- Kevin Van Valkenburg, Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
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Early one afternoon in the fall of 2005, 17-year-old Mitch Mustain -- who at the time was a senior at Springdale High School in Arkansas, and widely considered the best high school quarterback in the United States -- decided he was going to take advantage of a free period between classes and pop into the small office occupied by his high school football coach, Gus Malzahn.
Mustain, in the midst of arguably the greatest season in the history of Arkansas prep football, had been going over Malzahn's scouting report for one of Springdale's upcoming opponents. Though he felt as if he had it more or less memorized, it was always fun to pick Coach Malzahn's brain for hidden insights. Malzahn could remember tiny details from plays, and the flaws that were their undoing, even if they had occurred years ago. His mind, his players had learned, was like a digital archive.
Before he entered Malzahn's office, Mustain took a peek through the tiny rectangular window in the door. It's hard to explain why he did it. A part of Mustain wanted to catch a glimpse of his coach hard at work, unaware he was being watched or studied by one of his students. A part of him wanted to witness something he could tease Malzahn about. The coach could be deathly serious on the practice field, and a little levity in a season where pressure and expectations had intensified to unreasonable levels couldn't hurt. Instead, it was a bit like stumbling upon John Nash during the scene in "A Beautiful Mind" when the professor is scribbling on walls, furiously trying to crack codes only he can see or begin to understand.
Malzahn was bent over, his face six inches from his desktop, carefully arranging eight different colored Sharpies until they were perfectly aligned. He then proceeded to diagram his play sheets on manila folders, tracing and retracing (then outlining!) the letters and numbers into the codes that Springdale would use to call plays in its hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
"I think that scene absolutely reflects him perfectly," Mustain said. "Every single bar he drew had to be perfect, then it had to be outlined, or he was starting over. He could have had some graduate assistant do it, but instead he insisted he do it himself. I've said this a million times before, but there is really nothing you can do but keep repeating it: His mind is extraordinary."
Gus Malzahn is not a genius. And no one is more adamant about this than Gus Malzahn.
He cringes, in fact, whenever he hears the word attached to his name. When a reporter brings it up on a recent visit to his current office -- an office with wall-to-floor windows overlooking part of Auburn University's campus -- Malzahn wants to know the names of the foolish people who were uttering it. When informed his own players, current and former, are the guilty parties, he rolls his eyes and breathes deeply out his nose. He's sitting at a table next to his desk, surrounded by dog-eared notebooks, multicolored Sharpies and manila folders. It's the rare compliment that only serves to annoy. Agree, and you label yourself as an egomaniac. Dismiss it, and it feels you're being ungrateful. Eventually, he musters an answer. "I don't see myself that way at all," he said. "It's just silly."
Malzahn is correct, of course. It must be insulting if you're a brilliant professor, scientist or mathematician tirelessly working to cure, say, cancer through the use of formulas, algorithms and theorems, and you turn on your television each weekend and hear a football coach repeatedly described as a genius.
But with Auburn facing Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Monday, with the Tigers just one year removed from going 3-9, most of the college football world is still struggling to find the right way to describe how Malzahn, just seven years removed from coaching high school football in Northwest Arkansas, has outsmarted so many of his more experienced peers. "He's a football junkie," said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead. "He's always finding a way to outthink people. I don't think he'll ever get bored the way some coaches do, because he's so smart. He sees everything."
Genius as a description is lazy, a quick placeholder compliment when there's no time to dive into the nuances. But there is no doubt every piece of Malzahn's madcap, accelerator-to-the-floor offensive philosophy is a reflection of his personality. Away from the football field, Malzahn is polite and soft-spoken. He answers questions with the cadence and the honey-infused drawl of a Southern Mister Rogers. But there is an intensity always simmering just beneath the surface.
The story of how he arrived at the summit of college football might be a story of last-second miracle victories, tipped passes, sideline tightrope walks and fortuitous bounces. But it's also the story of an architect who can't put down his pencil, and is driven by a mixture of impatience, the obsessive pursuit of perfection and the desire to prove a man can, if he ignores convention, build a better mousetrap.
To really understand it, you have to see how every piece of the foundation was built.
