Thursday, October 3, 2013
Freeze, Malzahn take similar paths
By Edward Aschoff
The story has already made its rounds throughout SEC country, but it doesn't make it any less remarkable.
Gus Malzahn spent 14 years as a high school coach before landing a job in the SEC.
This spring, two coaches who never thought they'd have any business stepping on -- let alone playing -- one of golf's most storied courses passed each other on the fairway and shared a special moment as they gazed out onto the hallowed grounds that most people only dream of seeing.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze then turned to new Auburn coach and longtime buddy Gus Malzahn and delivered a line too perfect for the moment: “Did you ever think two boys like us would be playing Augusta National?”
Saturday, they'll put their down their putters and face each other as SEC head coaches after taking eerily similar roads to meeting under the bright lights of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Equipped with similar up-tempo, spread-type offenses, both rose from the high school ranks to get their first FBS head-coaching jobs at Arkansas State, before landing big-time SEC gigs.
Neither took traditional routes to their current jobs. After 14 years as a high school coach in his home state of Arkansas, Malzahn spent six years as a college offensive coordinator. Three came at Auburn before he followed Freeze as Arkansas State’s head coach.
Freeze spent 13 years at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tenn., as a teacher, coach and administrator before heading to Ole Miss to be an assistant from 2005-07. He was then head coach at Lambuth University for two years and spent a couple of month's as San Jose State's offensive coordinator before becoming Arkansas State's offensive coordinator in 2010 and head coach in 2011.
Nine years after both were high school coaches they are battling in the country's toughest football conference.
"I've gotten to the point in life where hardly anything is very weird anymore," Freeze said.
What isn’t weird is that Freeze and Malzahn have created some fans along the way, including the man both have admired since their early coaching days.
"I don't mind saying that both those guys are two of my favorite coaches," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "They both wear visors and they both call the plays. They run the show with their teams."
(Rumor has it both started the visor wearing because of Spurrier.)
To Malzahn, he's just grateful of where he is right now.
"There are a lot of great high school coaches out there that can be very successful in college; they just haven’t been given the opportunity,” Malzahn said. “Hugh and I have talked about that numerous times, that we feel blessed we were given opportunities.”
Their friendship began while on the high school circuit in the late 1990s. Malzahn was at Shiloh Christian in Arkansas, while Freeze was at Briarcrest Christian. Malzahn was leaving to coach at Springdale High when he found out Freeze was interested in his old job.
"There were some phone conversations," Freeze said about the Shiloh Christian opening. "I never got to the point where I went over there."
Freeze didn't get the job, but both kept in constant contact and grew closer when Freeze was an assistant at Ole Miss and Malzahn was Arkansas' offensive coordinator in 2006. They would meet again when Freeze was leaving Arkansas State and Malzahn was just arriving.
After a long high school career and a stop at Arkansas State, Hugh Freeze is quickly putting Ole Miss back on the right track.
"He is definitely a friend," Malzahn said of Freeze. "He is one of my best friends in this business."
That friendship will intersect in a competitive atmosphere for the first time Saturday. While the two communicate often during the offseason and about once a week during the season, there has been radio silence between the two this week outside of a short text message exchange Sunday.
"We've shared many times that we wished we weren't in the same half of this conference," Freeze said.
Saturday won't be easy for either coach, but their very humble beginnings have brought them to this moment, and their success could serve as a real jump start for other aspiring high school coaches.
"High school coaches are some of the best coaches in the country," said Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who is friends with both Freeze and Malzahn and was a successful high school coach in Texas. "They have to do it all.
"So what you’re seeing is those top-tier high school guys have done a great job of balancing it and managing it, and they provide you that knowledge, they provide you the ability to relate to the high school players and they know so many of the high school coaches. I think it’s only going to continue to grow."
Seeing each other on opposite sidelines will be tough for both coaches, but it won't hinder their focus. Both have come too far to let emotion stand in the way of taking another promising step forward.
“You just have a job to do," Malzahn said. "You have to do whatever is best to help your team win and after the game we will get back to normal. This is a big game for both of us and we both understand that. Like I said, after the game we will go back to normal.”