July 13, 2013
Tom Owen says I tell this story too often, but it’s one of my favorites, so I’m going to tell it again.
When I started to work on my first job at the now-defunct Huntsville News in 1969, I was unprepared, unqualified, whatever word you want to come up with. Sam Ezell, the sports editor, was stuck with me anyway. On the second or third day I was there, he told me to go to Huntsville High School and ask Owen, the widely respected head coach, for his starting lineup for that weekend’s game.
I got directions and headed out. When I arrived, practice was in full swing, so I went and stood on the sideline. As I stood there, a manager came sprinting across the field and stopped in front of me. “Coach Owen says to tell you to get the (heck) out of here,” the manager said. I explained to him I was from The Huntsville News, and he sprinted back across the field.
As I stood there, I saw him talking to Owen. And I saw Owen look at me. The manager came sprinting back across the field.
“Coach Owen says he doesn’t give a (darn) who you are,” the manager said. “Get the (heck) out of here.”
And so I left, my tail tucked between my legs, and returned to tell Sam I had failed.
Tom Owen and became good friends. We have laughed about that many times over the years. I thought about that Friday night when Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Owen remains today one of the more impressive coaches and people I’ve known in this business. He never coached in college. He knew the game as well as anyone, better than most. He won big on the field and sent a stream of assistants to be head coaches at other schools. When his coaching days were done, he moved to Huntsville’s Lee High School as a principal. At every stop, he made a difference in the lives of the students who came his way.
When I arrived in Huntsville, there were only three high schools. John Meadows was the head coach at Butler and Keith Wilson at Lee. They, too, were among the best, legendary in their field. Later, Grissom and Johnson opened. Larrie Robinson at Grissom and Max Burleson at Johnson were instant winners. All those men became cherished friends.
I’ve traveled the country covering college football and witnessed some of the big moments in the history of the game. Covering high schools in my early years was as much fun as anything I’ve done in this business.
Most high school coaches are proud of who they are and what they are. Malzahn is no different. He’ll tell you even today that he is a high school coach at heart. He, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris will tell you the same thing in one way or another.
Those three have shown it is possible for long-time high school coaches to not only move into college football’s big-time, but to succeed. They will all tell you that there are more of them out there who could do similar things, given the opportunity.
Malzahn was honored Friday night more for what he did at Hughes High School, Shiloh Christian School and Springdale High School than anything he’s done at Auburn, Arkansas State, Tulsa or Arkansas.
For one night, at least, he was a high school coach again. And he was proud.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: