Everyone knows the story by now. Gus Malzahn is the Chosen One, the high school coach who made it big. From tiny, downtrodden Hughes High School in far eastern Arkansas to, now, a $50 million man at Auburn.
Malzahn told that story to a gathering of coaches at the AFCA Convention last week in Charlotte. But he also explained what that path from the lowest of the low to the biggest stage in college football has taught him along the way.
Call it the Ten Commandments of Football, according to Gus Malzahn — the ten things he believes are most important for building a winning culture.
1. Coaches being great examples for our players. “I want our staff to show our players what a great dad looks like, what a great husband looks like,” he said. “I don’t want a bunch of profanity and all that.”
“It’s bigger than the Xs and Os, man,” he continued. “You’re making a difference in a young people’s lives.”
2. Sportsmanship. Malzahn says Auburn practices how to celebrate together after big plays, and said he administers “accountabilities” for not handing the ball to the referee after a play and for taunting. “These coaches that let their team do all that bullcrap taunting,” Malzahn said, “I don’t think there’s any place in football for that.”
Malzahn said he absolutely loved this.
3. Define who we are. “I think it’s very important you put it on paper, offense, defense and special teams,” Malzahn said. “Our offense, we’re a two-back, run, play-action team. We’re not a spread team. ‘Oh, they run the spread.’ No, we’re a two-back, run, play-action team. We put constant pressure on the defense but running our offense at a 2-minute pace, wearing down our opponent mentally and physically. That’s what our whole offense is built upon.”
“If we have a bad game or two,” he said, “we’re not changing. I think that’s real important.”
4. Be very good at a few things. Malzahn said the best advice he ever received as a head coach came in his first year on the job. “I went and talked to a guy named Barry Lunney, Sr., in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He said, ‘How many plays do you have an offense?’ I said, ‘Coach, we got 100, maybe 200. We can run anything.’ He said, ‘How many can you run perfect?’ We can’t. He said, ‘Pick out four or five plays, and get it where your plays can block any front and run them perfect. When you get those four or five perfected, then you go out and add one,'” he said.
Malzahn said his assistants tell him he will take that 20-plus year-old advice to extremes at times. “We run the inside zone, we run the power to the right, we run the counter to the left, and we run the buck sweep. That’s 80 percent of our runs,” Malzahn said. “But I’ll tell you this: We’re going to know who to block. I don’t care what front, I don’t care what blitz.”
5. Build around the strengths of your best players. “Being a high school coach, that’s what you naturally do. You take what you got, and you build it,” he said. Malzahn said his background as a high school background gives him an advantage in this area, and informs his coaching even to this day. Need an example? Malzahn said he runs his power to the right and his counter to the left because, when designing this offense in the Arkansas high school ranks, he decided to put his two best lineman on the right side and run behind them as often as possible.
“I’ve seen a lot of schemes where they’re asking their quarterback to do something he can’t do,” Malzahn said. “But that coach, that’s all he knows.”
6. Straining your players to be perfect on the field, and love them off the field. To illustrate this, Malzahn told a story about Cam Newton. “The Thursday before we played our first game (in 2010), he called my wife. ‘I can’t do anything right. Coach is all over me.’ Let me just tell you, after that season he was the No. 1 pick in the draft, won the Heisman, won the national championship,” Malzahn said. “Know what he says today every time I see him? ‘Coach, thank you for coaching me hard.'”
7. Set goals high. “When I was a high school coach, every year I told our team our goal was to win the state championship,” Malzahn said. “When I started saying that at Hughes, they hadn’t been to the playoffs. They looked at me like I was crazy. But we got to the state finals. We would have never got there if we hadn’t had that dream.”
Malzahn said setting high goals can lead to success through having a better offseason that the competition. “I believe you can beat people just by being motivated,” he said. “I want (our staff), when it’s April, to think about playing in the national title game. We were that close.”
8. One standard. “That’s the head coach’s standard,” Malzahn said. Being a Gus Malzahn team, he said, means hustling on and off the field, displaying good body language and playing with great effort.
9. Getting your staff on the same page. “The longer that I’m in this coaching proffession, the more I understand that this doesn’t happen everywhere. The egos, ‘I thought this, I’ve been doing this.’ I always tell my coaches that when they’re talking through the game plan, it’s okay to have some dialogue and to disagree. But once they come out of that room, everybody’s on the same page,” he said.
10. Outwork opponents. Malzahn is an admitted workaholic, one who had his high school quarterbacks take footballs on family vacations and check in at night with how many passes they threw that day.
These days, Malzahn wakes up around 5:30 and stays at the office until midnight. To gain an extra edge, though, on Friday mornings from 7 to 11 a.m. he’ll take a coordinator or a GA and triple-check the game plan one last time.
This advice came with a disclaimer, though: Malzahn’s two daughters are grown and out of the house. He regrets the “selfish crap” he did as a high school coach by working the most hours of any high school coach and keeping his golf habit. “Don’t neglect your family,” he said.