A trying season at Arkansas shaped Gus Malzahn as a coach

Gus Malzahn was hired from the high school coaching ranks to become Arkansas' offensive coordinator in 2006, bringing several players from his dominant 2005 team. April L. Brown/AP Photo

Gus Malzahn still remembers the 2006 season, his first in college football. He remembers the "wow" moment when he stood across the sideline from Steve Spurrier, one of his coaching heroes. Malzahn wore a visor that game, a look that began when he was a high school coach and continued until just recently, because he wanted to emulate Spurrier's trademark look.

That same season, Malzahn also matched wits with Pete Caroll, Les Miles and Urban Meyer.

It was a dream come true for Malzahn. He had made the jump straight from coaching high school football to calling plays in the SEC as the Arkansas offensive coordinator. That type of jump was rare back then, and it's almost unheard of today.

However, by the end of the season, Malzahn was ready to move on. He left Arkansas, an SEC school in his home state to take the same position at Tulsa.

Why? It wasn't a promotion. It wasn't even a lateral move.

" I think it was a deal of having common philosophy in our values and how we run a program and what we believed in, and it was great combination," former Tulsa and current Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.

Ten years later, Malzahn hasn't forgotten that season. Those experiences, both good and bad, helped make him the coach that he is today.

To understand what happened in 2006, you have to first understand how Malzahn arrived in Fayetteville. Before taking the job, he was one of the winningest high school football coaches in the state of Arkansas. He won at every stop during his 14 years as a high school head coach -- Hughes, Shiloh Christian, Springdale -- and turned down college job offers after the 2003 and 2004 seasons. In 2005, his Springdale team went 14-0, outscored their opponents 664-118 and captured the Class 5A state championship.

At Arkansas, head coach Houston Nutt was coming off back-to-back losing seasons in 2004 and 2005. He had served as his own offensive coordinator his first eight seasons with the Razorbacks, but there was pressure to make a change. People inside the program, including athletic director Frank Broyles, wanted to bring Malzahn in to run the offense.

"[Broyles] said the thing that would be really good for this state right now would be to hire Gus Malzahn," Nutt said. "I visited with Gus. I was impressed with him. I was impressed with some of the things he did in high school. I said 'OK, that's probably going to work.'

"He also had five good players with him."

Those five players, or the "Springdale Five" as they were called, played no small part in why Arkansas hired Malzahn. Nutt couldn't afford to let elite-level recruits leave the state, and they were planning to leave. Mitch Mustain, the 2005 Gatorade National Player of the Year, wanted to commit to either Notre Dame or Texas. Ben Cleveland and Damian Williams both committed early to Florida, and Bartley Webb was already committed to the Fighting Irish.

Malzahn changed all that. Mustain, Cleveland, Williams and fellow Springdale teammate Andrew Norman all signed with the Razorbacks in 2006 as a result of his hire. Only Webb stuck with his original commitment and signed with Notre Dame.

"The only reason we went to the University of Arkansas was because of Malzahn," Cleveland said.

If the 2006 season was to be judged solely by results, then it would've been a smashing success for Malzahn and that entire Arkansas team. After losing the opener to USC, the Razorbacks won 10 straight games, won the SEC West and played in SEC championship game.

No Arkansas team has made it to Atlanta since.

But nobody realized what was going on behind the scenes. The arrival of Malzahn led to a division in the locker room between the Springdale group and other members of the team. There were unhappy players and unhappy parents, who complained about playing time, which often was not Malzahn's call. It was not what he signed up for when he left high school football to take his shot in college.

"You were the God of Arkansas and now you're the offensive coordinator," Cleveland said. "That's a lot of pressure. And then on top of that, you brought in four of your kids that look up to you, trusted you and he has no control over it. It makes him look like a bad person.

"It was hard. You could see he was frustrated."

On the field, it wasn't much better. Malzahn wanted to run his hurry-up, no-huddle offense on every drive, but Nutt's style had always been to huddle and he wasn't willing to give up on that. So they did it both ways. At times, they'd go fast and run Malzahn's tempo. Other times, they'd slow it down and huddle.

"We never really had an argument," Nutt said, "because I would always say, 'Hey this is what we want. I know the ideas that you had. You want to be a little bit more up-tempo and you want to throw the ball. But here are your playmakers.'"

"Even though everybody might have had a different opinion on what was the best way to go about doing it, when we got to practice and we got to Saturday, everybody was extremely professional," added Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, a graduate assistant at Arkansas that year. "There were never any blowups or anything like that. We all pulled in the same direction, and I think that's why we were able to win the West."

After the bowl game, Malzahn resigned and left for Tulsa. Andrew Norman, one of his former players, followed him there. Both Mustain and Williams transferred to USC. The only Springdale player who remained at Arkansas was Cleveland.

On Saturday, Malzahn will coach against the same Arkansas program that gave him his start in college football 10 years ago.

"It feels like a long time ago," Malzahn said recently. "Maybe a couple years ago it didn't, but now it feels like a long time ago.

"Any time you do something new, you learn on the go. You learn a lot about college football. That first year, I learned a lot about myself. Any time you take the next step to the next level, you're confident but you have questions. Will this really work at this level? Well you don't know until you do it. You don't just tell nobody that."

It did work. It might not have worked the way he wanted at Arkansas that first year, but it worked at Tulsa in 2007 and 2008 when his offenses put up more yards than any team in the country. It worked the first time at Auburn when he was offensive coordinator and played an integral role in the Tigers' 2010 national championship. It worked at Arkansas State in 2012 when he won a conference championship his first year as a head coach.

And it's still working for Malzahn, now in his fourth year as Auburn's head coach.

"When you're in this competitive league, one of the toughest leagues in America, it's not easy," Nutt said. "If you look now, he's not calling plays. That was what he was known for. So he's delegating responsibility, and he's trying to do the best he can."

Handing the playcalling duties over to Lashlee was the latest proof that Malzahn has evolved as a coach. He better understands the rigors of recruiting and the daily grind it takes to do this job. He's even letting his players wear wristbands and gloves, and letting them listen to music in the locker room. He never would've done that when he was coaching in high school.

In a lot of ways, though, he's the same coach he was 10 years ago.

"To be honest with you, the thing about Coach that probably stands out the most is he's very consistent," Lashlee said. "He is who he is. He's business. He's focused on pretty much the one thing that he's doing at the time. And he's a perfectionist. That's the way he is and that's the way he kind of coaches, and it carries over to his players.

"He was that way in high school, and he never really changed when he went to college. I think that's probably one of the main reasons he's been successful. He's stayed true to himself."