The Gus Fuss
Another annual installment of SEC media days has run its course and with its passing also came the latest chapter in one of college football’s greatest success stories: Gus Malzahn has rapidly ascended the coaching ranks while enjoying success all along the way. His outside-the-box approach to offense and masterful play-calling have made him a force to be reckoned with since first emerging onto college football’s stage at the University of Arkansas in 2006. From Arkansas high-school state championships to a national championship at the collegiate level, he’s reached each career highlight at one speed – fast. And his addiction to speed is both feared and reviled by opposing coaches, as was most recently evidenced by first-year Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema:
“You cannot tell me that a player after Play Five is the same player that he is after Play 15,” Bielema said. “If that exposes him to a risk of injury, that’s my fault. And I can’t do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in (with a no-huddle offense) whether I’m on offense or defense.”
Bielema is just latest in a long line of coaches that have measured themselves against the Malzahn standard and grown weary. Nick Saban has also expressed concern over the safety of his players exposed to the circumstances the hurry up offense presents. In fact, Malzahn has coaches on his current staff that have taken similar stances as Bielema and Saban in the past. Anyone remember these words from former South Carolina defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson in 2011? So what is all the fuss about? Well, let’s see how we arrived at this point.
Gus Malzahn’s coaching career began curiously, on the wrong side of the ball. In 1991, he became the defensive coordinator Hughes High School. The very next season he was named head coach of the football team and by 1994, had his team in the state championship game. Malzahn’s aggressive, full-throttle offensive attack (still in its infancy) began turning heads and in 1996 he accepted the head coaching position at Shiloh Christian High School.
While at Shiloh Christian, Malzahn’s offense became even more potent. He led them to back to back state title game appearances in 1998 and 1999 and established the program as having one of the most explosive offenses in the country annually.
In 2001, Malzahn departed Shiloh Christian to accept the head coaching position at Springdale High School. Yet again, he soared. In five seasons he led his team to two state title game appearances, winning one. Gus Malzahn had become a very big fish in a small pond, and it didn’t take long for him to find fresher waters.
Houston Nutt (then head coach at University of Arkansas) tapped Malzahn to be his new offensive coordinator in late 2005. If his new surroundings were intimidating to him, it was hard to tell. Malzahn helped guide the Razorbacks to a 10-4 season and an appearance in the SEC championship game. Malzahn would depart Fayetteville after only one season to join his good friend Todd Graham at the University of Tulsa where he would assume the offensive coordinator position, but his presence would still be felt in the SEC and beyond.
Staying behind in Fayetteville was another one of Malzahn’s longtime friends and fellow coach, David Lee. Lee assumed Malzahn’s vacant offensive coordinator position and kept many facets of the Malzahn offense in the Razorbacks playbook. The most important being the Wildcat. During the 2007 season, Razorback running-backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones ran wild all over defenses utilizing this new running attack. Though the dangerous duo departed for the NFL after that season, the Wildcat was back to stay. Eventually, it also made its way to the NFL. It was more apparent than ever that no defensive coordinator (no matter the level they coached on) was safe from the “mad scientist,” Gus Malzahn.
Meanwhile at Tulsa, Malzahn continued to do what he does best – succeed quickly. His 2007 and 2008 offenses were both ranked number 1 nationally in total offense. He was a red hot candidate and it was only a matter of time before more big schools began to court his services. In late December 2008, Auburn University did just that.
His first stint on The Plains was a successful one to say the least. In his first season (2009), the Tiger offense set many new school records and made vast improvements on the previous season’s numbers. As he’d done so many times in the past; Malzahn moved on, moved up, and succeeded at an alarming pace. If 2009 wasn’t evidence enough, his encore performance the following season silences any doubt one could have still been sheltering.
With Cam Newton leading the way, Malzahn’s 2010 Auburn offense was unstoppable. They led the SEC in every major offensive category and roared to BCS National Championship against another hurry up no huddle offense guru in Chip Kelly and his Oregon Ducks. He was awarded the Broyles Award (honoring the nation’s top assistant coach) and just like that Malzahn seemed possibly poised to take the college football world by storm (again). He would be offered one SEC head coaching position (Vanderbilt), but he declined.
Cut to 2011 and a disappointing campaign for Auburn. Though there were concerns over player depth and inexperience heading into the season, the outcome was still much worse than many expected. By season’s end, head coach Gene Chizik was under major scrutiny and with the situation deteriorating Malzahn accepted the head coaching position at Arkansas St. University. Just like all of his offenses he had ever coached, Malzahn was on the move again.
2012 was another reminder (as if anybody needed one) that Gus Malzahn has what it takes to be a great head coach. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record overall and the top spot in their conference. His departure from the Plains of Auburn would be temporary though, as less than a full calendar year after leaving, he accepted the job as the next head coach of the Auburn Tigers.
Malzahn quickly set his sights on assembling an excellent coaching staff and he did just that. Auburn fans are more excited than ever about the future of the football program. That is based in large part on the reputation Gus Malzahn brings with him. He is going to do things right and he is going to do them quickly and efficiently. Emphasis on the quick.
Gus Malzahn is a self-built man and has truly made his own unique path to the top ranks of college football. His knowledge of the game combined with his vision and innovation put him at the forefront of the next generation of college football. So when I hear other coaches like Arkansas’ Bret Bielema declare that he favors “normal American football,” I’d like for him to elaborate on what characteristics or traits something needs to possess in order to be considered normal and American. Just comparing body of work and commentary; I would identify the man who has invented and innovated as the “normal American,” instead of the man who simply wants to blame the system for his failures.
So what do we take from all of this?
Well for starters, Bret Bielema likely draws the line of offensive progress somewhere between the forward pass being legalized and goal posts being moved out of the endzone. Vocal coaches are a good thing overall for college football in my opinion, but Bielema has put himself in tough position here. He’s inherited a mess at Arkansas and talking about Cinderella-over-the-rainbow-never-going-to-happen rule changes isn’t going to fix any of the problems within his own program.
Nick Saban should give up on anyone sympathizing with him in any way. You are the head coach of the number one team in college football for the past 3+ years (minus 2010), act like it. You are supposed to be the one telling everyone they have to deal with the rules the way they are and to suck it up. Oh wait! When it comes to oversigning players and completely abusing NCAA scholarship restrictions and medical redshirts you already do! I’m actually surprised Nick Saban hasn’t capitalized on the inhumane act of one having to defend something as horrible as the hurry up offense by handing out medical redshirts on the sideline as players run off the field after 14 snaps in a row. Or is it 15? Doesn’t matter, I’m sure you haven’t approved the final draft of the media guide just yet.