JONESBORO, Ark. — Gus Malzahn has faced doubts before, particularly about his choice in career path.
The former Auburn offensive coordinator and new Arkansas State head coach doesn't mind the skeptics in the least. In fact, they only serve to fuel the fire of a coach whose burning competitiveness surfaces in every aspect of life — from the golf course, to pickup basketball and, of course, the football field.
The 46-year-old Malzahn was hired as the Red Wolves coach on Tuesday night. He replaced former Arkansas State coach and good friend Hugh Freeze, who left to become the coach at Mississippi.
That Malzahn left the Tigers after three seasons to become a head coach came as no surprise. The 2010 Broyles Award winner as the nation's top assistant coach, Malzahn was instrumental in helping develop Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and guiding Auburn to the national championship last season.
His name had been linked to several top coaching positions the past two years, including Vanderbilt and Maryland after last season and North Carolina and Kansas this year.
What was surprising was that when Malzahn did finally leave the Tigers, he did so for Arkansas State — a school that had finished above .500 exactly once before this season since becoming an FBS school in 1992. The Red Wolves (10-2) found quick success this year in Freeze's only season, winning at least 10 games for the first time since they were a member of the I-AA Southland Conference in 1986.
Still, the Sun Belt Conference is hardly on par with some of the other top leagues Malzahn had considered.
Malzahn said he "just didn't have a peace last year" about taking another job. However, the prospect of returning to his native state — where he made a name for himself as a high school coach for 14 seasons — was just too appetizing to pass up.
"I wanted to be a head coach and when you have a chance to be a head coach, you've got to find the right fit," Malzahn said. "And you've got to find the right timing. Like I said, this is the right fit and the right time."
Right fit or not, even more surprising about the career move was Malzahn's decision to leave behind his $1.3-million annual salary at Auburn. Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee declined to say how much Malzahn would be paid with the Red Wolves, but even as the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt, he doesn't figure to approach his old salary.
Malzahn said money was not a factor in his decision, and those who know him best have no doubt that's the truth.
Springdale (Ark.) Har-Ber High School football coach Chris Wood first coached with Malzahn in the late '90s. Wood served as Malzahn's offensive coordinator and right-hand man as they helped build the tiny private school Shiloh Christian into a perennial state power, and the two worked together once again during the 2005 season at Springdale High, which finished 14-0 and was ranked in the top five of most national polls.
"Everyone today gets carried away with the materialistic things, and the ego-driven stuff," Wood said. "Especially in the coaching profession, where it's 'How much money can I make,' or 'What kind of perks and benefits can I get?'
"It can be ego-based, and Gus isn't about that. Gus is about being successful, being comfortable and being able to work with people he really thinks a lot of."
Malzahn left Springdale and the high school coaching ranks after the 2005 season to become the offensive coordinator at Arkansas under then-coach Houston Nutt. He left the Southeastern Conference behind after one season with the Razorbacks for the same position at Tulsa, a move that many questioned at the time.
After two seasons leading a record-setting offense with the Golden Hurricane, Malzahn landed back in the SEC at Auburn, and Wood said any doubters now should take note of Malzahn's past.
"Everything Gus does, really, is pretty much a calculated deal," Wood said. "The comfort level is vital to him. He's got to feel really good about the situation and what he believes he can do with the situation and where he can take it. He does his homework. Nothing is on the spur-of-the-moment."
That the homework led to Arkansas State even left Red Wolves quarterback Ryan Aplin stunned.
"I didn't know if that was even possible," Aplin said. "He's a big-time guy, and then more and more rumors came on and it became a reality. It's definitely been a roller-coaster ride, but it's very exciting."
Now with his first chance to lead a program, Malzahn promised to use his brand of fast-paced offensive football at every opportunity. It's what he knows best, since he did literally write the book: "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy."
He also promised to keep Arkansas State in the Top 25 mix annually — all the while staying true to his roots.
"I'm not the traditional college coach," Malzahn said. "I'm a high school football coach who just happens to be coaching college. I look back and the Lord has placed me in these different situations, and this is no different. That's the way I feel about it."