Once the next hot head coach, Malzahn lands at Arkansas State
MOBILE, Ala. -- He has somehow made his way from the stands to within 20 feet of the new coach. Security is badgering him -- move along -- but Matt Hubbard isn't budging. He wants Gus Malzahn to see his homemade poster. He wants to meet the new coach.
From just beyond a chain-link fence, Hubbard yells: "Coach! Coach Malzahn!" The coach is pacing the sideline, multi-tasking, watching pregame warmups with one of two phones pinned to his ear. It's his umpteenth call of the night. He is attempting to persuade another coach to join him at Arkansas State.
Malzahn turns. Hubbard smiles, and waves, and the poster's odd message is impossible to miss: "I GAVE MY RIGHT ARM FOR MALZAHN."
Hubbard's right arm -- the one he's waving -- ends at the wrist.
How to take it? Malzahn isn't certain. He half-smiles, gives Hubbard a thumbs-up signal, and then quickly spins around and walks away, still talking on the phone.
The entire evening is like that. A football coach for more than 20 years, a head coach for three weeks, Malzahn is out of his element at the Godaddy.com Bowl. Arkansas State is his team, but not quite. He is the Red Wolves' head coach, but not quite. He is at the game as a very interested spectator, nothing more. It is a strange position, and Malzahn is not quite sure how to take it.
"This is really weird for me," he says.
The entire idea -- Malzahn at Arkansas State -- is really weird for everyone.
"Everybody in America was wanting him," says Hubbard, the one-armed fan. "For him to come to Arkansas State is absolutely amazing."
When the news broke in mid-December that Malzahn was interested -- no, that he was taking the Arkansas State job -- the college football world was stunned. Arkansas State? Sure, the Red Wolves had won 10 games under Hugh Freeze (himself an unusual story; even as he was hired in December by Ole Miss, Freeze is perhaps best known as the high school coach of Michael Oher, the subject of the book and movie
A year ago, Malzahn turned away overtures by Maryland and Vanderbilt to remain at Auburn as offensive coordinator with a salary bump to $1.3 million. When hiring season opened again in November, he was again on athletic directors' short lists. Nibbles again turned serious -- North Carolina, Kansas -- but never quite into more. Why Arkansas State?
"I can win here," Malzahn says, and he keeps saying he wants to build the "Boise State of the South." It's a good line, and it plays well with Arkansas State boosters. But understand, almost anything Malzahn says will play well.
How excited are Red Wolves fans? Ask Mike Beebe. The Arkansas governor is an Arkansas State graduate and a longtime supporter -- an unusual and more than slightly contrarian stance in a state that tilts heavily toward the University of Arkansas. "They know where I stand," Beebe says. Just in case they don't, he is standing in a hallway of the press box at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, wearing an Arkansas State pullover and red Mardi Gras beads and marveling over the attention his alma mater's football program is getting, and the unprecedented enthusiasm it has generated. Did he ever think he'd see the day?
"No," Beebe says. "I didn't."
Neither did almost anyone else. Not until Malzahn made the first move. Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee thought Malzahn was going to recommend a candidate. Instead, Malzahn became a candidate, and then the coach, and in a few days, T-shirts selling fast around the state read: "In Gus We Trust." Others: "Got Gus?" And "Gusboro."
"I'm going back home," says Malzahn, still trying to explain it. "It's a program on the rise, and I've always wanted to be a part of building something." But Malzahn also knows: "The outside world thinks, 'What in the world? He went nuts.'"
Some suspect exactly that, though not about Malzahn. All sorts of things factored into his move from Auburn to Arkansas State. He felt he was ready to be a head coach and didn't want to wait any longer. He figured Arkansas State, with its suddenly elevated status, was a good fit for a guy from Arkansas. But don't discount the negative impact of a viral video of the crazy coach's wife.
A few hours before kickoff, Malzahn and his family -- wife Kristi, daughters Kylie, 23, and Kenzie, 19 -- leave their seventh-floor suite in the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza hotel and walk a couple of blocks to a pizza place. They're surprised by how many Arkansas State fans they see -- and also, by how many recognize them. Malzahn has become well known in Alabama in three seasons at Auburn, but this is something else. To Red Wolves fans, he's a rock star.
To Kristi, he's just Gus. To Kylie and Kenzie, he's simply Dad. Which means it's occasionally three against one, teasing banter that goes both ways but rarely ends in his favor. In the restaurant, the new head coach shakes hands. Back in the hotel suite, he shakes off barbs. A little later, as the family piles into Kristi's car to head to the game, Gus accidentally turns on the windshield wipers and can't figure out how to turn them off. He's conscious of stares that might or might not have anything to do with the wiper blades scraping furiously across the dry windshield in the hotel's motor lobby. Kristi, Kylie and Kenzie just laugh.
