DOESN'T PLAY INTO HIS REPUTATION. FOOTBALL IS A SIMPLE game, he says, and his Auburn offense is not overly complex. "We're a two-back, run/play action team..." he says matter-of-factly. Then comes the key modifier: "...that runs a two-minute offense the entire game."
That knack for adding wrinkles to the familiar has catalyzed Malzahn's career. The hurry-up attack he installed when he was hired as the Tigers' offensive coordinator in December 2008—an approach that catapulted Auburn's offense from 104th in the country in '08 to 16th in '09—was born at a high school in 1996.
As head coach at Shiloh Christian, a 2A school in Springdale, Ark., Malzahn realized his offense stagnated at a traditional pace. The solution was speed. He devised a plan in which the quarterback called for the snap within five seconds of the ball's placement. (Malzahn also installed code with which the Christian schoolboys could identify: The dive became "John"; the dive-option "The Baptist"; the dive-option-pass "Behead.") Shiloh Christian went from being a .500 team in '96 to winning consecutive state titles in '98 and '99, and a year later Malzahn received a job offer from a nearby 5A powerhouse, Springdale High.
Some questioned whether his unconventional style would work against more competitive defenses, but Malzahn's offense was hardly slowed. An undefeated Springdale won the state title in 2005 while averaging more than 47 points a game. Malzahn was hired to be the offensive coordinator at Arkansas in '06, and after one season in Fayetteville he left for Tulsa, where he spent two seasons before heading to Auburn.
He has always adjusted his offenses to fit his personnel, eschewing common strategies in order to best exploit his team's talents. At Arkansas he helped popularize the Wildcat package, which was intended to get star running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones on the field at the same time. At Tulsa his offenses ranked first in the country both years thanks to an aerial assault by quarterback Paul Smith, who threw for 300 yards in an NCAA-record 14 straight games in '07.
Malzahn's evolutionary tendencies trace to his coaching debut as a 26-year-old at tiny Hughes High in eastern Arkansas. (He was the only person to apply for the head job.) Without a mentor Malzahn took ideas from successful offenses to assemble a style of his own. "I never got a chance to learn under a different system," he says. "All I know is what I know."
Before the Wildcat's explosion Malzahn published The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy in 2003 ("I'm living proof that anybody can write a book," he jokes), and he has become recognized as an inventive guru. There were still skeptics before he became Auburn's third coordinator in three years, but the Tigers' high-octane attack—which produced 26 touchdown drives that lasted two minutes or less—quickly overpowered any doubters. "We're faster now than we've ever been," says quarterback Neil Caudle.
Malzahn has been mentioned as a potential head coach, and the native Arkansan admits he aspires to hold such a job someday. "But," he says, "I'm not in a hurry."