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Coincidental or calculated?

Hogs' hiring of top recruit's coach raises eyebrows

Posted: Thursday December 15, 2005 2:03PM; Updated: Thursday December 15, 2005 3:46PM
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Mitch Mustain is one of four finalists for the prestigious Parade All-America High School Player of the Year award.
Mitch Mustain is one of four finalists for the prestigious Parade All-America High School Player of the Year award.

Was it a stroke of genius by a progressive-thinking head coach, or an act of desperation by a guy trying to save his job? Was it an attempt to rejuvenate a stagnant offense, or an attempt to land the most important recruit of the year?

There are any number of ways to view Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt's surprising decision last week to hire a high school coach, Gus Malzahn, as his new offensive coordinator. Malzahn, 40, recently led Springdale (Ark.) High to a 14-0 season and the state title. In 14 years, he's gone 144-36-1 at three Arkansas high schools and won four state titles, all while utilizing a diverse, no-huddle offense that's generated national acclaim.

While it's not unheard of for coaches to make the jump from high school to college, they usually do so as a position coach. For an SEC program to hand its play-calling duties to a first-time college coach is extremely unusual.

What really raised eyebrows, however, was the timing of the announcement, coming just days after reports surfaced that Malzahn's quarterback at Springdale, Mitch Mustain -- who happens to be the top-rated player in the country at his position -- was backing off an August commitment to the Razorbacks and re-opening his recruitment.

All parties involved insist it's a coincidence.

NCAA rules preclude Nutt or Malzahn from discussing Mustain publicly. However, they both acknowledge Nutt first interviewed Malzahn three years ago for the job of quarterback coach/passing game coordinator and has been in regular contact with him since. In addition to winning titles, Malzahn has regularly produced national record-setting passers, earning him invites to speak at clinics around the country and an opportunity to publish an instructional book and video entitled The Hurry-Up, No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.

"He's got a great mind," Nutt said of Malzahn. "As you follow his career, he's had success everywhere he's been."

Nutt served as his own play-caller during his first eight seasons in Fayetteville and led Arkansas to bowl games in each of his first six seasons. The Razorbacks, however, slipped to 5-6 in 2004 and 4-7 this season. While Arkansas AD Frank Broyles has continually pledged his support for Nutt, it's no secret the locals are disgruntled. Changes had to be made.

"This is first time, either as a player or a coach, I've ever had back-to-back losing seasons," said Nutt, previously the head coach at Murray State and Boise State. "You want to let your fans and players know you're trying to do things better."

Arkansas has been known the past few years as a powerful running team with a lackluster passing game. It wasn't always that way. In the late '90s, Nutt produced both an All-SEC passer (Clint Stoerner) and receiver (Anthony Lucas). But with the arrival of run-first quarterback Matt Jones in 2001, the Razorbacks became increasingly one-dimensional. Malzahn's primary job will be to restore balance.