NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – He stepped off the first of three Auburn buses, walking past photographers chronicling his every move.
Gus Malzahn came and went quickly, following the narrative of his career and this first season as the Tigers’ head coach, in which he won the Southeastern Conference championship and led the Tigers to the BCS title game.
“A blessing,” he has called it more than once, “for me to be coaching in this game.”
Malzahn has climbed the college coaching ladder quickly. He held five jobs in eight seasons before reaching the brink of the mountaintop. His hurry-up, spread offense is the envy of opposing fans and the worry of defensive coordinators, and last month he was named national coach of the year and signed a contract extension that will pay him at least $3.85 million per season.
But maybe none of it would have happened if he hadn’t bet big on a lucky hand, orchestrating a move from high school coach in northwest Arkansas to a high-level position at the University of Arkansas.
“There’s a lot of coaches who could be doing this,” Malzahn, 48, said Saturday, about an hour south of the Rose Bowl, where the Tigers will face No. 1 Florida State on Monday night. “I’ve been in the right situation time and time again.”
In 2005, a talented crop of players at Arkansas’s Springdale High began their senior season. Determined to keep the team’s best recruits, a group known as the “Springdale Five” from leaving the state, then-Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt hired Malzahn, the team’s head coach — and a man the players were loyal to — as offensive coordinator. Arkansas landed four of the five, including quarterback Mitch Mustain, who at the time was ranked as one of the nation’s top 10 prospects.
“They knew that we had a good relationship with him,” Mustain said this past week. “They knew that we trusted him.”
On Saturday, Malzahn moved one day closer to possibly advancing a rise already difficult to believe. It all began with the right mix of luck, strategy and timing.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time,” said Charlie Patrick, who gave Malzahn his first coaching job in 1991. “Everything has just fallen right for him.”
In 2004, Malzahn entered his Springdale team in a seven-on-seven football tournament in Hoover, Ala., where the Bulldogs would test themselves against some of the nation’s best high school teams.
“We’re going: ‘What in the world are we doing here? We’re going to get killed,’ ” Mustain recalled.
Three years earlier, Springdale’s legendary coach, Jarrell Williams, had retired. Williams’s longtime defensive coordinator, Kerry Winberry, wanted the job, but the school instead hired a bookish man with some unusual philosophies. Malzahn had been at nearby Shiloh High, where Winberry’s defense had struggled to stop Malzahn’s up-tempo scheme.
Almost immediately, Malzahn instructed his staff — Winberry agreed to stay on as coordinator — to remove the complexity from the game. Ten defensive coverages were trimmed to three; a large offensive playbook was condensed, with some plays being run a dozen times per game.
“He wanted everything simple,” said Winberry, who admitted clashing with Malzahn in those early days.
The reason was so the players, whether at Springdale or at a middle school that fed into Springdale, could grasp his spread offense quickly; to Malzahn, five perfectly executed plays is better than a dozen sloppy ones. Malzahn visited Southwest Junior High, introducing his offense to a group of eighth-graders. Mustain was among them, and he said he was surprised at its simplicity.
“ ‘This is what we do, this is how we do it,’ ” Mustain recalled Malzahn as saying. “From day one, literally, this is what we did.”
By the time Mustain and his talented teammates reached Springdale, they knew the offense. It was a matter of mastering it. Mustain said it was common to run the same play 15 or 20 times, Malzahn lining up at defensive back to show a receiver what to expect. If Mustain took a four-step drop instead of three, or if a motion man was an instant too slow or fast, or if a receiver ran 22 yards on his route instead of 20, Malzahn would stop everything so they could run it again.
“We’d run it, and run it, and run it,” Mustain said. “It looks complicated, but it’s not. There’s just so much work in it. There’s a lot of parts moving and moving really fast. You walk through it and you run it till you’re nauseous.”
In August 2004, that first group of eighth-graders had become high school juniors who dominated the big boys and returned to northwest Arkansas with the seven-on-seven championship.
Not long after the tournament, Mustain was told that the University of Arkansas wanted him. Later, the Razorbacks offered scholarships to wide receivers Damian Williams and Andrew Norman, left tackle Bartley Webb and tight end Ben Cleveland.
Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles, the team’s legendary former coach, attended many of Springdale’s home games, Winberry said, and it was pointed out often that Razorback Stadium was only 10 miles south of Springdale.
“We were all looking for a reason to play here,” Mustain said of Arkansas.
Malzahn again wanted simplicity, and he instructed his best players to commit to colleges before their senior season to avoid distractions. Mustain and Norman pledged to the Razorbacks, but Williams and Cleveland committed to Florida. Webb planned to attend Notre Dame. With the business done, Springdale won that season’s state championship. But on the day of the title game, Malzahn called Mustain into his office, telling him that Arkansas had fired offensive coordinator Roy Wittke after a 4-7 season. Sensing a developing mess, Mustain decommitted nearly four months before National Signing Day.
Arkansas was left to scramble.
“That was a catalyst to look around and say, ‘We need to lock this up.’ It’s embarrassing if five guys from your back yard go to Texas or Notre Dame,” said Mustain, who was named Parade Magazine’s national player of the year in 2005. “I think they figured, ‘We need to do whatever they can to get this done.’ ”
Nutt offered to bring Malzahn on his staff as a coordinator — a rare jump for even the most accomplished high school coach — and allow him to bring his offense to the SEC. On Saturday, Malzahn was asked if he angled for the job or if Arkansas pursued him. “A combination of both,” the famously tight-lipped coach said.
Malzahn again called Mustain into his office. This time, the news was better, and Malzahn began the recruiting pitch to his own quarterback. Mustain renewed his commitment to Arkansas, and Norman, Williams and Cleveland agreed to keep the band mostly together. Only Webb strayed, signing with Notre Dame.
“Gus,” Mustain said of the four players’ decisions, “had everything to do with it.”
Almost immediately, the players sensed that they’d made a mistake. Nutt wouldn’t allow Malzahn to implement his offense, saying it was too complicated — even though a group of eighth-graders had learned it — and although Mustain was named the starting quarterback early in his freshman season, Nutt would later bench him as the team moved toward a run-based offense, distancing itself from Malzahn’s spread.
After the season, in which the Razorbacks finished 10-4, most of the Springdale representation began leaving Fayetteville.
Mustain and Williams transferred to Southern California. Malzahn took a job at Tulsa as co-offensive coordinator, and Norman followed him, though he would eventually return to Arkansas. Only Cleveland remained with the Razorbacks. “Arkansas didn’t work for any of us,” Mustain said.
But Malzahn’s big play had worked. Although most of the players’ careers were disappointing — Williams was the only one to reach the NFL — their coach had executed his most impressive game plan. He was Auburn’s coordinator in 2010, when the Tigers won the BCS championship, and after one season as Arkansas State’s head coach, Auburn hired him in December 2012 to lead its football team.
Mustain, who’s now pursuing a career in arena football, said he harbors no resentment toward his successful former coach; instead, he said Malzahn’s success validates so many decisions to leave Arkansas. It wasn’t Malzahn’s system that was broken, Mustain said; the problems were deeper. Nutt resigned after the 2007 season.
“The reason it doesn’t bother me is I think he went into it with full faith, that he was going be able to take care of it,” Mustain said of Malzahn. “He gave us the pitch based on that. Had he deceived us, if he saw it as a step, then that’s a whole different deal. I just don’t see that.”
Mustain said he wouldn’t be in Pasadena on Monday to watch his former coach’s team, but he will watch it. And, he said, he’ll be supporting Malzahn — despite that, of all the names among the Springdale Five, their coach’s is now the most famous.
“It’s been a very odd journey from start to finish, for all of us,” Mustain said.