There is a Southern colloquialism that frequently sneaks its way into Gus Malzahn's sentences, whether he's describing his own emotions or those of one of his players. To be obsessed with something isn't to be consumed by it. In Malzahn's world, you are instead eat up with it. As a young boy growing up in Fort Smith, Ark., Mazlahn wasn't just captivated by sports. He was eat up with 'em.
He would spend hours that bled into full days throwing a baseball against a brick wall. He would plant himself in front of his television and obsessively study Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys, then lie in bed at night reconstructing route combinations. His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, but eventually his mother remarried, and his stepfather, a salesman named Ray Ruhman, forged a connection with his stoic stepson on the baseball diamond. "He was fairly tough, big on discipline, but at the same time, he wanted us to play catch and do all the things that fathers and sons are supposed to do," Malzahn said. "It had a big influence on me."
He was a good athlete, but not a great one. It's easy for him to see that now, to understand it and fully digest how it shaped everything in his life that was still to come. A more pragmatic person might have broadened his worldview, prepared for a life outside the painted lines. But Malzahn, whose family was always a few rungs short of middle class, had no dreams outside of sports. He simply couldn't conceive of a future that didn't revolve around them. And when it came to football, he was plum eat up with it. When he wasn't playing the sport, he was coaching it, even as a teenager. When he turned 15, he volunteered to coach a youth football team run by the local Boys Club. He knew, even then, it was what he wanted to do with his life.
"Everybody told me, 'Oh you'll have trouble supporting your family, you'll never be able to get a job.'" Malzahn said. "I didn't care. I really didn't. That's what I wanted to do. I just wouldn't be good at anything else."
He graduated from Fort Smith Christian High School in 1984, but the opportunities to play college football were limited for a lanky wide receiver with soft hands and limited foot speed. He had just one scholarship offer, from Henderson State, but couldn't resist the power the University of Arkansas wielded over him for much of his childhood. He decided to pass on the scholarship and walk on with the Razorbacks. It took only a few practices for him to realize he wasn't ever going to see the field. "I hung in there for a few years," he said, "but the reality was, I wasn't good enough to play."
Eventually, he transferred to Henderson State, a small school in Arkadelphia that sits just west of the Ouachita River, in search of playing time and a degree in physical education. He found both, though his time on the field came primarily as a punter who averaged 37.7 yards per kick his senior year. Still, his head coach, Ralph "Sporty" Carpenter, thought highly of him, and planned to recommend him for jobs, but Carpenter died suddenly after that season. "I didn't have any connections," Malzahn said. "I didn't have anyone who could sort of show me the way and recommend me."
He blindly mailed out dozens of résumés upon graduation, but landed only one interview, at West Memphis High School. He didn't get the position, but the coach who did suddenly meant there was an open spot at a tiny, underfunded Eastern Arkansas school called Hughes in a town of the same name with fewer than 1,500 people. The school's athletic director, Charlie Patrick, called to see if Malzahn was interested in becoming Hughes' defensive coordinator. The school wondered if he'd be willing to sign a contract immediately. "I don't think there was a lot of job interest, so it worked out pretty well for me," Malzahn said. "There wasn't a Wal-Mart within 30 miles. My wife, Kristi, was a real trouper. I wouldn't be where I am without her. She deserves a lot of the credit for everything we've accomplished."
He did a little of everything at Hughes. He taught history, coached basketball and begged the best athletes to come out for the football team. He learned how to drive a tractor so he could cut the grass on the practice field, making sure every pass of the mower left a perfectly straight line. He had a hard time concentrating when he was supposed to be teaching because his mind was always drifting back to football. He'd saved every scouting report from every game in college, and he studied them obsessively, scribbling Xs and Os on the back of napkins and notebooks. "I made a lot of mistakes," he said, "but I realized there was no better way to learn than to make mistakes."
Within a year, Hughes' head coach left for another job and Malzahn was promoted. He was left with one assistant, plus a volunteer from the local junior high who would occasionally help out with practice. They didn't even have matching coaching gear, but it was the first time Malzahn had a team to call his own. "As a coach you think you know what you're doing, but when I got out there, I realized I didn't have a clue," he said. On a whim, he reached out to Barry Lunney Sr., a legendary high school football coach in the state who had also grown up in Fort Smith, and asked for some advice.
