THEY'D ARRIVED A FEW MINUTES LATE, AND AS THEY were about to take their seats high in the stands at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, the coach turned around, pointed to the state championship game unfolding below and addressed the stunning reality. The next day his bunch would play for a title too. "This," a 29-year-old Gus Malzahn told the Hughes Blue Devils at the 1994 Arkansas high school football championships, "is the big time, guys." For most casual football observers Malzahn's story began this season, when he called the plays that Cam Newton executed so very well ("Now that's coaching," Malzahn jokes), pushing Auburn to a perfect record and the national title. Serious fans know that the Tigers' offensive coordinator came to Auburn in 2009 from Tulsa, where his offenses were prolific, and that he broke into college coaching at Arkansas. Recruiting junkies may be familiar with his time at Springdale (Ark.) High before that, with talented players running an almost unstoppable attack. Spread-offense devotees might even remember him from Shiloh Christian in the same town, where passing and scoring records fell and a private-school powerhouse was built. But Malzahn's roots go deeper still, back to a tiny high school in a fading town, back to when a bus trip to Little Rock was a big event. "It was a little overwhelming," Malzahn says of Hughes's appearance in the '94 Class AA final. For the kids, sure. But also for the young coach, a bundle of nerves who figured it was his one shot and he'd better not blow it. Malzahn's time at Hughes turned out to be not the climax but rather the prologue to the coach's story.
Now Malzahn has faced his biggest opportunity yet, on college football's grandest stage—and to say he didn't blow it would be an understatement. Thanks to his creative and daring battle plans, Auburn was the nation's most efficient passing team and finished in the top 10 in rushing, scoring and total offense. To locate the genesis of Malzahn's inspiration, one must revisit the site of the coach's very first job.
BYPASSED BY THE INTERSTATE, HUGHES, ARK., LIES just off of the Mississippi River but much further from the beaten path. The hamlet of fewer than 2,000 people is only 15 miles from I-40, but the high school principal once described it as "15 years ago." The school didn't have much of a football tradition when Malzahn arrived in 1991. It was the perfect petri dish for a coach who was as hungry to learn as he was to win.
The Arkansas native had stayed local for college, walking on for the Razorbacks before transferring to Henderson State, where he played receiver for two seasons. After graduating he became Hughes High's defensive coordinator; after one year he was promoted to head coach, at which point he promptly went out and bought the book The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football, by H.R. (Tubby) Raymond and Ted Kempski. "I went by it word for word," he says.
At Hughes, Malzahn made less than $25,000 and lived in a trailer with his wife, Kristi, and daughters Kylie, now 22, and Kenzie, 18. He taught world geography to seventh-graders, health to the high school kids—and football to himself. "I didn't have a clue what I was doing," Malzahn says.
Malzahn was young and inexperienced, but also smart and confident. And he had the freedom to try just about anything he wanted. What the public saw from the Tigers in 2010 originated at Hughes, the laboratory where Malzahn first meshed the more familiar I formation with his newly acquired principles of wing T misdirection and then began experimenting. "He was always doodling,'' says Charlie Patrick, Hughes's athletic director at the time. "He was never, ever afraid to take a chance."
Unlike Hughes, Auburn under Malzahn operates from the shotgun, but many of the Tigers' other schemes are nearly identical to what Malzahn ran during those early years at Hughes, ran being the operative word. Although his later high school teams became known for passing, and Auburn features a potent, balanced attack, Malzahn's first teams ran. Power stuff. Sweeps. Option. All of it spiced with twists and turns that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't—and some that served as the base running plays Malzahn called in 2010. "It blows people's minds to say we did the same stuff," he says. "Football is a simple game."
Also, there were the gimmicks. The Tigers practice them as part of the regular offense, the better to make them routine—just like back in Hughes. John Manning, then principal at Hughes, remembers Malzahn as "a gambler." He once asked Malzahn, "Why do you run so many gimmick plays?" Manning, a former football coach, wasn't asking because he liked them.
"Sometimes you've got to trick 'em," Malzahn replied. Besides, he said, "it's fun." Recall the play against Clemson on Sept. 18, when Onterio McCalebb hid behind the offensive line, then got the ball and raced for big yardage? The trick was named Woody, and it's a direct descendant, slightly tweaked, from something Malzahn drew up long ago.