Malzahn, Pruitt paving path from H.S. coaching ranks to college

Sunday January 5th, 2014

A longtime high school coach, Gus Malzahn will lead Auburn in the national title game on Monday night.
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Someone mentioned the man who will call plays against Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in Monday's BCS title game, and Malzahn's eyes twinkled. Certainly, Malzahn respects first-year Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt for leading a group that ranks first nationally in yards allowed per play (3.95). But Malzahn respects Pruitt more for the career path Pruitt took to get to Tallahassee. "Jeremy Pruitt's an old high school coach," Malzahn said. It takes one to know one. "Us high school coaches," Malzahn said, "kind of stick together a little bit."

Eight years and one month ago, Malzahn jumped from Springdale (Ark.) High to the offensive coordinator job at Arkansas. While winning three state titles between Springdale and Shiloh Christian (Ark.) High, Malzahn became a sensation in the coaching community. Coaches from every level of football tried to borrow from the hurry-up, no-huddle offense he developed in 14 years as a high school head coach. Before Shiloh, Malzahn had been a Wing-T coach at Hughes (Ark.) High. But the various sizes and shapes of his student bodies led Malzahn to start using the offense he'll call on Monday against the Seminoles in Pasadena.

Seven years ago, Pruitt served as the defensive coordinator at Hoover (Ala.) High, and he might have been more famous than Malzahn before the latter was hired by Arkansas. Like all the coaches and players at Hoover, Pruitt was one of the stars of the MTV show Two-A-Days. It was through the show that the nation learned that Pruitt, then in his early thirties, didn't know what asparagus was.

Former high school coaches have had quite a season at the college level. Malzahn led Auburn to the BCS title game in his first year as the Tigers head coach. Art Briles, who served as a head coach for 16 years at the high school level in Texas, led Baylor to its first Big 12 title. Chad Morris, another former Texas high school coach, helped Clemson to a 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State on Friday night. On Monday, Pruitt will match wits Malzahn. Other college head coaches, who tend to be notorious copycats, may start scouring the high school ranks for the next Pruitt if the Seminoles can slow Auburn's ferocious rushing attack.

Alabama coach Nick Saban prefers The Weather Channel (no, really) to MTV, but he knew about Pruitt when he moved to Tuscaloosa from the Miami Dolphins in 2007. Saban needed an in with the local high school coaches, so he hired Pruitt -- a respected coach in his own right and the son of longtime Plainview (Ala.) High head coach Dale Pruitt -- to be the Crimson Tide's director of player personnel. Saban said last year that he probably wouldn't have hired Pruitt straight out of high school to be a position coach, but Pruitt performed so well in the player personnel role that Saban promoted him to defensive backs coach prior to the '10 season.

In a December speech at the presentation for the Broyles Award -- Pruitt was a nominee for the award, which is given annually to the nation's top assistant coach -- Pruitt (sort of) joked that he knew why Saban really hired him in 2007. "I played at Alabama," Pruitt said. "My dad was an influential head coach in the state of Alabama. I probably know a lot of the high school coaches in Alabama. But the real reason coach Saban gave me a job is I had three guys he wanted." So Pruitt thanked former Hoover players Josh Chapman, Kerry Murphy and Patrick Crump.

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Pruitt quickly made a name for himself in Tuscaloosa as a tenacious recruiter and an excellent skills teacher. That caught the eye of Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who in December 2012 needed a coordinator to replace Mark Stoops, who had left to become Kentucky's head coach. Fisher, who served as Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU from 2000-04, wanted to run a defense similar to Alabama's, but he wanted to include his own wrinkles to maximize the capabilities of Florida State's existing personnel. Pruitt said he could do that, and Fisher took a chance. "I was the defensive backs coach at Alabama where everybody in the country knows who the DB coach is," Pruitt said. "It's Nick Saban. ... For coach Fisher to go out on a limb and offer me a coordinator job, I owe him a lot."

