997, he developed the hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy that would transform high school football in the state of Arkansas.
Over the next four seasons, the Saints would compile an overall record of 57-2-1. Moreover, they would win two state championships and finish as state runner-ups twice.
Malzahn loved Shiloh, but it was not the national powerhouse that it is today.
As a result, Malzahn would need to make another move. In 2001, Malzahn become the head football coach at Springdale High School.
Much like his experience at Shiloh, he started off with a mediocre 7-5 record. However, as has always been the case, Malzahn turned things around quickly by leading Springdale to state championship appearances in 2002 and 2004 before finally capturing the elusive title in 2005.
His 2005 team was loaded with Division I talent. So when Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt offered Malzahn his vacant offensive coordinator position, people outside of the state of Arkansas were shocked.
This had to be Nutt giving a job to a high school coach to secure its top players, right?
Well, all doubters were quickly silenced. Despite Arkansas only winning four games in the season prior to Malzahn's arrival, the Razorbacks won 10 games and the Western Division crown.
The college football world was shocked, as Arkansas won more games in 2006 than it did over the two previous seasons combined.
For reasons laid out by AL.com, Malzahn left Arkansas after one season to become offensive coordinator at Tulsa. The results were fast and impressive. In his first season as offensive coordinator, the Golden Hurricanes won 10 games and a divisional crown.
Tulsa ranked No. 1 in the nation in total offense with the rare combination of a 5,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher.
Malzahn's second year with the program was just as impressive. Tulsa finished the season 11-3 and as a divisional champion for the second consecutive season.
Tulsa once again was the No. 1 offense in the nation in total yards and the second-highest scoring offense in the history of major college football.
After the successful season, Malzahn packed his bags and headed back to the SEC—this time to the Auburn Tigers, who had fallen on hard times.
However, as is always the case with Malzahn, the hard times didn't last long.
In Malzahn's first season as offensive coordinator at Auburn, the Tigers increased their win total by three games. Moreover, Auburn's scoring offense improved from 110th to 17th with over 33 points per game.
The wide open offense did not go unnoticed by the media and young recruits. Malzahn's offense was one of the primary reasons JUCO transfer Cam Newton would choose Auburn University.
The rest, as they say, is history. The combination of Newton and Malzahn was golden and led to the 2010 BCS National Championship after a perfect 14-0 season.
Malzahn would last one more season in Auburn before accepting his first head coaching job at the college football level. The results? As expected, Malzahn led Arkansas State to a 9-3 record and Sun Belt Conference Championship with a blowout win over Middle Tennessee State in the championship game.
Now Malzahn is back at Auburn. The doubters are back out in full force. They refuse to notice that his offenses were great far before Newton ever stepped on campus.
They refuse to acknowledge that the colleges that Malzahn coached at averaged 5.67 wins the season prior to his arrival and over 10 wins per season during his tenure. They dropped back to 5.3 wins the season after his departure.
Coincidence? Not at all. Malzahn is a winner and can do more with less than almost any of his peers. Auburn will be improved this season and Malzahn will be the reason.
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