"How many plays do you have?" Lunney asked.
"Coach, we've got at least 200," Malzahn boasted. "We're going to be able to run every single one of them."
"Pick out four or five of them," Lunney said. "Then run 'em no matter what the defense gives you. Do that and you'll be just fine."
To this day, Malzahn considers it the best advice he's ever received. You can still see echoes of the strategy, in fact, in Auburn's offense. That year, Mazlahn's squad -- primarily a wing-T running offense -- stunned the region by making a surprise run to the state final. "We were such a ragtag bunch," Malzahn says. "But we had talent and our guys believed." In the final minute, Hughes had the ball with first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, trailing 17-13. The Blue Devils tried a trick play, had issues with clock management, dropped a touchdown pass, didn't get in the end zone and lost. Malzahn, for all his success, is still haunted by it.
"It's a game I think about probably once a week," he said. "I don't ever think about the wins. I think about the ones where I didn't do the best job. I still feel bad for those kids because we could have won that game. We could have won had I done a better job."
Building a better mousetrap, he learned, would take time.
It would take resources, too, and Hughes didn't have them. Malzahn wasn't even sure what he was searching for at first, just that he wanted to do something radical, something that would force people to look at the game differently. In 1996, he left Hughes to take a job as the head coach at Shiloh Christian, a private school in Springdale with a rich football tradition. Malzahn, who grew up in the First Baptist Church of Fort Smith and was saved when he was 13, felt at home at Shiloh. He and Kristi felt embraced by the community. It was the ideal place to raise their two daughters, Kylie and Kenzie. He was too competitive for most family fun nights, so he tried to bring them around the football team as much as possible. It wasn't perfect, but he was too driven to be a regular dad. If they went bowling, he had to win at bowling. If they played board games, he plotted strategy to dominate.
"We could tell right away he was such a driven guy," said Josh Floyd, who was Malzahn's first quarterback at Shiloh. "He doesn't mess around much. He wants to get things done and get it done quick. He'd see you in the hallway and he'd chase you down to quiz you about a play. You could tell he just never stopped thinking about football."
He fell in love with routine. Most days he'd get up around 6 a.m., but he'd be in the office until midnight. He felt like he didn't need a lot of sleep once he had a schedule mapped out. He wanted to know exactly what he was supposed to be doing at 9 a.m. on Monday, at 10 on Monday, etc. He knew it drove his staff crazy sometimes, and that it was hard on his family, but as long as he stayed in a routine, he wouldn't feel like he'd missed something.
It was at Shiloh, over the course of several years, that the quirky architect began to emerge. Malzahn realized he was almost too impatient for traditional football. He wanted the strategy of football with the speed of basketball. At times, the 40 seconds allotted between plays felt like an eternity. He and his coaching staff experimented with running a script of hurry-up no-huddle plays at the start of every game, and the team seemed to feed off the adrenaline rush, but as soon as he reverted back to a more traditional offense, his teams regressed. His first year, Shiloh started the year 0-4 and finished 6-6.
One night during the offseason, he threw a series of hypothetical questions at his staff: What if we sped things up the entire game? What if we embraced risk, shrugged at conventional wisdom, ignored time of possession and tried to lengthen the game, not shorten it? What if we tried to get a play off every five seconds and gave ourselves 10 possessions a game instead of six?
At first, it sounded like madness. His friends in the coaching profession warned him that if it didn't work, he'd almost certainly be fired. His kids would be exhausted, they predicted, and he'd never hold onto a fourth-quarter lead.
But the more Malzahn thought about it, and talked about it with Chris Wood, a young assistant coach on his staff who had run the hurry-up no-huddle in college, he wanted to take a leap of faith. He found the enduring cliché of "defense wins championships!" to be trite and frequently false. His team didn't have a lot of speed, but Floyd could throw a beautiful ball, and he had plenty of receivers who could catch. Shiloh's players would have to be in the best shape of their lives, so conditioning would be brutal, but if it worked, the advantages would be enormous: His team would control the tempo, no one could pick up their tendencies, the quarterback would be able to see the defensive alignment before every play, the players would have more fun (meaning more kids would come out for football), and opposing defenses would forever struggle to simulate in practice the week leading up to a game.
