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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Gus Malzahn's first game as football coach at Shiloh Christian High School was in 1996 against Prairie Grove, a miniscule map dot in Northwest Arkansas near the Oklahoma border.
It did not portend future greatness.
The scoreboard tilted in favor of Prairie Grove. Adding injury to insult, Shiloh Christian players started dropping with cramps -- so many of them, recalls Jimmy Dykes, the school's athletic director at the time, that their opponents had to help the Saints stretch out the cramps on the field.
Malzahn previously had success at Hughes High, a remote Class AA school on the eastern side of Arkansas. But there were some who questioned his ability to move up to Class 4A Shiloh Christian, and first impressions on that night against Prairie Grove only fueled the doubts.
"They're putting a thumping on us," recalled Dykes, now an ESPN college basketball analyst. "I'm hearing from the stands, 'Nice hire, Dykes! Way to go!'"
|Gus Malzahn developed his offensive philosophy as a high school coach in Arkansas, most notably at Springdale High.|
"Fourteen years later, it was a nice hire, Dykes. Way to go."
Fourteen years later, it's been nothing but nice hires for every athletic director who has entrusted Malzahn with bigger and better jobs during his catapult up the coaching ranks.
On Monday night, Malzahn will be calling plays for No. 1 Auburn as it takes on Oregon in the Tostitos BCS Championship Game. He is a universally acknowledged offensive genius who literally wrote the book on the no-huddle, hurry-up attack. (With the foreword written by Dykes.) He has turned down a multimillion-dollar offer to be a Southeastern Conference head coach.
He's come a long way in a no-huddle hurry from that cramped-up, beaten-down debut at Shiloh Christian. Yet on the inside, he still feels like the guy who used to practice on a rock-strewn, slanted patch of ground that ran only about half the length of a normal football field.
"I'm living a dream," Malzahn said. "I'm a high school coach who happens to be coaching college."
The decision that turned Gus Malzahn's career path away from Friday night lights in small Arkansas towns and toward the klieg lights of big-time college football was made one day at Shiloh Christian.
After an 0-4 start that first season, Malzahn made Josh Floyd his starting quarterback. That decision sat well with the pastor of First Baptist Church of Springdale, the church affiliated with the school. Ronnie Floyd is Josh's father.
Shortly after making that call, Malzahn decided to start a game in the two-minute offense. Shiloh won the game. He tried it out later in the game against the next opponent, and it worked.
"That was the emergence of the no-huddle offense," said Ronnie Floyd, who remains a close friend and confidant of Malzahn, and whose son Josh is now the head coach at Shiloh Christian.
|Malzahn broke into the college ranks at Arkansas, where he served as Houston Nutt's offensive coordinator for one season.|
Soon, it was time to make the two-minute drill Shiloh's offense of record -- every game, all game. A guy who had devoured a book on the Delaware wing-T and ran the ball the majority of the time at Hughes suddenly launched a trendsetting offense that nobody in Arkansas could keep up with.
"Our players loved it," Malzahn said. "Back then, it was stealing. Defenses didn't know how to line up."
Befitting a religious school and a devout coach, the Shiloh play calls were derived from Biblical characters and stories. There was a play called Moses, one called John -- and Joshua was a quarterback draw, since Josh Floyd was the QB. The playbook was like manna from heaven for the Saints.
"You'd be amazed at the number of times a receiver would have nobody within 20 yards of him," Dykes said. "It happened routinely. Defenses couldn't figure it out."
Shiloh Christian quickly blossomed into a power. The Saints went 14-1 in Malzahn's second season, losing in the state title game. They went 15-0 after that and won the first of two consecutive state championships.
A football truism was reinforced: You can find a genius in all kinds of places. They don't just coach at the blue-blood programs. Ask Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who became a spread-offense savant at Football Championship Subdivision school New Hampshire. And ask Gus Malzahn, the guy who was still a high school coach as recently as five years ago.
In 2000, Malzahn moved across town from Shiloh to traditional power Springdale High, which played at the state's highest classification. Success followed. He wrote a book on his offense, and after winning the state title in '05 with an offense led by the nation's No. 1 quarterback recruit, Mitch Mustain, it was time for the high school coach to play in a bigger sandbox.
"There's a big old world out there," Floyd told Malzahn. "You're going to be very successful in it."
More at the urging of athletic director Frank Broyles than coach Houston Nutt, Arkansas hired Malzahn as its offensive coordinator. Mustain and several other Springdale stars followed. Happiness did not.