They keep laughing when Gus makes a wrong turn in traffic, and at his frustration with the slow going. He cannot remember the last time he drove to a game. For 20 years his typical mode of gameday transportation has been a team bus; traffic isn't something he has experience with. Finally, just more than two hours before kickoff, he pulls into the parking lot.
"That wasn't that bad," Kristi says.
"That was brutal," Gus answers -- and they all laugh.
On Nov. 25, on the eve of the Iron Bowl, Kristi called Gus, very upset.
"You need to see this video," she told him.
"I already have," Gus said. "It's an Alabama-Auburn thing. It's no big deal."
He was half-right. John Phillips, an Alabama alumnus, says the rivalry was on his mind when he discovered the video of Kristi's appearance last October at a luncheon at Cross Church in Rogers, Ark. Phillips says he found her behavior "bizarre." He edited it from about 45 minutes to 10 and posted it on the Internet. It turned out to be a pretty big deal.
Kristi didn't say anything especially inflammatory during the luncheon, but in a profession where Stepford wives are the rule, she quickly became a very notable exception. North Carolina was very interested in Gus but backed away. Kansas was ready to pull the trigger but abruptly changed course. Both schools apparently had concerns about the video.
Gus had encouraged Kristi to accept the invitation to speak. They had attended the church for years and Kristi knew many of the people in attendance. Ronnie Floyd, Cross Church's senior pastor, says the idea was to provide an inside look at the life of a coach's wife. Kristi says she was nervous and that she was trying too hard, but no one thought much more of it until the week of the Iron Bowl, when Phillips posted his heavily edited version.
Among the topics:
• Working with college players: "If you've worked with 18- to 22-year-old individuals, most of the time they're not the most intelligent people out there. We're the nuts because we're willing to base our whole entire lives on what they decide to do for the day."
• Auburn running back Michael Dyer (who is in the process of transferring to Arkansas State): "He has a little bit of an attitude. He carries himself with a little confidence we have to kick around every now and then. But he's a great kid."
• The Iron Bowl rivalry: "I know y'all hate Alabama, but we hate 'em worse. I mean, it's bad. ... People are killing trees over a game. Seriously, people, grow up."
Kristi also poked fun at Gus' reputation as an offensive mastermind, recounting what she told him after Auburn had beaten Oregon to win the BCS championship: "Twenty-two points, are you kidding?" It was an example of the barbs that fly both ways in a family dynamic that works, and a story Gus had told several times at his own speaking engagements. But Kristi's attempts at humor mostly fell flat -- especially with the highly selective editing.
"He's the smart one and I'm the funny one," says Kristi, describing her relationship with Gus. "But I wasn't funny that day."
Neither were the results. Phillips, an attorney and fledgling sports agent in Jacksonville, Fla., says he regrets his role in producing and pushing the video. "I meant no harm by it," he said. "Things kind of spiraled out of control." Phillips e-mailed Gus on Dec. 16, offering to make a donation to charity on behalf of the Malzahns. Gus did not reply. Neither he nor Kristi have much to say.
"He completely forgot about me just being a person," says Kristi of Phillips, "and my children being just kids and my husband being just a guy. He took something and twisted it and posted it."
Whatever set of circumstances combined to push Malzahn toward Arkansas State, he calls it "a God thing," and says the opportunity is "truly a blessing." And of Kristi, he says: "She's an awesome coach's wife. I wouldn't be near as successful as I've been without her."
Ninety minutes before kickoff, Malzahn meets with the ESPN crew calling the Godaddy.com Bowl. The conversation is cordial, an informal interview designed to provide background for the broadcast. "Here's the big question," says Clay Matvick, the play-by-play announcer. "Why Arkansas State?"
"Arkansas, that's my state," is Malzahn's succinct reply, and it makes some sense.
Malzahn likes to tell people he's just a high school coach who happens to be coaching in college. His career began at Hughes, Ark., a hamlet in the Mississippi River Delta. Twenty years later, as he's beginning a job 90 miles north, it almost feels like he's come full-circle.
His hurry-up, no-huddle spread propelled his teams to state championships and sparked a transformation of Arkansas high school football; it seems everyone in the state now runs some version of the offense. He didn't move up to college coaching until six years ago. After a year as Arkansas' offensive coordinator, he took a co-coordinator position at Tulsa. It made little sense on the surface, unless you knew of the tension on that Arkansas staff. From there it was on to Auburn, where his star rose when he tutored Cam Newton as the Tigers won the national championship in 2010.
Now he's at Arkansas State, which has long been a college football backwater, making a reported $850,000 a year -- a pay cut of about one-third.
"There hasn't ever been anything logical about my career at all," Malzahn says. "It makes sense to me. I'm not a traditional college coach."
The scoreboard clock is counting down from 53 minutes when Malzahn climbs down from the stands and onto the field. He stops to shake hands with Wright Waters, the outgoing Sun Belt commissioner, then continues to the Arkansas State sideline. He stays away from the players and coaches, though. The goal is to be visible, but not to be a distraction. Malzahn addressed the Red Wolves before they left for Mobile. He won't do so again until their return, when the transition is complete.
