July 13, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Gus Malzahn was talking shop among old friends Friday night.
"It's the read zone and the veer…"
And so on this night, on the night he was inducted into the Arkansas Coaches Hall of Fame, Gus Malzahn was still talking plays and memories with some of the men he coached with and against on the way to becoming a record-smashing offensive mind in Arkansas.
Malzahn was honored by his peers at the ceremony in the Hot Springs Convention Center, and the fact Auburn's new head coach was talking offense even on this special occasion was not a surprise to one of the first to mentor him.
"He's a driven guy. He's totally focused on what he's doing, and you can count on him doing it the right way. Auburn has to be very proud they got him back," said Jim Rowland, the athletics director in the Fort Smith school district and who was one of the first to coach Gus Malzahn way back when.
Malzahn called Friday "a very special award for me. I started out in the state coaching high school. If you had told me I'd have an opportunity like this… it's a big deal."
Malzahn helped Auburn win a national championship when he was the Tigers' offensive coordinator in 2010. He's coached college ball at Arkansas, Tulsa and Arkansas State, too. But he's always embraced his high school beginnings.
"It's where I learned football. It's where I learned coaching. I learned a lot from successful high school football coaches. That's my foundation," Malzahn said.
Gus Malzahn learned football in Arkansas, as a high school player, as a college player, as a high school and college coach. But he is still quick to acknowledge his high school days, and is quick to talk about the coaches and players who helped him.
"Every place he's gone, they say, 'he's only a high school coach.' But he's proved them wrong every time. There's not one single place he's coached that he hasn't been the best," Rowland said.
Malzahn was an Arkansas high school coaching force, starting at Hughes High School.
"It was one of the best experiences I've ever had. It gave me a chance to really learn football, Malzahn said.
But for a 1A coach, it was more. "It gave me an opportunity to cut the grass, water the field, clean the toilets. But it gave me a chance to see what it was like to be a coach, and to see you have a chance to influence players. You have a great influence over kids," Malzahn said.
Then came Shiloh Christian, where he won two championships, and then at Springdale, where he won one. He was 133-26 as a high school head coach.
Rowland knows about sports in Arkansas. He's entering his 50th year in athletics in Fort Smith. And he remembers Gus Malzahn, the 10th grade football player.
"He was a good athlete," Rowland said.
But Rowland says Malzahn is more. Rowland said he admired Malzahn's work as a coach, and as a high school athletics director.
"There is no one I have more respect for as a coach or as a person than Gus Malzahn," Rowland said. "In athletics today, as competitive as it is and the emphasis that is put on it, Gus still does the right way. You can't say that about everybody. He's a man of integrity and great character. I think the world of him."
And Gus Malzahn was remembered this night, too, as the man who smashed all sorts of Arkansas and national prep records.
"He really caught people's attention at Shiloh Christian, and he's dominated at every place since," Rowland said. "It was an offense that was not only respected in Arkansas, it was respected everywhere. He's proved he can run it at the high school level and he can run it at the college level."
Rowland said he and Malzahn discussed Auburn's chances for this season.
"He's very humble right now, but you just wait and see: He'll win more games than people think."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine