Malzahn eager to prove himself at Arkansas State
By KURT VOIGT
JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) Gus Malzahn walked out of his office in the Arkansas State football complex, his eyes on the sheet of paper in his hands.
The first-year Red Wolves coach walked past several ongoing meetings on his way down the hall, but his head stayed down, completely focused on the task at hand.
Malzahn finished his follow-up mission moments later, making sure the final phone calls had been made to ensure that night's gathering for the team's freshmen at his home would be a success. Then it was on to the next item on the checklist, finalizing plans to have the yard lines painted on the team's practice field for a high school football camp.
The former Auburn offensive coordinator, who helped the Tigers win a national championship, was right back at home - both in his native state of Arkansas and in the role of head coach.
Malzahn was hired away from Auburn by Arkansas State in December, a stunning move by a school usually relegated to the shadows of Southeastern Conference member Arkansas. He was hired to replace current Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze, who guided the Red Wolves to a 10-win season and Sun Belt Conference championship last season.
Since his hiring, Malzahn has been both ambassador and football coach. It's a familiar role, one he perfected while paying his dues as a high school coach for 14 years in Arkansas. It is equal parts winning and marketing, with plenty on both fronts.
"He's extremely focused, laser focused and he has a plan," assistant coach David Gunn said. "He knows what it takes to be successful, going back to high school. It has been successful for him, as a coordinator at a national championship football program. Those things don't happen by accident. He knows where he wants to take this football program."
Outside of directing the Red Wolves through spring practice, much of Malzahn's time since his hiring has been spent on matters outside of actual football. He's been busy making the program his own in his first and long-awaited opportunity as a collegiate head coach.
One of his first priorities was raising the profile of Arkansas State, both at home and across the nation. He did that at first by saying he planned on turning the Red Wolves into the "Boise State of college football," a seemingly audacious claim given that the program didn't turn Division I until 1992 and before last season hadn't won double-digit games since 1986, when it was a member of the I-AA Southland Conference.
Even Malzahn admitted the northeast Arkansas school was far off his radar while growing up on the other side of the state.
"A lot of times in northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith, you don't even think of Arkansas State as being in the state of Arkansas," Malzahn said. "It's almost like it's in another state. You don't hear much about it."
The lack of attention on the school, however, didn't keep Malzahn from pursuing the Red Wolves job after Freeze left for Ole Miss. Nor has it kept him from actively pushing the school's profile since he was hired.
Arkansas State's assistant coaches recently embarked on a goodwill tour of sorts throughout their home state. The coaches visited each of the state's 215 football-playing high schools, looking for prospects as well as to build relationships with coaches. It was a plan similar to what Malzahn experienced at Auburn, where Arkansas State offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was a graduate assistant under Malzahn.
"It was something out of the box just to get you noticed," Lashlee said. "Every high school coach in the state saw a college coach from a Division I program in this state. Whether they have a player this year or not, we know it. We don't want to overlook any player in the state."
Lashlee knows Malzahn as well as anyone, having played quarterback for the coach in high school at Shiloh Christian (Springdale, Ark.) as well as having coached with him at Springdale High School and Auburn before serving as Samford's offensive coordinator last season. He said little has changed about Malzahn's attention to detail in more than a decade of working together, though he thinks Malzahn's time as an assistant coach will help him in his return to a head coaching role.
"That will have to help him gain some perspective on what us assistants are feeling in certain situations," Lashlee said. "I think that probably only helps him be the head coach he needs to be."
Malzahn has learned much about the college game since leaving his last position as a head coach in 2005 at Springdale High School, where he led the Bulldogs to a top 5 national ranking. His stops have including Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn since, with offensive success and plenty of wins at each stop.
He hasn't forgotten his high school roots, nor has he completely let go of his own mission to prove any doubters wrong.
"When I first got to college, I was the high school guy and `Will a high school offense work?' Malzahn said. "When I went to the SEC, it was `Will his offense work there?'
"So, I think you're always as a coach, to keep your edge, trying to prove yourself. I don't ever want to lose that."
Now, after waiting his turn for the right opportunity, Malzahn is ready to finally prove that both he and Arkansas State have the ability to compete with the nation's best.
"I've been fortunate enough to be a part of some programs that had a dream and we had a chance to go through the process to get there," Malzahn said. "This feels the same way."
Updated June 28, 2012
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