Nutt clashed with Mustain's mom and the infighting became very public, dividing the Arkansas fan base. Some thought Broyles was meddling where he didn't belong. Some thought Nutt was resentful of Malzahn and stubborn in refusing to fully adopt the no-huddle, hurry-up offense. And some thought this high school coach was in over his head trying to decode SEC defenses.
"When you're a high school coach coming into college, " Malzahn said, "you're going to get questioned on everything you do."
But Malzahn was handed a tremendous luxury: He had the privilege of working with future NFL running backs Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis. Arkansas rolled up 10 victories in 2006, its most since 1989.
That was enough for Malzahn in Fayetteville, though. The controversy drained everyone, leading Mustain and Springdale product Damian Williams to transfer to USC, and all but sealing Nutt's fate at Arkansas. He left after 2007, which was the first of two seasons Malzahn spent at Tulsa.
It's just a couple of hours from Fayetteville to Tulsa, so Malzahn was able to keep his family in the figurative neighborhood. He also was given another talented offensive roster to work with and full freedom to run his offense without restraint.
|Malzahn left Arkansas for Tulsa, where he spent two seasons, turning the Golden Hurricane into one of the nation's most potent offenses.|
The result was two of the best seasons in Tulsa history -- a 21-7 record, and averages of 41.1 points one season and 47.2 points the next. Malzahn showed his flexibility, implementing a pass-heavy attack in 2007 and then balancing it out with more running in '08. The common denominator in both seasons was a mastery of tempo, formations and personnel groups.
"The multiplicity of the offense is in the presentation," said Vanderbilt assistant coach Herb Hand, who was the offensive line coach at Tulsa when Malzahn was the coordinator. "There might only be five base run plays and seven pass protections, but you're able to present them in multiple ways. He was able to create one-on-one matchups. He always said, 'Let's try to get our best on their least.'"
After two years in Tulsa, it was obvious Malzahn's best was good enough to win anywhere. That was when new Auburn coach Gene Chizik came calling.
But it took a nudge from Ronnie Floyd to convince Malzahn to leave his comfort zone. Malzahn was at the pastor's house when Chizik called him three times to lobby.
"There's a big old world out there," Floyd told Malzahn. "You're going to be very successful in it."
The success was again swift in coming. Auburn unexpectedly rebounded from a 5-7 season in 2008 to 8-5 in 2009. That was the only time Malzahn hasn't had top-shelf skill-position talent, and not coincidentally, it was his only season in college without double-digit victories.
But then came two shiny new toys for Malzahn to play with: junior college transfer Cameron Newton and freshman running back Michael Dyer. The rest has been record-breaking history.
"I've been in the right place at the right time," Malzahn said.
He's right. But the players he's coached can say the same thing about intersecting with Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn loves trick plays, but he's about as zany as an IRS auditor. His personality -- his friends swear there is one in there, somewhere -- is buried under an impregnable earnestness.
"That's one of my weaknesses," he admitted. "I'm very tunnel-visioned."
|With Cam Newton at quarterback, few teams have been able to cope with the Auburn offense.|
Other than family and faith, it's all football for Malzahn. He once told Hand that he didn't understand jokes -- not that he didn't get them, but that he simply didn't see the point in telling them.
In a strange way, the lack of an overt sense of humor has set up Malzahn as the butt of many jokes. Hand, who is every bit the fun-loving character Malzahn is not, used to regularly hang pictures on the coordinator's door at Tulsa.
A picture of Jimmy Neutron, the genius cartoon character, with glasses drawn on. A picture of Inspector Gadget's body, with Malzahn's head on it. A picture of Borat in his tiny swimsuit, with Malzahn's head on it.
"In a way," Hand said, "he liked it."
Mostly, though, he likes drawing up plays and winning games. His tunnel vision has taken him to this national championship game -- and almost took him to Vanderbilt to rejoin Hand as the Commodores' new head coach.
Malzahn thought seriously about it before turning down a huge offer. Almost immediately, he started regretting his decision.
"He called me and said, 'I may be an idiot. I can't believe I just did that,'" Floyd recalled.
In an effort to reinforce some perspective, Floyd dug into his files and produced Malzahn's contract from his days at Shiloh Christian. At that time, he was making $39,500 a year -- and he was happy.
Gus Malzahn is, after all, still a high school coach at heart. He'll still identify himself that way, even as his star continues to ascend.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.