When Malzahn put the ball in the hands of a transcendent quarterback by the name of Cam Newton, the result was a Heisman Trophy and a BCS National Championship. "It was fun to coach him," Malzahn said of Newton, who passed for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns, and ran for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns. "He allowed me to coach him hard. I was harder on him than I was on anybody else. What he did in one year was unheard of. Nobody will probably ever do that again."
At Auburn, the architect from Arkansas had found a place that felt like home. He loved the people, the atmosphere, the traditions, the family feel that the university possessed. "It was a little old school. It had huge high school feel, to be honest," Malzahn said. "There is a reason when recruits come here, they usually know right away if it's going to be a good fit. It's hard to explain, but it was a great fit for me."
When universities such as Maryland and Vanderbilt inquired about his interest in becoming a head coach, he politely declined. They didn't feel like the right fit. When he turned around and took a job as the head coach of Arkansas State, the college football world was flabbergasted. But to Malzahn -- forever defying convention -- it made perfect sense. "When you take your first head college job, you need to know you can win, or you won't get to do it for very long," Malzahn said. "It was a place I knew I could recruit. I was very familiar with it because I knew all the high school coaches. A lot of them were my best friends. I planned on being there for two, three, four years at the very least."
But when Malzahn went 9-3 his first year at Arkansas State, and Auburn went 3-9 the year following his departure, Auburn decided to fire Chizik just two years removed from a national championship, and beg Malzahn to be its savior.
The school he returned to seemed like a program in crisis. The talent was there -- in part because he had recruited so many of the players when he was the offensive coordinator -- but he could see they lacked discipline and confidence. "We had to do some Dr. Phil-ing," Malzahn said. "There were some mental scars."
He knew the Tigers needed a kick in the ass, but he also needed to earn their trust first. "Coach's personality is very unique," said Auburn offensive lineman Alex Kozan. "I've never met a man like him. He doesn't ever curse. A lot of coaches say that, but they don't really do it. A lot of them will cuss at you, swear at you, mother-eff this, mother-eff that. You realize you're willing to put it all on the line for. He treats you like he'd treat his own family."
Malzahn wanted his players to understand what discipline was about, so he made them finish every sprint, and if one of them jogged over the line, he made the whole team start over. ("We strained the dog out of our players," Malzahn said.) He wanted his quarterbacks to be prepared for anything, so he waived the usual rule that they were off-limits to contact, and told his defense to smack them around if they had the chance. He wanted his team to understand the work ethic of highly successful people, so he asked Auburn graduate Jason Dufner, fresh off his victory at the PGA Championship, to come to campus and spend some time with the team.