by Chris Bahn
Posted 7/17/2012 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
Each stop of a spring speaking tour provided Gus Malzahn with an opportunity to sell his vision for Arkansas State football.
Searcy was the first town on the statewide journey where Malzahn delivered his message of building a consistent Top 25 program. In Little Rock supporters heard his hopes of bringing the Red Wolves to play in War Memorial Stadium. From the Ozarks to Delta he had a chance to build relationships with potential ASU donors and players.
Those 14 speaking engagements and the 1,100 miles in between also gave Malzahn plenty of time to reflect.
Malzahn traveled the same roads during his tenure as a high school coach in Arkansas. They were his path to seven state title game appearances and three championships.
“These are my roots,” Malzahn said. “I got the opportunity to go into college six years ago and it’s been a blessing, but the foundation and my identity are being an Arkansas high school football coach.”
An Arkansas high school coach with a BCS title and a national reputation in college football.
Many of the same qualities that led Malzahn to success at the prep level helped him succeed as an offensive coordinator in college. Now he has his shot at proving his offensive philosophies, big vision and drive to succeed can build the Red Wolves into a consistent winner.
Arkansas State has seen a 60 percent increase in season ticket sales over this time last year. That jump came despite offering season ticket packages nearly three months later than for the 2011 season.
New fans seem to be joining the die-hards. And no Red Wolves fan is more of a diehard than Gov. Mike Beebe.
Beebe, who helped sell Malzahn on the idea of coming to Arkansas State from Auburn, is among the new coach’s biggest fans. As far as the state’s top politician is concerned, Malzahn’s reputation is well deserved.
“He’s everything I thought he was and then some,” Beebe said. “He’s driven. He’s enthusiastic. He’s impatient. He’s obviously good with the Xs and the Os and the football and the analysis, but he’s also good with people and he’s got a great work ethic. ... He’s big-time.”
Malzahn was considered one of the hottest names in college coaching before arriving at ASU. His $850,000 salary makes him the highest paid coach in the Sun Belt conference and he could have commanded more than $1 million in salary to run a larger program or serve as an offensive coordinator at a larger program.
Vanderbilt and Maryland came calling after the 2010 national championship season at Auburn. Malzahn passed, waiting for another opportunity.
Auburn paid him $1.3 million last year. Defensive coordinators across the SEC hated facing his teams.
Yet the 2011 Broyles Award winner, given annually to the nation’s top assistant coach, says he identifies best with guys who run the state’s 215 high school football programs.
Many of those coaches still consider Malzahn one of their own.
“I think he enjoyed the journey,” Pulaski Academy Coach Kevin Kelley said. “I think he takes some pride in the fact he learned it on his own or learned it from high school coaches.”
Progress happens slowly in an east Arkansas farming community like Hughes. In some ways the town is very much like it was two decades ago when Malzahn began his coaching career.
That isn’t why Michael Bradley, former Hughes Blue Devils fullback, still keeps a VCR around the house, however. Bradley has plenty of technology at his disposal, but enjoys having a way to watch his old game tapes.
Bradley, who farms with his father, was part of the Blue Devils team that Malzahn coached to the 1994 state title game. Bradley still marvels at what he sees on tape.
“It’s amazing to watch,” Bradley said. “What really stands out is how well we executed. That’s got a lot to do with how detailed he was. We were very disciplined. You did your job or you didn’t have it long.”
Attention to detail has always been one of Malzahn’s strong suits. He leaves little to chance and does not respond well when things don’t go according to plan.
Malzahn isn’t above benching a player as Bradley recalls. That’s one example of what happens when the coach perceives someone being sloppy.
ASU offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has plenty of others. Lashlee has played for and worked alongside Malzahn and knows his boss’ commitment to perfection as well as anyone.
Lashlee was a quarterback at Shiloh Christian in 2000 when he learned that lesson after a late interception against Charleston in a state semifinal game.
While the miscue wound up having little impact on the outcome, and likely wasn’t going to have an impact on the outcome, Malzahn was livid. Lashlee was walking toward the sidelines when an assistant coach met the quarterback on the field and escorted him to an area as far from Malzahn as possible. Two other assistants had to restrain Malzahn after the interception.
“He told me he wanted to kill me and I think he meant it,” Lashlee said. “You laugh at those moments now, but it tells you a lot about the way he is. He never wanted us to settle for average or good.”
Arkansas State players have seen that quality in their coach already. Malzahn rarely seemed pleased with what he interpreted as a lack of attention to detail from the Red Wolves early in spring camp.
Little things often caught Malzahn’s watchful eye. Criticism wasn’t limited to the execution of a play or its net result. Maybe a run netted 6 yards, but had all 11 players done their job it could have been a 60-yard touchdown.
Players quickly learned to pay attention to everything. Even the way the Red Wolves broke a huddle and worked their way to the line of scrimmage mattered.
“It’s the little things we do that will put us over the edge and make us the best team possible. We know he’s going to harp on that every day,” quarterback Ryan Aplin said. “We have to get that right.”
