AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn might have been born in Texas, but he spent the majority of his life in nearby Arkansas.
The first-year head coach in the SEC attended Fort Smith (Ark.) Christian High School. He walked on to the University of Arkansas as a wide receiver but transferred to Henderson State after two seasons. He coached 15 years of high school football in his home state before becoming the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator in 2006, his first college job.
After coaching stints with Tulsa and Auburn, Malzahn returned home in 2012 when he accepted the head-coaching position at Arkansas State. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record and the Sun Belt championship (he did not coach their bowl win over Kent State).
It came as no surprise that Malzahn’s name came up when his alma mater was searching for a new coach after last season. He had interviewed at Arkansas once before, following Houston Nutt’s departure, but the job went to Bobby Petrino. This time, the Razorbacks passed on him in favor of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.
On the same day, Bielema was hired in Fayetteville, Ark., Malzahn was introduced as Auburn’s new coach.
Now, nearly 11 months later, Malzahn is 7-1 and has the Tigers in control of their own destiny in the SEC West, while Bielema has yet to win an SEC game. On Saturday, the two will meet for the first time as head coaches.
“Right now, with where are going each week, we’re trying to do everything in our power to win,” Malzahn said. “It doesn’t make any difference if we are going to Arkansas or going to [Texas] A&M or anywhere else. There’s enough to it without anything else added to it.”
But don’t think Malzahn didn’t have this game circled on the calendar when he took over on the Plains. It’s his fourth trip back to Fayetteville since leaving in 2006, and he’s yet to win as an opposing coach inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, losing twice at Auburn (2009 and 2011) and once at Tulsa (2008).
However, Malzahn isn’t want to let his emotions get the best of him or his team.
“Coach is old-school,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “He’s going to treat it like another game. I don’t think he’s going to worry about anything as far as personally for him. I think he’s going to treat it like an SEC game, and he knows how important this four-game stretch is. It’s just like any other SEC game to him.”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows Malzahn better than anybody. He’s been his right-hand man since the two were at Springdale (Ark.) High School together nearly a decade ago.
“Coach is pretty locked in all the time,” Lashlee said. “I would think these next several weeks are going to be pretty amped-up no matter what. Let’s be honest, it’s a place we’re from and we’ve been before. It’s a big game, but it’s a big game because we have a lot of opportunity out in front of us.
“I have known coach, and back in high school it didn’t matter who we were playing, he prepared the same way. That’s what I anticipate we’ll do.”
Malzahn and Lashlee aren’t the only two coaches who will have more friends and family in attendance than normal come Saturday. It’s also a homecoming for running backs coach Tim Horton and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, who both coached for Arkansas at one time or another during their careers.
“I’ve been there and done it before,” Malzahn said. “Those guys, a lot of them haven’t. We hadn’t really talked about it. We’ve been focused on preparing and trying to give our guys the best chance of being successful.”
There will continue to be plenty of talk this week surrounding Malzahn’s return. Regardless of what he says, there’s going to be extra emotion leading up to the game. But come Saturday, it’s about winning the next game on the schedule.
That would make for the perfect homecoming.