Joe Medley commentary: Those 'high school coaches' look good in college

December 29, 2013 

The fraternity that should be happiest over the Bowl Championship Series final matchup between Auburn and Florida State doesn't have Greek letters.

It's the fraternity of football coaches who don't make millions of dollars, who work with talent that's dealt them and, in some cases, want to be taken seriously as potential college coaches.

It's been a good year for high school coaches who aspire to the next level, culminating in showdown of two football minds who have upgraded the stock of high school coaches everywhere.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn calls the plays for the offense he devised, which leads the nation in rushing this season.

Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has to stop it, and he leads the nation's top-ranked defense in terms of points allowed. The Seminoles are third in yards allowed.

Both coaches are less than a decade removed from the high school ranks, and their salute is mutual.

"Jeremy Pruitt is an old high school coach," Malzahn said. "I got the chance to coach against him a couple of times when he was at Alabama. I've talked to him numerous times.

"I've got a lot of respect for him. The high school coaches kind of stick together a little bit."

High school coaches are sticking as college coaches, and their success has been felt in our college football neighborhood.

Despite his time as South Alabama's defensive coordinator, Jacksonville State's Bill Clark carried the "high school coach" label into his college head-coaching debut this season. The Gamecocks had their best season and deepest playoff run since moving up from Division II in 1992.

Clark's offensive coordinator, former Oxford head coach John Grass, led the Gamecocks to a school record for total yards in his college debut. They broke the record in the regular season, before playing three playoff games.

As for those carrying the high-school label in the BCS final, Pruitt had college exposure early. He was a student assistant at Alabama in 1997 and mixed a year as defensive backs coach at West Alabama amid his prep jobs.

But from 1998 through 2006, he was a high school assistant every year but one. He was an assistant at Plainview, Fort Payne and Hoover before joining Alabama's staff as director of player development in 2007.

He became Alabama's defensive backs coach after the 2009 season then defensive coordinator at Florida State this season. He was a finalist for this season's Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant.

Malzahn broke into the college ranks as Arkansas' offensive coordinator in 2006, after head-coaching stays at Hughes, Shiloh Christian and Springdale high schools in Arkansas. He led Hughes to the state final and won three state titles, two at Shiloh and one at Springdale.

He won the Broyles Award as offensive coordinator for Auburn's 2010 national championship team. In two years as a college head coach, he won a Sun Belt Conference title at Arkansas State and an SEC title at Auburn.

Malzahn is the 2013 SEC Coach of the Year and won the Home Depot, Sporting News, Eddie Robinson and Associated Press national coaching awards after leading Auburn's turnaround from a 3-9 team in 2012 to a national-title contender this season.

Not bad for high school coaches, eh?

Clark, who broke into the college ball as South Alabama's defensive coordinator after a coaching Prattville High School to national rankings and two Class 6A titles, said high school coaches face challenges that college and NFL coaches don't.

"If you take all of the time and say, you're going to go do this and teach a math class, how much actual football time am I getting?" he said. "Now, I'm just doing football. If I'm doing football and recruiting versus a pro coach, who does no recruiting? Exponentially, they're going to spend more time on football, more time on video.

"But there are things we were doing at Prattville that nobody in the country was doing. Gus Malzahn was doing some things offensively. There are good people at every level."

For high school coaches who want to move up, breaking through the "high school coach" label can be a challenge.

"This mindset that high school coaches can't do it was such a joke to me," Clark said. "It's just they chose to go that route.

"For me, I had a chance at 22 to be a GA (college graduate assistant) or to be a defensive coordinator, and I had already been coaching for a little while. Coming on as a defensive coordinator at a school like Piedmont, I knew we were going to have a chance to be good, and I just didn't choose the college route.

"There's a level of at expertise at any level, but, when you start talking about where big-school football is in our state and surrounding southern states and across the country? It's trainers. It's video. It's managing a staff. Of course, I was an athletic director (at Prattville). It's very comparable."

-- Sports columnist Joe Medley: On Twitter@jmedley_star.

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