"We didn't know what to expect," Malzahn said. "But we knew we were changing the whole dynamic of the game."
The secret was to simplify things, to take teenage thinking out of the equation and let athleticism take over. Instead of running the play call into the game with a wide receiver, or signaling plays to the quarterback (and then asking the quarterback to relay them to the team), Malzahn demanded every player watch the signals from the sideline. The fullback, not the quarterback, called out the pass protections. The signals also were simplified, arranged by colors (blue, yellow, black, green and red) and numbers, then named after Biblical characters. An offensive coordinator would stand next to a flip board, and if he posed like David slinging his slingshot in the story of David and Goliath, the players would know immediately what play to run based on color and number combinations. "It changed the way I look at football," Malzahn said. "It gave you twice the reps, twice the opportunity to call plays. You had to be in a different kind of shape, mentally and physically to do it, but it was like stealing early. It was such an advantage."
In 1996, before Malzahn installed the hurry-up no-huddle, Floyd (a sophomore) threw for 1,440 yards and 13 touchdowns. Shiloh averaged 15.5 points a game. The following year, Floyd threw for 4,075 yards and 45 touchdowns and Shiloh averaged 30 points a game. "We were scoring so fast, we played teams and they were winded and dead tired at the end of the first quarter," Floyd said. "Our conference didn't want to play us anymore. We ended up having to play games all over the state because teams wouldn't schedule us."
Football coaches throughout the state grumbled that Malzahn's new philosophy was a gimmick, a fad that would soon collapse. But his players kept putting up video-game numbers and his teams kept winning. Floyd's senior year, Shiloh went 15-0, and he threw for a jaw-dropping 5,221 yards and 66 touchdowns (a national record). "He had a way of instilling confidence in us through sheer repetition," Floyd said. "The joke used to be he'd say, 'One more play and we're done with practice.' Then we'd run it 10 or 20 more times before we'd actually be done."
It was an important time in Malzahn's life, looking back. As a young coach, he had such a burning desire to win, he was like a stick of dynamite, and you didn't want to be caught in the blast area when he went off. But Shiloh taught him patience. It made him focus on being a better man. He tried to motivate through positive reinforcement instead of fear. He prohibited the use of swear words. But most important, he learned to adapt his model to fit the talent that came out each season for the team. Years later, when he got into the college game and people sneered at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn for hiring a high school coach to be their offensive coordinator, he just chuckled. Other coaches needed time to recruit players to fit their system. Malzahn simply adjusted his system to fit the players. "I knew my time in high schools was one of the biggest advantages I had," Malzahn said.
A part of Malzahn thought he might stay at Shiloh forever. He won 44 straight games at one point, and back-to-back state championships in 1998 and 1999. His next quarterback, Rhett Lashlee -- now his offensive coordinator at Auburn -- put up statistics even more eye-popping than Floyd. In one memorable playoff game, Lashlee threw for 672 yards to lead Shiloh to a 70-64 win. But Malzahn was too competitive to be truly content. He needed new challenges. When the biggest public school in the state, Springdale High, offered him a job in 2000, he knew he had to take it.
His players cried when he told them he was leaving. Stoic and serious as he was, he says he cried too. "It was the right decision, but probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make as a coach," he said.
At Springdale, he met a young quarterback named Mitch Mustain. Neither man could foresee it at the time, but their partnership put them on a path that would shake up the SEC for years to come.
If the comprehensive history of the SEC were to be written down and bound together, Mitchell Stewart Mustain wouldn't warrant much more than a footnote. He threw just 132 passes during his college career at the University of Arkansas, completed 69 of them, and tossed 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. But his story will likely go down as one of the great "what ifs?" in league history. Because at Springdale, under Malzahn, Mitch Mustain looked as if he was born and bred to play quarterback in the hurry-up no-huddle. "He's one of the most talented quarterbacks I've ever coached," Malzahn said. "In terms of throwing the ball on time, I've never had one better. He was like a machine in practice."
