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taking it to the next level
Story by Audrey Hanes, Photo by Amy Long

The Arkansas State University Red Wolves are ready to take their football program to the next level. After finishing the 2011 season with 10 wins, an invite to the GoDaddy.com Bowl and national recognition, the team is ready to again make its mark on college football, this time under the highly anticipated leadership of new head coach Gus Malzahn.

The Red Wolves’ new head coach grew up across the state of Arkansas in Fort Smith. After graduating from Fort Smith Christian High School, Malzahn walked on at Arkansas before transferring to Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, where he was a two-year letterman and earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education.

Following his graduation, Malzahn immediately began his coaching career as the defensive coordinator at Hughes High School. Twenty years later, the Division I head coach couldn’t imagine himself anywhere else.

“I knew at an early age that I either wanted to play or coach,” said Malzahn, who frequently says that he’s an Arkansas high school football coach at heart. “I wanted to do something with athletics; I knew that early on. I really never even thought about anything else.”

During his 14 years as a high school head coach at three different schools, Malzahn led seven teams to state championship games and won three titles. After his team at Springdale High School went 14-0 and beat West Memphis to clinch the Arkansas Class 5A Football State Championship in 2005, Malzahn knew it was time to move on to coaching college football.

“In 2005, my last high school season, we were one of the top one or two teams in the entire country; we kind of reached all our goals and dreams, so it was a great transition time for me to do that,” he said. “I was very blessed to have that opportunity. A lot of really, really good high school coaches never have the opportunity I had. It was perfect timing for me, and I really enjoyed college, also.”

Malzahn began his college coaching career at Arkansas, where he served as the offensive coordinator for the Razorbacks under Houston Nutt. It was then that Malzahn’s signature “wildcat” formation came about. The formation, combined with his hurry-up, no-huddle approach, has since impacted high school, college and professional offenses.

“We started using the formation in 2006,” said Malzahn of the wildcat. “We had Darren McFadden – one of the better college football players to ever play the game – as our wildcat guy, so naturally it was very effective. Any time something is effective at that level – SEC – more people do it. It’s been neat to see how that thing has grown.”

After a year at Arkansas, Malzahn spent the next two seasons as the offensive coordinator and assistant head coach of a record-breaking offense at Tulsa.

Following his time there, Malzahn was named the offensive coordinator at Auburn University in 2008. While at Auburn, Malzahn coached Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, who led the team to a win in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game. Newton went on to become the overall No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and Malzahn was awarded the Broyles Award, recognizing him as the top assistant coach in the nation.

Then, to the joy of A-State fans and the city of Jonesboro, Malzahn and his wife, Kristi, arrived in Jonesboro on Dec. 14 last year for the formal announcement that Malzahn would begin the 2012 football season as the new head coach of the ASU Red Wolves. Malzahn said that although he didn’t know that much about Jonesboro prior to his move, he has been pleasantly surprised by what the city has to offer.

“There’s a lot to do. There’s a lot of great eating places, a lot of great churches. It’s really bigger than I thought it would be, too,” said Malzahn. “When you take a college coaching job, it’s not like you can go on campus and interview (because) of the media and everything, so it’s kind of sight unseen. You just jump in and go.”

Malzahn said his family is adjusting well to the move to Jonesboro. His team mentality stretches beyond the reach of the football field – he relies on the support of his “team” at home to make the transition a smooth one.

“We’ve always been a team,” said Malzahn of his wife. “We’re in this thing together; we always have been, so she was fully supportive of when I (made the move) to college (coaching), as well as my girls. We’ve always been a team, all four of us.”

Kristi is enjoying her new role as a collegiate head coach’s wife and says that the transition has been enjoyable for the whole family.

“There are exciting parts and there are eye-opening parts,” said Kristi. “It’s different because there are more facets to this situation than as a coordinators wife. ... It’s a definite learning experience, but we’re having fun doing it.”
The couple’s youngest daughter, Kenzie, transferred to ASU following the announcement of her dad’s new coaching gig.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate that my daughters have gone to school where I was just about the whole time,” said Malzahn. “They were both with me at Auburn, and my youngest, Kenzie, came with me here. She loved it and had a great semester. She made a lot of friends. My oldest daughter, Kylie, is going to graduate from Auburn this fall.”

By hiring Malzahn as its 28th head football coach, ASU made clear its intention to step up its football program. Malzahn, in turn, inherited a football program that is raring to go after its recent success during former head coach Hugh Freeze’s short-lived coaching stint last season.

