If your program needs a boost, the hurry-up, no-huddle can provide it. -- Gus Malzahn, from The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- They say that Gus Malzahn sometimes fabricates words and phrases in order to get his point across -- the "they," in this case, being his own players -- and I confirmed this on Sunday morning, when the Auburn head coach completed an otherwise uneventful BCS National Championship game press session by mentioning that he'd done a lot of "Dr. Phil-ing" early in the season. I'm not sure I relish the thought of a television shrink slowly worming his way into the Oxford English Dictionary, but I appreciated what the construction of such a word said about Malzahn: For all his buttoned-up public reticence -- he dresses like an economics professor, and he responded to most of the media's innocuous questions this weekend with polite and non-committal two-sentence hedges -- there's a freewheeling ultacreative kook lurking underneath.
The story of Gus Malzahn has been so Disneyfied this week that it's easy to gloss it over with facile superlatives. Auburn, having cornered the market on miracles in the latter half of the season, has now firmly been labeled a "team of destiny;" Malzahn, having engineered one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in college football history, is now the reluctant genius who somehow engineered that destiny (if you do not consider the notion of engineering one's destiny a fundamental oxymoron).
I don't know how much, if any of this, is true. I do know, however, that this much is true: Gus Malzahn has helped to radically alter the way college football is played, and I am hopeful that he will coach Monday night's national championship game without being hamstrung by the overarching fear of failure that drives so many coaches' careers into the ground.
Fade back to roughly fifteen years ago, when Malzahn was coaching high school football at a Christian academy in Arkansas, employing the fundamentals of the ancient Wing-T offense. His team went 6-6, and he didn't have the bodies to compete, and so he floated the idea of starting the game with three scripted plays run at an accelerated pace. When that worked, he expanded the notion and started running at two-minute drill speed for the entire game. Shiloh Christian won state championships, and Malzahn moved to Springdale High School and then landed the offensive coordinator's job with the University of Arkansas.
He bounced through Tulsa and over to Auburn -- where he won a national championship with Cam Newton -- and briefly to Arkansas State and then back to Auburn again, after the Tigers went 3-9 last season under Gene Chizik (and without Malzahn). Malzahn's ideas about the hurry-up, of course, are now in the public sphere; the notion of a high-school coach adapting to the college game is now so common that Malzahn has a group of ex-high school coaches, now in college, that he regularly commiserates with.
"We told our coaches don't watch any game film from last year and get any preconceived ideas," Malzahn said. "We wanted everybody to have a fresh start and just move forward."
Four months later, and here they are. Guided by luck, but not entirely by coincidence.
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Is Gus Malzahn a genius? I don't know, but I do know that wherever he goes, he seems to re-adapt to his personnel year by year. One season at Tulsa, he was third in the nation in passing offense, and the next season, he was fifth in the nation in rushing offense. What unites everything is that Malzahn's offense always moves at Adderall speed, and that it relies on extensive misdirection; this year, utilizing a junior-college transfer at quarterback and the son of a hip-hop icon at tailback, the Tigers have constructed the most intimidating rushing attack in the country. But it's more than that. It goes back to the notion that got Malzahn here in the first place. It goes back to the idea that Malzahn, for all his inherent perfectionism, isn't afraid to experiment.
In the book he wrote about his offensive philosophy -- which is more like a glorified pamphlet, really -- Malzahn mentioned that the only drawback to implementing the hurry-up, no-huddle was that if it didn't work, he might get summarily fired and destroy his career. He did it anyway -- in part, he says, because it was fun for both players and fans -- and then he continued to hurl ideas into the mix, inventing a trick kickoff play called "Starburst," in which players huddled together and then scattered in all directions, and a fake-field goal known as "Where's the Tee?" (In that one, the offense would act as if it had forgotten its kicking tee, and a wingback would sprint off toward the sideline, shouting, "I'll get the tee," and if no one covered the wingback, they'd snap the ball and throw it right to him.)
Malzahn doesn't call them "trick plays"; he calls them "special plays," and if you have faith in nothing else regarding the 2013 Auburn Tigers, have faith that they will run at least one of these special plays on Monday night, and that, if they overcome the most purely talented team in the country in Florida State, they will defy the notion that championships are won by embracing spare and unrelenting conservatism. Their coach may or may not be a genius, and he may or may not have been guided by some unseen hand of destiny, but he is, at the very least, unafraid to speak his own language.