Malzahn's success at Shiloh may have turned heads within the state of Arkansas, but it still looked like a gimmick to the larger football world. Malzahn wrote a book detailing his ideas on how other high schools could revolutionize their programs the way he did at Shiloh -- "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy" -- and it led to a handful of prep converts. It even caught the eye of a few NFL teams, who incorporated some of Malzahn's ideas. But in the cliquish fraternity of college football coaches, the larger philosophy barely made a ripple. (One notable exception: Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who read Malzahn's book and incorporated some of the ideas into his own no-huddle attack.)
Mustain's powerful arm and his rifle-scope accuracy became the magnet that drew the larger world into Springdale. By the time he was a senior, Mustain was the top recruit in the country. Two of Springdale's games that year would be broadcast on ESPN. A reporter followed the team around all year to write a book about its quest to win a state title. Springdale had a wealth of talent that season. Wide receiver Damian Williams, tight end Ben Cleveland, lineman Bartley Webb and receiver Andrew Norman were all coveted Division I prospects. But Mustain -- the first kid from Arkansas ever to be named the National Gatorade Player of the Year -- was clearly the crown jewel.
"He was a madman in practice," Mustain said of Malzahn. "We'd run a play 25 times if he thought we needed to. But I loved that style. It was a grind, but I loved it. I laugh sometimes when I hear people talk about how simple his offense is. It works out on game day because he coaches the crap out of the rest of the week."
Springdale was so good, Mustain barely played in the second half of the majority of the Bulldogs' games. (Malzahn made it a habit to yank his starters up 35 points.) He still threw for 3,817 yards and 45 touchdowns, leading his team to a 15-0 record. "You put Mitch in the shotgun and it doesn't get much better than that," Malzahn said.
Houston Nutt, rumored to be on the hot seat at the University of Arkansas after two consecutive losing seasons, felt he couldn't let Mustain leave the state to sign with another program, so he decided to do something unprecedented: He hired Malzahn to be his offensive coordinator. Mustain, who had been waffling between Arkansas and Notre Dame, decided to go with Malzahn and become a Razorback. Williams, Cleveland and Norman all followed suit. "I'm going to let Gus go," Nutt told reporters after the hire. "I'm going to turn him loose."
Mustain became the starter in the second game of his freshman season, and Arkansas, which went 4-7 in 2005, went 10-4 with Malzahn calling the plays.
"A lot of people tend to mock him for starting in high school," Mustain said. "Well, what makes him an extraordinary coach is his ability to adapt his offense to the guys he has. We see it all the time, a coach gets hired and he needs two or three years to get 'his guys' in there to fit into his system. Coach Malzahn has always been able to figure out what works best with the guys he has, what puts them in the best position, and then win games with them." Malzahn won't say much these days about his time in Fayetteville, other than he's thankful Nutt gave him the opportunity to coach at the college level. He learned a lot, he admits, but the closest he'll come to addressing that infamous season is that coaching in the SEC was far more complicated than just the Xs and Os. "You learn how to deal with people, how to deal with pressure, how to deal with success," he said.
On the surface, it was a banner year for the Razorbacks. At one point, they won seven consecutive games over ranked opponents. But internally it was mess. Nutt was willing to install some of Malzahn's offense, Mustain said, but not all of it. The disparity in time of possession was just too much for his old-school sensibilities to bear. The game plan, with multiple cooks in the kitchen, was often confusing. Nutt wanted to pound the ball with future NFL running backs Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. Malzahn wanted to use the trio's athleticism in different ways, including the passing game and the Wildcat. Despite an 8-0 record as a starter, Nutt benched Mustain late in the year after the precocious quarterback threw an interception, and the relationship between quarterback and head coach became toxic. "They couldn't or wouldn't reconcile what we were doing," Mustain said. "It just became a mess, and there were a lot of politics outside the practice facility that tore it apart."
