Rex Nelson: You’re Welcome, Alabama Football



Rex Nelson Archive PageI’ll be rooting for Auburn in Monday night’s national championship game. Yes, I’m on the Gus Bus.

I likely would be rooting for the Tigers regardless. They’re from the Southeastern Conference, you see. I find myself taking a perverse sort of pride in this SEC domination of recent years. But I would really like to see Gus Malzahn win a title. That’s because I also take pride in the fact that the state of Arkansas has supplied the state of Alabama with three of its best college coaches.

First, there was Paul “Bear” Bryant, the Fordyce native. You might have heard of him. He once was the head coach at the University of Alabama.

Then, there was Tommy Tuberville, who played high school football at Camden Harmony Grove and college football at what’s now Southern Arkansas University. He coached at Auburn for a decade, going 85-40.

Now, you can add Malzahn, who was raised at Fort Smith and graduated from Henderson State University, to the list.

You’re welcome, state of Alabama.

As Alabama native Allen Barra points out in his outstanding 2005 Bryant biography, “The Last Coach,” college football in Alabama transcends sports: “There was the embarrassment of living in a state where there was so little to boast about to the rest of the country, except Bear Bryant. Alabamians liked to joke, ‘Thank Good for Mississippi,’ meaning that whatever Alabama ranked 49th in, such as public spending on education, Mississippi was bound to be 50th. Last or not, Mississippi could claim William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, and Robert Johnson, the king of the Delta blues singers. All Alabama had was a football coach.

“What so many college students like ourselves couldn’t see was not only how much football meant to so many people in Alabama – white and black, male and female, old and young – but how much it mattered to us. We had felt superior to football, seeing it through the Vietnam-era mist of skepticism and alienation that permeated even Alabama’s football-crazy colleges; it had served only to distract us from the important issues. Football was, we liked to say, Alabama’s version of grits and circuses. Years later, gathering with friends to watch Alabama on cable television at Manhattan bars or seeing some TV documentary on Bryant, we realized how important the game and all of its cultural baggage had been to us. And always, when we came to talk of such things, Bear Bryant dominated our conversations.”

Barra argues that Bryant left a larger footprint on our American culture than even Vince Lombardi: “Lombardi was head coach for the Green Bay Packers and pro football’s dominant figure for nine seasons. Bryant, for nearly three decades, was the king of what Dan Jenkins called ‘Saturday’s America’ – the world of small towns and college communities that, from Labor Day through New Year’s, gives unqualified devotion to college football, displaying the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that can only be faked or imitated in pro football stadiums. … Both men shared an abiding passion for the game of football and a fierce, unwavering conviction that it was the pathway to the American dream.”

Bear Bryant became far more than a football coach. 

He was a Southern icon, right up there with Faulkner, Elvis and Robert E. Lee. And he was raised in Arkansas.

No one will ever put Tuberville in the same category as Bear Bryant, but the ol’ Riverboat Gambler certainly did a fine job at Auburn. Like Malzahn, he began his coaching career at the high school level in Arkansas.

Tuberville graduated from Camden Harmony Grove in 1972 and from SAU, where he played football for Raymond “Rip” Powell, in 1976. Tuberville began his coaching career at Hermitage High School before taking his first college job as an assistant at Arkansas State in 1980.

Tuberville got his first collegiate head coaching job at Ole Miss in 1994 and was named The Associated Press SEC Coach of the Year in 1997 after the Rebels went 8-4.

Tuberville left Ole Miss following the 1998 season for Auburn. After going 5-6 his first season on the Plains, he led the Tigers to eight consecutive bowl appearances. The 2004 Tigers were 13-0 with a win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Tuberville was named National Coach of the Year by the AP, the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Football Foundation following that season.

He was 7-3 against Alabama, including six consecutive Iron Bowl victories. He won nine of his last 15 games at Auburn against Top 10 opponents and coached 19 players who were selected in the NFL draft.

Tuberville coached eight All-Americans, and 34 of his players were first team All-SEC products. Not bad for a former Hermitage High School coach from the piney woods of south Arkansas. 

