AUBURN, Ala. — Everyone seems to think Gus Malzahn returning “home” to Arkansas this weekend is a major story.
Everyone, that is, except the coach himself.
As the man in charge of Auburn’s program would point out, this isn’t the first time he’s been back to the place he grew up — in fact, Saturday’s matchup will be the fourth time he makes an appearance in Razorback Stadium on the opposing sideline. The only difference between Saturday’s matchup and the previous three? This time Malzahn’s title reads “head coach” instead of “offensive coordinator.”
Not surprisingly, whenever the topic was broached this week, he dismissed its significance.
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Malzahn is more concerned about Arkansas the team than Arkansas the state.
“I think if you ask our players and our coaches, I get excited no matter who we’re playing,” he said. “I try to be very consistent. This is a big game, going on the road, another road test for us. They’ve had a week to prepare. So we expect it to be a tough one.”
Of course, Malzahn isn’t the only coach on Auburn’s staff with ties to "The Natural State." His right-hand man, Rhett Lashlee, played at Arkansas from 2002-04 as a backup quarterback, which followed his two years as Malzahn’s starting signal-caller at Shiloh Christian High School in Springdale, Ark., in 1999-00. He stayed close with Malzahn when he jumped to the college ranks, serving as a graduate assistant in 2006 when his mentor was the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator.
But with Saturday marking his third return to Fayetteville, Ark., in a coaching capacity, Lashlee said the newness of the “homecoming” angle wore off a long time ago.
“I may have some different feelings, but when we start playing the game it’s not going to matter,” he said. “The way I prepare this week, it really won’t matter. They are a good football team and it’s an SEC road game. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”
He couldn’t help but wonder what kind of reception Malzahn might receive Saturday, right?
Well, not exactly.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Lashlee said. “I don’t know what kind of reception he would or wouldn’t get. I do know this: There are a lot of people back there in that state that think a lot of him, and he’s earned a lot of respect.”
The same could be said of yet another Auburn coach with long-time ties to the Razorbacks, Tim Horton, who taught some of the most gifted ballcarriers Arkansas’ program has ever produced.
Darren McFadden. Felix Jones. Peyton Hillis. Dennis Johnson. Knile Davis.
And he did it in a compressed period of time, with all of those players coming through in the last six years. Now in his first season working with the Tigers’ tailbacks, Horton has shown his magic touch hasn’t worn off, with the team leading the SEC in rushing with 315.4 yards per game, nearly 90 yards clear of runner-up Missouri.
Lashlee said it isn’t difficult to see the signs of Horton’s tutelage. Look at the way Auburn finishes runs. Or take note of how low their pad level is every carry. When he thought about it, Lashlee said he couldn’t even “count the number of times” this season where he saw an Auburn running back seemingly stopped in his tracks in the middle of a pile, only to see it move ahead for another four or five yards before the whistle blew.
For that, Lashlee heaped praise upon Horton for helping him sleep more comfortably at nights.
“Tim is extremely conscientious and detailed and prepared,” the offensive coordinator said.
While the coaching staff isn’t worried about anything other than the Razorbacks, there’s one aspect of Saturday’s game that likely is weighing heavily on Malzahn’s mind, much as he may argue to the contrary. Yes, Saturday is the fourth time he’s facing Arkansas wearing the visitors’ colors. What he neglected to mention is that on those three previous occasions, he walked away on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Those losses, as follows: a 30-23 defeat with Tulsa in 2008, when Malzahn was the offensive coordinator, then a 44-23 loss in 2009 and a 38-14 drubbing in 2011, with the latter pair coming while he directed Auburn’s offense under then-head coach Gene Chizik.
Should the Razorbacks — 3-5 overall and winless in four SEC contests this year — pull the upset and ruin what has been a dream season for Malzahn and the Tigers, forget any future mention of the coach returning to the place of his youth.
It will remain an intriguing storyline, sure. But if Malzahn is sporting an 0-4 road record against the Razorbacks come Saturday night, the narrative will undergo a slight alteration.
Arkansas may forever be Malzahn’s home state, but Razorback Stadium will represent a house of horrors.
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