Art Briles and Gus Malzahn have more than a few things in common. Each will appear in a BCS game this week for the first time as a head coach. Each has an offense ranked among the top 10 nationally in scoring offense, total offense and yards per play. That shared success was born out of a similar background, building dynasties in the Texas and Arkansas high school ranks before taking on the highest level of college football.
And each, independent of each other, had the same attribute credited for their rise from there to here: open-mindedness.
"That's the most important thing when you're about (moving up to coach) college. By necessity in high school you learn to play to your strengths. You're open-minded," said Art Briles.
"Asked for Malzahn's best attribute," writes USA Today's George Schroeder, "Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs calls it 'open-mindedness.' Unprompted, (former Shiloh Christian (Ark.) athletics director Jimmy) Dykes uses the same term in describing what Malzahn did at Shiloh Christian to adapt to his players' abilities."
High school coaches, as many of you well know, are stuck with what's given to them. It's completely up to the coach to adapt to what talent he has (or doesn't have) on a year-to-year basis.
"The guys who walk through the door, you've got to coach," Briles said. "You can't go get more. There was about a 10-year span we changed year to year."
Both Briles and Malzahn took over mediocre programs and adopted the spread as a way to mitigate their talent disadvantage. They alternated between pass and run emphasis year-to-year to fit their ever-changing rosters. And now, all these years later, they're the experts in an offense everyone wants to run. Much of football steals from them in one way or another.
Briles and Malzahn are the bouncers at the club every football coach wants to attend.
"You're used to looking at your players and taking what you have (and molding it to fit)," Malzahn says. "You build around your quarterback's strengths. It's flexibility. It's something any high-school coach does."
Much like how David Shaw maintains that Stanford wins because of its academic standards and not in spite of them, Briles and Malzahn are who they are in part because of how their coaching ability was stretched in molded in high school football.
There are more Art Briles and Gus Malzahns out there in high school football today. Malzahn hopes college football finds them. "Nowadays, so many (former) high-school coaches are having success at this level, it's easier," Malzahn said. "I hope more guys get opportunities."