“Any time you’ve got a new staff coming in and you’ve got new players, there is a learning curve; you’re learning each other in the first three or four games,” said Malzahn. “They’re learning about us as coaches, we’re learning about them as players in these different situations.

“Our expectations are high, but at the same time, we understand there’s going to be some growing pains along the way. That’s just natural. Our goal is to be as good as we possibly can be.”

Malzahn said that although there is not a whole lot of change right now when it comes to uniforms, it’s hard to tell what the future is going to hold.

“Uniforms and apparel are very important to players, so we’re going to try to stay on the cutting edge as far as things like that – things that are important to players,” he said. “So, we will play a fast-paced brand of football. We want to put an entertaining product on the field for fans. At the same time, we want to put a product on the field that they’ll be proud of – good, hard-nosed, physical, well-executed football. That’s our plan.”

Malzahn’s plan also includes taking the ASU football program to the next level, something he says will first and foremost require the support of Red Wolves fans everywhere.

“You’ve got to have a fan base, there’s no doubt,” said Malzahn. “The bottom line is we’ve got to win, and we’ve got to win consistently, and I understand that. But, along the way, we need people to jump on board right now and we need them to hang with us. Whether we have growing pains or not, we need them to hang with us.

“We’re going to need upgraded facilities, which we’ve got plans right now to get that done. We’ve got to recruit; the bottom line is we’ve got to recruit. Those three factors right there – the fans, upgraded facilities and raising our recruiting – those are the three things that are going to take us to the next level.”

When it comes to recruiting, Malzahn and his staff are making it a priority to recruit from within the state of Arkansas. During the football program’s recent “A-State Ambush on the Natural State,” each of the school’s assistant football coaches spent several days traveling around the state to recruit for the program. Two-hundred-and-fifteen football playing high schools later, many football analysts commend Malzahn on a job well done.

“We’re trying to make this more of a state-wide program, so that was part of the plan,” said Malzahn of the tour. “We made a commitment that we’re going to recruit this state like it’s never been recruited, so we wanted to show everyone – these high school coaches and players – just the people of Arkansas that were serious about it.

“The foundation of our program is going to be with Arkansas players. We just think that this state is big enough to have two successful Division I programs. It’s been strictly a Northeast Arkansas program, so we want to expand it to the rest of the state.”

Malzahn’s aggressive stance on in-state recruiting helped the Red Wolves sign a large recruiting class for the 2012 season, including 12 from the state of Arkansas.

“I think the fact that they won 10 games here last year and really got on the national stage there for awhile, people actually took notice of Arkansas State,” said Malzahn. “We have an outstanding staff that we hired here, and we have an outstanding recruiting class in really a month’s time. We had some guys really buy into the dream and vision we had for this place, and the key is going to be if we can put another top-type class back-to-back. If we can, that’s when it’s going to get fun.”

Also upping the visibility of the program was Malzahn’s recent “Head of State Road Tour.” The new head coach spent three days on the road and spoke at 14 different Arkansas cities to promote the Red Wolves’ football program and to get fans excited about the upcoming season.

After losing 24 seniors after last season, Malzahn and his staff will be looking to veterans like Ryan Aplin and Nate Herrold for experience and leadership.

“There’s no doubt that Ryan Aplin is one of our leaders,” said Malzahn. “(So is) Nate Herrold on defense. Those are two of the main leaders. We’ve got some skill guys coming back – senior skill guys in the wide receiver position – we’ve got three of them that we’re going to be relying a lot on. Defensively, we’re going to be relying on a lot of young guys. ... We’ve got our work cut out for us in that area.”

Malzahn doesn’t believe in planning too far ahead. He would rather his team focus on one game at a time, especially given the Red Wolves’ difficult schedule.

“We have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in college football,” he said. “For a new staff with a lot of young players, that will be a huge challenge, but at the same time, it will give us a good measuring stick early on in the season of where we’re at. Hopefully that will prepare us for our conference.”

Malzahn is confident that the ASU football program will continue on its successful path. He envisions a day when ASU and Arkansas will play one another, and he would like to get back to War Memorial in Little Rock, too.

“We’re trying to schedule people right now that will play us in Little Rock,” he said. “We think that’s very important to our strategy about making this more of a state-wide program. I know that they had minimal success in the past, but it’s a new day. We just need to follow up with what we said about playing a team there and make it an annual event.”

The Red Wolves will begin the 2012 season on Sept. 1 in Eugene, Ore. against the Ducks. The team’s first home game will be on Sept. 8 against Memphis.
“I encourage (fans) to jump on board and be consistent,” said Malzahn. “I’m tickled to be the new head coach here.”