Rex Nelson: All Aboard the Gus Bus?


Rex Nelson Archive PageGus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers take on the Arkansas Razorbacks late Saturday afternoon at Auburn.

Much like Hugh Freeze (whose Ole Miss Rebels lost to Arkansas last week in Fayetteville), Malzahn can thank Arkansas State for opening the door for what quickly became a job as a head coach in the Southeastern Conference.

Football fans across the country were stunned when the news leaked out in December 2011 that Malzahn — one of the most highly paid and innovative offensive coordinators in college football at the time — had accepted an offer to be the next head coach at Arkansas State in Jonesboro.

After all, Malzahn reportedly had turned down an offer a year earlier to be the head coach at Vanderbilt and was strongly considered for the job of head coach at Maryland.

By the end of the 2011, it was rumored that he was in the running for head coaching jobs at Kansas and North Carolina.

To understand Malzahn, you must drive through the soybean, rice and cotton fields of east Arkansas to the poor farming community of Hughes. The population in the 2010 census was 1,441 (it’s even smaller now), down from a high of 1,919 in the 1980 census.

The Hughes entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture admits that the second largest town in St. Francis County is “typical of the towns in this part of the state, although it is not known for any major historical events or as the home of any significantly famous peple.”

That translates to “not much happens here.”

But it was at Hughes where Malzahn’s career as a coach began.

It was at Hughes where he first became a hot coaching commodity, albeit at the high school level.

It was at Hughes where Malzahn started to refine his coaching philosophies, further growing to love the sport and its challenges.

George Schroeder, a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter who went on to national acclaim as a college football reporter, was in Arizona in January 2011 as Auburn prepared to play Oregon for the national championship (a game the Tigers would win).

In a piece for the Sports Illustrated website, Schroeder remembered the time in 1994 when Malzahn brought his Hughes football team to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock for the Class 4A title game.

“They’d arrived a few minutes late, and as they were about to take their seats high in the stands, 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,’ Gus Malzahn told the Hughes Blue Devils, ‘is the big time, guys.’ For those wide-eyed kids from a tiny farming community in the Mississippi River Delta, there was nothing bigger. For their 29-year-old, third-year head coach, too.”

Hughes lost to Lonoke the next day, 17-13.

“I thought I’d never be back,” Malzahn told Schroeder. “I thought I’d never get a chance again.”

He’s a man who still describes himself as “a high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”

When asked to name the coaches he looked up to when he was getting started in the business, Malzahn doesn’t list college head coaches. He lists men such as Don Campbell of Wynne High School, Frank McClellan of Barton High School and Barry Lunney Sr., whose final two high school coaching stops were at Fort Smith Southside and Bentonville.

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All Aboard the Gus Bus Auburn


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