Fisher liked that Pruitt came from a high school background. High school coaches must take a more holistic approach to coaching because they may have players in class or may have to get deeply involved in players' personal and family lives. College coaches aren't giving players rides home from practice. They also don't have to worry whether players are getting regularly fed. That deeper involvement allows for tighter bonds between coaches and players. Working in high school also makes coaches more flexible, because they have to work with the players at their school. "You've got to adapt to who you've got," Pruitt said. "I think that's probably helped me, you know, and anybody because you don't recruit them in high school. You've got some years you've got a 280-pound three technique, and some years you have a 175-pound three technique, so it is what it is."

Pruitt actually has experience teaching below the high school level. His first job out of college was as an assistant at Fort Payne (Ala.) High, but his teaching job at the time was working with kindergartners through third-graders. "There's a lot of them where I taught them how to tie their shoes," Pruitt said. Pruitt said working with the youngest, most helpless students gave him a different perspective on life. "It'll humble you in a hurry when you see young kids come in there," Pruitt said. "Everybody didn't grow up where we grew up. You don't know who didn't get breakfast this morning. You don't know where they laid their head that night before."

For former high school head coaches such as Malzahn and Briles, the experience at the lower level teaches them how to deal with every aspect of a program. This helps prepare coaches for the CEO aspect of being a head coach in the college ranks. Of course, the ancillary jobs aren't nearly as messy in college. "You know, some of the fun things about coaching high school is mowing grass and moving water pipes and cleaning out locker rooms and toilets," Malzahn said. "I think that's the grassroots. That's where you really learn your work ethic and really your appreciation."

The one thing that isn't different, Malzahn said, is the football. Even though talent level and stadium size change dramatically, preparation and game planning stay mostly the same. "Any time you're a head coach in high school, game management stuff is exactly like college," Malzahn said.

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At Arkansas in 2006, Malzahn's fellow coaches didn't quite see it that way. They mockingly called him "high school," and it was heavily implied in coaching circles that Malzahn got the job because the Razorbacks wanted to sign a number of his Springdale players. The crown jewel was quarterback Mitch Mustain, who exited high school with as much recruiting hype as fellow class of '06 members Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow and Jake Locker. Even though the Razorbacks won the SEC West that year, Malzahn clashed with head coach Houston Nutt and the offensive assistants. After the season, he left to become the offensive coordinator at Tulsa. From there, he moved to Auburn as coordinator before becoming head coach at Arkansas State before the '12 campaign. Last December, he returned to Auburn with 15 years experience as a head coach. It just so happened that only one of those years was at the college level.

So why aren't more coaches jumping from high school to college? That used to be the preferred path. "In the old days, that used to happen all the time," Fisher said. "Everybody used to start in high school." Now, Fisher said, the low pay and brutal hours at the graduate assistant level in college tends to scare away high school coaches who have grown accustomed to a certain salary and schedule. "Some guys get in that rut and don't keep pushing the envelope to go get the professional development or to get themselves in front of guys. You've got to be willing to work in camps, take less pay, not be a full-timer," Fisher said. "There's a lot of sacrifices for those guys to get to where they're going. Some guys, once they get a paycheck in high school, aren't willing to go back."

Malzahn hopes the success that he, Briles, Pruitt and Morris have found will encourage more high school coaches to make the leap. "There's some great high school coaches that could be doing exactly what I'm doing," Malzahn said. "They just need to be given the opportunities. I know the former high school coaches that are coaching college now, we've kind of got our own little group, and we're going to do everything in our power to give more opportunities to high school coaches."

Besides, the coaches who came up through high school might actually be better qualified than the ones who went the graduate assistant route. "To me, the best teachers are the high school coaches," Pruitt said. "When you go out there with a 12-year-old and you're teaching him how to get in a stance, you're teaching him how to tackle, teaching him how to block, teaching him how to use his hands. It's kind of like when you have a child. You teach them how to walk. You teach them how to ride a bike. They say your name for the first time. To me, it's very gratifying to help mold and develop these young kids. ... Now when you're at college, they are who they are. You just kind of tweak them a little bit."

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