For a decade, I would leave my home in Little Rock the day after Christmas and spend the next week in Dallas, working as a media relations assistant for the Cotton Bowl. On the night of Dec. 26, 2006, I found myself walking out of the theater at the massive Hilton Anatole Hotel with Tuberville, whose Auburn team would go on to beat Nebraska on Jan. 1, 2007. I introduced myself and said, “I grew up in Arkadelphia on AIC football and remember when you played for the Muleriders and Rip Powell.”

Tuberville looked at me and smiled.

“Rip Powell,” he said. “That’s the last name I expected to hear in Dallas tonight.”

I can’t think of Rip Powell without also thinking of Malzahn’s college coach, the great Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter from Henderson, who jumped on SAU’s mule mascot following a victory over one of Powell’s better teams. The mule bucked Carpenter off. Asked what he would have done had he stayed on the mule, Carpenter said: “I was going to ride to the 50-yard line and flip off Rip Powell.”

I’ll grant you that Malzahn isn’t an Arkansas native like Bryant and Tuberville. He was born in Irving, Texas, in October 1965. His parents divorced when he was six. After a year in Little Rock and a year in Tulsa, his mother wound up in Fort Smith, where Malzahn lived from the fourth grade until his graduation from Fort Smith Christian High School in 1984. So he can safely be described as an Arkansan.

Malzahn loved sports. By junior high, he had decided that he would coach for a living. He was a wide receiver and safety in football. He also played basketball and baseball.

“That’s just what I did,” Malzahn told me in early 2012 soon after he had been hired as the head coach at Arkansas State. “I played everything.”

In addition to playing three sports, he coached soccer, baseball and football at the Evans Boys Club in Fort Smith. If it gave him a chance to be on a playing field or in a gym, Gus Malzahn did it. He was offered a football scholarship to Henderson after high school but chose to walk on at the University of Arkansas and play for Ken Hatfield.

“It took me about two practices to figure out I wasn’t good enough to play at that level,” he said. “But I stuck it out for a year and a half.”

He would become one of those rare individuals who attended college as an undergraduate on both sides of the ravine in Arkadelphia. He transferred from Arkansas to Ouachita Baptist University, where his best friend from Fort Smith Christian, David Little, was on the Tiger baseball team. After a semester, Malzahn moved to the other side of U.S. Highway 67 to play football for Carpenter at Henderson. Malzahn played for the Reddies during the 1988 and 1989 seasons. Those were Carpenter’s final two years as the Reddie head coach. Carpenter died in 1990, leaving us with dozens of colorful stories and hundreds of former players who adored him.

“Coach Carpenter was kind of a legend when I got to Henderson,” Malzahn said. “Everyone knew him or knew about him. It was one of those special deals to be a part of that group.”

Malzahn married his girlfriend from Fort Smith, Kristi Otwell. Carpenter, known for taking care of players during and after college, eased their transition to married life.

“I had just gotten married to Kristi, and he was really concerned about helping her … and seeing that we had what we needed to succeed at Henderson,” Malzahn said.

Malzahn applied for a position as an assistant coach at West Memphis High School. That job went to a coach named Bobby Crockett, who left his job as an assistant at Hughes. Malzahn, in turn, was hired to take Crockett’s spot at Hughes.

“I didn’t even know there was a Hughes,” Malzahn said. “It turned out to be a great place for a young coach. I could make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes.”

Having grown up in Fort Smith and attended college in Fayetteville and Arkadelphia, the Delta of east Arkansas represented a bit of a culture shock for Malzahn and his wife. They lived in a mobile home with Gus teaching everything from geography to health. After one season as an assistant coach, Malzahn was promoted to head coach at Hughes.

Malzahn bought a book titled “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football” and memorized it.

In 2003, Malzahn would write his own book titled “The Hurry-Up No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy.” It remains popular among high school coaches across the country.

“I’m still a high school coach at heart,” Malzahn told me that day in Jonesboro two years ago.

On Monday, he plays for a national championship in the Rose Bowl. From Hughes to Pasadena. What a journey it has been.

Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Tommy Tuberville.

Gus Malzahn.

You’re welcome, state of Alabama.

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