AUBURN, Ala. — Offensive gurus generally aren’t without their quirks.
Steve Spurrier never passes up a chance to take a clever dig at a rival. Tony Franklin’s down-home brand of blunt honesty is at the same time his best and worst trait. And Mike Leach, for as much as his air-it-out offense has altered the Big 12 football landscape, has an unusual obsession with pirates.
Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s staid personality, one cut from the cloth of one of his coaching idols, Nebraska’s stoic Tom Osborne, doesn’t seem to fit the mold.
“Yeah,” Malzahn said wryly. “I’m not into pirates.”
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No, Malzahn, who was Gene Chizik’s first permanent coaching hire last December, is into football, particularly the up-tempo, no-huddle brand that paved the way for his quick ascension in the coaching ranks, and not much else.
“I don’t do very many things,” he said, “but what I try to do, I try to be very thorough.”
The 43-year-old Malzahn has his work cut out for him trying to turn around an Auburn offense that has gradually gotten worse in each of the last four seasons, bottoming out during a turbulent 2008 when the Tigers dumped Franklin and his spread after six games, retreated to a predictably vanilla brand of play-calling for the remainder of the year and finished 104th out of 119 teams nationally in total offense.
While Auburn’s coaches have changed, the players largely remain the same, meaning the 2009 offense won’t be an instant transformation.
“We don’t have a lot of depth and we’re going to be playing so many inexperienced guys,” Malzahn said bluntly. “So I think we just need to improve each game. I think we’re capable of being a very solid offense, but we have to stay healthy and we’ve got to have good play out of our quarterbacks. There are a lot of different variables.”
Malzahn, whose spread roots were forged in the Arkansas high school ranks, has a track record of success. A former receiver first at Arkansas and later at Division II Henderson State, Malzahn got his first high school head coaching gig at the ripe age of 26.
An offensive wave was sweeping the state, and Malzahn mixed and matched pieces to his liking. His commitment to playing at a breakneck speed started at Shiloh Christian in 1996. Malzahn would begin games with the no huddle and have great success, reverting to a more traditional huddle offense because, well, that was what he was expected to do.
“We’d get the momentum going and we’d go back to huddling and it kind of took it away,” Malzahn said. “So we just kind of as a staff said, ‘Hey, why don’t we try to do this the whole game.’ We just kind of took a chance and fell into it.”
That up tempo offense became Malzahn’s calling card, an idea so fresh he often had to debrief referees before games to assure them that moving that fast was perfectly within the rules.
It landed Malzahn a job at Springdale High, where he won Arkansas’ 2005 Class 5A state title before parlaying that success into the offensive coordinator position at Arkansas. A well-documented rift with Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt led to Malzahn taking a job at Tulsa with his friend Todd Graham, whom he knew from his time as a high school coach.
Graham let Malzahn run his offense with impunity and the Golden Hurricane thrived, finishing first nationally in total offense in both of his two years with the school. The key was, and always has been, having the full support of the coaching staff, a luxury Franklin never had at Auburn.
“Matter of fact, it’s easy for players to adapt,” Malzahn said. “They get used to something and they’re fine. It’s coaches, because it’s a different way of thinking.”
While the traditionalist SEC has always been a defensive-oriented league, offensive minds are permeating the ranks, including Spurrier, Nutt, Georgia’s Mark Richt, Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino, Florida’s Urban Meyer, his protege Dan Mullen, now at Mississippi State, and Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin.
Malzahn is the latest to join the group — although he is an assistant, he has free rein over the offense — and he doesn’t plan on altering his method or goals.
“I’m going to approach it the same way,” he said. “I had high expectations (at Tulsa). And we have high expectations here. Obviously you’re going to play against better defenses. This is the best defensive league in America. But our goals will be high; our expectations will be high.”