Malzahn Takes Offensive Identity To Tulsa

FAYETTEVILLE -- Above anything else, history is always the best teacher.

And when looking for some kind of precursor to Gus Malzahn's sudden departure from the Arkansas coaching staff Monday, understand that it's not without precedent.

Regardless of what led to Malzahn's departure --including a combination of huge egos and lack of leadership --what Malzahn's short tenure as offensive coordinator will best be remembered for is the constant swirl of rumors of unrest surrounding his offensive philosophy. It was those rumors that brought a memory to the surface a few months back, a memory of another hectic period in Malzahn's coaching career --one that lasted only 12 days.

Many remember that before Malzahn became the head coach at Springdale High, he coached at Shiloh Christian. What some may not recall is that Springdale wasn't the first job he left the Saints for.

In early 1999, soon after winning his first state championship at Shiloh, Malzahn was introduced as the head coach at Benton High School in central Arkansas. Twelve days later, citing a "personal decision," Malzahn up and left Benton and returned to Shiloh.

Like now, rumors of Malzahn's discontent at Benton were rampant in 1999, mostly centered around an unwillingness by coaches in the district to work under Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Turned out, Malzahn was a little too eager to believe what others were selling him when he took the job.

What Malzahn learned from the brief flirtation with Benton was a lesson he kept in mind while being courted by Arkansas a year ago. A perfectionist by nature --willing to go down with his beliefs --Malzahn would never again put himself in a position professionally where he was not in control, even if that meant foregoing the ambition to become a college coach.

Originally told by Arkansas coach Houston Nutt that he'd be a position coach with limited influence over the offense, Malzahn politely declined. Later on, while in New York for a photo shoot for one of the many national awards received by quarterback Mitch Mustain, Malzahn received a phone call during which he was told he would be offensive coordinator with full play-calling responsibilities.

It sounded too good to be true. But Malzahn jumped at the opportunity, much like anyone else in his position would. Turns out, it was too good to be true --as anyone who watched the Arkansas offense in a season-ending three game losing streak can attest.

Don't misunderstand: Malzahn isn't perfect and nowhere in this space has it been suggested that his spread offense is perfect. He's made mistakes in the past, and he'll make more in the future.

But what can't be argued is Malzahn's never-wavering belief in his system. He believes that a hurry-up, no-huddle offense is one that players enjoy playing in and practicing, and one that fans enjoy watching. And the more fun everyone has, the more likely better players will come (i.e. Florida, Boise State).

It's a simple belief --an identity not so different from the "40 minutes of Hell" that Nolan Richardson made famous while winning a basketball national championship with the Razorbacks. And if it had been given the opportunity and time to work at Arkansas, Malzahn's offense would have given an identity to a football program sorely lacking in that department.

It would have given fans something to believe and have hope in. That's why they showed up in the numbers they did when Malzahn was hired, and when Mustain made his first start against Utah State. It's also why one fan, while watching the return of a more conventional offense during that game, said for all to hear: "Oh no, not again."

As Malzahn begins his new job at Tulsa, leaving the Razorbacks behind, now is a good time to make a few things clear. What Malzahn is leaving behind is his dream job, at the school he's always loved.

He's doing so as a nationally recognized offensive coach, one who had it made clear to him late last week that his beliefs were not wanted at Arkansas. And there never was a contract extension on the table, despite what some might say.

Making the move from an offensive coordinator at Southeastern Conference member Arkansas to an assistant head coach and co-offensive coordinator at Conference-USA member Tulsa won't be perceived as a promotion by many. However, in the long run, it might turn out to be the best move for Malzahn, who now will likely be given the opportunity to do what he was promised at Arkansas.

In 1999, it was about principle and control for Malzahn.

In 2007, the only thing that has changed is the size of the stage.

Kurt Voigt is The Morning News Preps Editor. E-Mail:

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