At year's end, Malzahn could read the tea leaves. He'd never have full control of the offense under Nutt. Their philosophies were too far apart. By the end of the year, rumors were swirling that Nutt had essentially handcuffed his offensive coordinator, demanding a more conservative approach. Malzahn resigned to take a job at Tulsa as the Golden Hurricane's offensive coordinator under his friend Todd Graham. Graham, also a former high school coach, promised Malzahn total autonomy in the play calling. Mustain, weeks after Malzahn resigned, decided to transfer to USC. When Mustain watches Auburn now, he can't help but lament what might have been had Nutt fully ceded the reins to Malzahn. Nutt lasted just one more season at Arkansas before resigning.
"S---, there is no telling what could have been done with the people we had," Mustain said. "A lot of people forgot, up until 2013, how much coach likes to run the ball. My senior year, our running back had over 1,000 yards on the ground. There is this constant revisionist thing where people say, 'Of course they weren't going to let coach run his offense because they had Darren and Felix and Peyton. But if you look at his history, and look at what he's doing now with Nick Marshall and Tre Mason, holy crap. Can you imagine his offense with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis and Marcus Monk? It's unbelievable to think about what could have happened."
Did Malzahn feel like he was sold a bill of goods by Nutt? To this day, he won't go there. He just knew the situation was untenable, and he needed to get out. Maybe it was selfish to want to prove his philosophy was the right one, but history has weighed in and it's clear he was right. Malzahn still feels bad that Mustain's career was essentially derailed by an SEC soap opera. The quarterback struggled to earn consistent playing time at USC, and is now trying to play football in the Arena League.
"Each head coach has their own priorities," Malzahn said. "We tried to mesh two things, and … "
He pauses, letting the words linger. He doesn't continue. The silence says plenty.
Once Malzahn got his foot in the door of college football, and found places that would let the architect within him unleash his designs, there was little to slow him down. In 2007, with Malzahn as its offensive coordinator, and no one yanking on the reins, Tulsa won 10 games and led the nation in total offense, averaging 542.5 yards per game. In 2008, the team, and the offense, was even better, winning 11 games and averaging 569.8 yards a game.
"Todd really gave me a great opportunity," Malzahn said. "He gave me a chance to establish myself as a 'college coach.' I'll be forever grateful to him. He said, 'Come in and do your thing. Do it all.' Back then, that was a little unique."
Auburn coach Gene Chizik hired Malzahn to be his offensive coordinator in 2008, and over the course of three seasons, he put to bed yet another fallacy about his offense: That it wouldn't work in the hard-hitting SEC. Some SEC coaches had even gone so far as to grumble that the hurry-up no-huddle offense was dangerous for players because it would cause more injuries. "When I first heard that, I honestly thought it was a joke," Malzahn said.
When Malzahn put the ball in the hands of a transcendent quarterback by the name of Cam Newton, the result was a Heisman Trophy and a BCS National Championship. "It was fun to coach him," Malzahn said of Newton, who passed for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns, and ran for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns. "He allowed me to coach him hard. I was harder on him than I was on anybody else. What he did in one year was unheard of. Nobody will probably ever do that again."
At Auburn, the architect from Arkansas had found a place that felt like home. He loved the people, the atmosphere, the traditions, the family feel that the university possessed. "It was a little old school. It had huge high school feel, to be honest," Malzahn said. "There is a reason when recruits come here, they usually know right away if it's going to be a good fit. It's hard to explain, but it was a great fit for me."
When universities such as Maryland and Vanderbilt inquired about his interest in becoming a head coach, he politely declined. They didn't feel like the right fit. When he turned around and took a job as the head coach of Arkansas State, the college football world was flabbergasted. But to Malzahn -- forever defying convention -- it made perfect sense. "When you take your first head college job, you need to know you can win, or you won't get to do it for very long," Malzahn said. "It was a place I knew I could recruit. I was very familiar with it because I knew all the high school coaches. A lot of them were my best friends. I planned on being there for two, three, four years at the very least."
But when Malzahn went 9-3 his first year at Arkansas State, and Auburn went 3-9 the year following his departure, Auburn decided to fire Chizik just two years removed from a national championship, and beg Malzahn to be its savior.