"It's not really my team yet," he says.
Malzahn is accompanied by Rhett Lashlee, his new offensive coordinator. Lashlee played for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian High in Springdale, Ark., and has long been a protégé. After two seasons as an Auburn graduate assistant, Lashlee spent 2011 as Samford's offensive coordinator. At 29, he's young -- but he's also in tune with Malzahn.
As pregame warmups begin, Lashlee calls a recruit. He talks a while, then hands the phone to Malzahn. "It's on ESPN at 8 p.m.," he says. "Hey, what do you think about coming (to Jonesboro) this weekend?"
It's about now that Hubbard makes his way to the sidelines, as near as he can to Malzahn. The 26-year-old is an Arkansas State graduate who played golf for the Red Wolves and now works for the Golf Channel. He made the sign in hopes it would be noticed. It works.
And although Malzahn initially isn't sure what to do, a few minutes later he signals Hubbard to return to the sidelines, and talks a security guard into allowing the extra access. "That's one of the best signs I've ever seen," he tells Hubbard. Together, coach and fan pose for a photograph. It is now Hubbard's Facebook profile photo.
In the moments before kickoff, the head linesman approaches, congratulates Malzahn on the new job, and then says: "Here's the deal: In the second and fourth quarters, you can rip us all you want."
In the second quarter, Malzahn takes him up on the offer. Arkansas State has taken a 13-0 lead, but Northern Illinois is driving. On fourth-and-short near the goal line, the Huskies appear to be stopped, though it's hard to tell from the other end of the field. Officials signal a first down.
"Call timeout, make 'em review it," Malzahn says -- though he's speaking only to Lashlee. "That's a joke."
A moment later a text message buzzes in. It's from Freeze, the Red Wolves' former coach, who is watching the game from a suite. "He said it's a full yard short," Malzahn says. The play stands. Northern Illinois scores a touchdown. It feels like a momentum-turning moment.
"I'd be livid," says Malzahn, meaning if he was coaching -- and he's doing a slow burn. "I really want to tell those officials they blew it," he says. "A full yard short. Somebody needs to say something to 'em."
A moment later, he does --"Mr. Official! Mr. Official!" -- and when the head linesman comes over, Malzahn pleads his case.
At halftime, Malzahn returns to the press box. He huddles briefly with Arkansas State's interim chancellor Dan Howard, and chats for a few moments with the governor. His plan is to remain in the chancellor's suite for the second half, but it's not easy; Malzahn is clearly uncomfortable. After schmoozing with power-brokers, he grabs a Sprite and sits in a front-row seat next to Kristi as the second half begins -- but not for long.
"C'mon," he tells Lashlee, and they head back to the field. Lashlee frequently consults a roster, trying to get a handle on which players will be returning. Malzahn likes what he sees from Red Wolves quarterback Ryan Applin, a junior. "A guy like that can win a couple of games for you," he says. As Northern Illinois takes control of the game, Malzahn is philosophical --"Bottom line, this group put Arkansas State on the map," he says -- but becomes increasingly frustrated.
"This stinks," he says, and he's not talking so much about what's happening on the field as why. When Freeze left for Ole Miss, he took several coaches with him. It happens often, and there's no good answer, but it leaves the Red Wolves with a skeleton staff for the bowl game. Interim head coach David Gunn -- he'll remain aboard as running backs coach -- doesn't have much support; among the departed are the offensive and defensive coordinators. Watching from maybe 20 yards away, Malzahn and Lashlee are unable to help.
"They played like a team that doesn't have their coaches," Malzahn says. "College football -- on stuff like this, it stinks."
And he adds: "It's pretty hard to watch a game, I can tell you that. It's no fun."
As the fourth quarter winds down, Malzahn and Lashlee finalize their plans for the week ahead. They'll meet in Jonesboro in two days, then hit the road to recruit. Malzahn also plans to interview several coaches as he tries to fill out his staff. And they hope to host several recruits for official visits to Arkansas State on the weekend.
By the time the final gun sounds in a 38-20 loss, Gus and Kristi are in the car. Back at the hotel, Freeze spots them: "Good luck to you," he says. And then, as the former coach in his Ole Miss gear departs, the new Arkansas State coach and his wife are swarmed by fans in the motor lobby, all with a similar message. It is just after midnight. Gus has a 5 a.m. wake-up call, followed by a four-hour drive to Auburn, then a longer trip to Jonesboro, followed by several whirlwind weeks of recruiting. But he and Kristi linger a while.
The line to meet them is never long, but it seems unending. They shake hands, pose for photos, make small talk. "We're so glad you're a part of us," one fan says. "We love crazy."
Everyone smiles. Whatever the intent, it's a good line. It feels right.