(Meet more familiar names coming back to push Arkansas State to the next level. Michael Dyer, John Thompson and J.B. Grimes all punch their return ticket in the digital edition of ArkansasSports360.com's 2012 Football Preview.)
Not only do ASU players have to get it right, they have to do it a frenetic pace.
And the Red Wolves entered the spring thinking they knew what up-tempo meant.
Hugh Freeze significantly changed the pace the Red Wolves played on offense in his two seasons at the school. Freeze spent a season as offensive coordinator, then worked as head coach as Arkansas State and finished the season among the nation’s best in total offense (No. 24) and passing offense (No. 16). Aplin quickly worked his way up to the top of the school record for single-season passing offense and total offense.
During the Red Wolves’ 10-win season in 2011, they averaged 32.4 points per game. In Freeze’s first season at ASU the offense averaged 403.4 yards per game.
The foundation for Freeze’s success was a version of Gus Malzahn’s Hurry-Up, No-Huddle offense.
That was Freeze’s version. It apparently has nothing on Malzahn’s version.
Arkansas State players are still catching their breath after going through a spring with Malzahn at the helm.
“It’s like on fast-forward it seems like sometimes,” defensive back Chaz Scales said. “… It’s no-huddle, a rapid pace.”
It’s fair to say the offense hasn’t yet been seen in its purest and most rapid form since Malzahn’s days in high school. College head coaches have been leery of total selling out to it in full.
Results at his college stops suggest success is possible when even small parts of the offense are implemented.
Running back Darren McFadden was a Heisman runner up at Arkansas in Malzahn’s one and only season with the Razorbacks. Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith set NCAA passing records under Malzahn. Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to a BCS title with Malzahn running the show.
Auburn set nine school records in 2010. In two years the Tigers improved from 110th in scoring offense to 7th. Tulsa topped the nation in total offense in 2007 and 2008, Malzahn’s only two years with the Hurricane.
NFL coaches have adapted elements of the philosophy. Colleges — not just small schools — are running no-huddle.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is was a high school coach in Texas when he visited Malzahn at Springdale High and uses many of the principles today that he learned in 2002. Morris, who recently became the highest paid offensive coordinator in college football at $1.5 million a year, describes Malzahn’s philosophy as “cutting edge.”
A system ridiculed in 2006 by some Arkansas staff members as “high school” is now widely respected. Malzahn will admit — with some prodding — that he gets a sense of satisfaction in seeing his offense used at all levels of football.
“It’s fun to watch, you know?” Malzahn said.
Malzahn has proven his offensive philosophy can work at the college level. Now he gets to test his overall vision for building and sustaining a FBS program.
Arkansas State enjoyed its best season in decades by winning 10 and appearing in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Entering the bowl the Red Wolves were just outside the Top 25.
Malzahn envisions a team that routinely wins the Sun Belt. He’s made no secret of his desire to get the program consistently ranked.
Little in ASU’s history as a FBS program suggests prolonged success is possible.
Of course little in Hughes’ history suggested a trip to the 1994 title game was possible. Bradley heard Malzahn talk and saw it materialize into the school’s deepest playoff run ever.
Plenty were skeptical when he decided to scrap a more traditional offense at Shiloh Christian in favor of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Eventually, it led to national notoriety on the convention circuit, a book/video deal and, eventually, a college coaching career.
Lashlee heard the vision for a national program at Shiloh Christian, a tiny private school in Northwest Arkansas. He was part of making that a reality, then worked as a graduate assistant when Malzahn put together record-setting offenses at Arkansas and Auburn.
“Whatever he does, he wants to do it big and do it better than anybody else,” Lashlee said. “I think whatever he’s done, and for the most part it’s been football, he’s just so determined he’s going to do whatever it takes to succeed.”
(Will Arkansas State reign for a second year atop the Sun Belt Conference? Mickey Ryan looks at the Red Wolves' chances and Rick Harvey looks at ASU's detractors in the digital edition of ArkansasSports360.com's 2012 Football Preview.)
Arkansas State caught a glimpse in February of how the approach works. Red Wolves coaches needed less than a month to put together the best recruiting class in school history. They signed 18 players rated three stars or higher by recruiting services, a haul Malzahn was quick to point out would have been welcome at a number of Big 12 or SEC schools.
It’s a group that includes a Parade All-American, an Under Armor game participant and an ESPN Top 150 player. Blend those players with returning starters and it is easy to understand the optimism in Jonesboro.
Still, Malzahn has his detractors.
Some question whether the Red Wolves can be anything more than a one-year wonder. Others hear Malzahn talk of building a program, but doubt he’ll be around long enough to make a long-lasting impact.
From Hughes to Springdale, Arkansas to Auburn, the approach has worked. Malzahn has the wins and records to prove it works.
So when doubters surface, Malzahn isn’t distracted.
“We have big goals and big dreams,” Malzahn said. “I’ve always been a dreamer, whether it’s high school or college I truly believe you set your goals up high. I believe the only people that fail is this world are people that don’t set their goals high enough.
“Sure, there are some funny looks from other people, but I believe setting big goals is contagious. It’s a philosophy that has worked for me.”