The school he returned to seemed like a program in crisis. The talent was there -- in part because he had recruited so many of the players when he was the offensive coordinator -- but he could see they lacked discipline and confidence. "We had to do some Dr. Phil-ing," Malzahn said. "There were some mental scars."
He knew the Tigers needed a kick in the ass, but he also needed to earn their trust first. "Coach's personality is very unique," said Auburn offensive lineman Alex Kozan. "I've never met a man like him. He doesn't ever curse. A lot of coaches say that, but they don't really do it. A lot of them will cuss at you, swear at you, mother-eff this, mother-eff that. You realize you're willing to put it all on the line for. He treats you like he'd treat his own family."
Malzahn wanted his players to understand what discipline was about, so he made them finish every sprint, and if one of them jogged over the line, he made the whole team start over. ("We strained the dog out of our players," Malzahn said.) He wanted his quarterbacks to be prepared for anything, so he waived the usual rule that they were off-limits to contact, and told his defense to smack them around if they had the chance. He wanted his team to understand the work ethic of highly successful people, so he asked Auburn graduate Jason Dufner, fresh off his victory at the PGA Championship, to come to campus and spend some time with the team.
"He believes successful people are successful for a reason," Dufner said. "Maybe they have certain characteristics or similar traits, and they're consistent in the way they do things. I was student at Auburn at one time, just like those players, and I had to do things to become successful, so he believes it gives these kids a chance to see what success looks like."
Dufner, though, was the one who left feeling inspired.
"His preparation, the way his mind works, the way he prepares his team to play, it just blew my mind away," Dufner said. "It was very surprising. There weren't a lot of note cards or things written down. It just seemed to come from his memory. They were in a bad place at the end of last year, but he gave them the blueprint for how to be successful."
This season has had its share of surreal moments. Auburn boasts the nation's top rushing attack, a statistic that must make every Arkansas Razorbacks fan grind their teeth when they realize what might have been. Auburn, of course, wouldn't be anywhere near the BCS title game if not for a 73-yard tipped touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 from Marshall to Ricardo Louis with 36 seconds left to beat Georgia. Auburn might not be here if not for a 109-yard field goal return by Chris Davis with no time left and the score tied to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. But for Malzahn, the seminal moment of the entire season happened during halftime of the one game Auburn did not win, a 35-21 loss in Baton Rouge to LSU.
"We were on the road, in one of the toughest places to play in all of college football, it was raining hard, and we got off to really bad start, down 21-0," Malzahn said. "We were fighting some things from the last year. I had a lot of questions about us. I was curious how we were going to respond to adversity. Were we going to quit?"
The locker room, players recalled, was as silent as a morgue until a handful of players stood up and vowed the team would not lay down the way they had the previous season in situations like this. A furious second-half rally fell short, but Malzahn, normally no fan of moral victories, was beaming. "I knew then we had something special," he said.
As the years have gone by, Malzahn says he's learned to appreciate the journey more than the results. He can barely remember the victories, but the losses, he can recount every detail. He knows it's not healthy, but he can't help it. It's the way he's wired. That's why the path he took to arrive in Pasadena, Calif., this week is more satisfying than another national championship could ever be. "I've been fortunate enough to win state championships and national championships, and after you win it, it doesn't get any bigger than that," Malzahn said. "But as soon as you get out of that locker room, my mind goes to next year. That's it. It's over. As I get older, it makes me enjoy the process. That's what I get the most joy out of. Because you build up in your mind what it'd be like if you win, and it usually isn't what you think. It's great, but it's never what you think."
Whatever happens against Florida State, when it's over, it will be time to build the next blueprint. He will tweak the system based on the strengths of the players returning and go from there. He still doesn't like to use computers, so instead he'll pull out his notebooks, his manila folders, his highlighters and his multicolored collection of Sharpies, and he'll draw a series of straight lines until they make the most sense.
There's no such thing as perfection in football. Gus Malzahn knows this. But he's obsessed with the pursuit regardless. You might even say he's eat up with it.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just seven years removed from coaching high school football in Northwest Arkansas, how has Auburn coach Gus Malzahn outsmarted so many of his more experienced peers?