Malzahn is correct, of course. It must be insulting if you're a brilliant professor, scientist or mathematician tirelessly working to cure, say, cancer through the use of formulas, algorithms and theorems, and you turn on your television each weekend and hear a football coach repeatedly described as a genius.
But with Auburn facing Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship on Monday, with the Tigers just one year removed from going 3-9, most of the college football world is still struggling to find the right way to describe how Malzahn, just seven years removed from coaching high school football in Northwest Arkansas, has outsmarted so many of his more experienced peers. "He's a football junkie," said Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead. "He's always finding a way to outthink people. I don't think he'll ever get bored the way some coaches do, because he's so smart. He sees everything."
Genius as a description is lazy, a quick placeholder compliment when there's no time to dive into the nuances. But there is no doubt every piece of Malzahn's madcap, accelerator-to-the-floor offensive philosophy is a reflection of his personality. Away from the football field, Malzahn is polite and soft-spoken. He answers questions with the cadence and the honey-infused drawl of a Southern Mister Rogers. But there is an intensity always simmering just beneath the surface.
The story of how he arrived at the summit of college football might be a story of last-second miracle victories, tipped passes, sideline tightrope walks and fortuitous bounces. But it's also the story of an architect who can't put down his pencil, and is driven by a mixture of impatience, the obsessive pursuit of perfection and the desire to prove a man can, if he ignores convention, build a better mousetrap.
To really understand it, you have to see how every piece of the foundation was built.
There is a Southern colloquialism that frequently sneaks its way into Gus Malzahn's sentences, whether he's describing his own emotions or those of one of his players. To be obsessed with something isn't to be consumed by it. In Malzahn's world, you are instead eat up with it. As a young boy growing up in Fort Smith, Ark., Mazlahn wasn't just captivated by sports. He was eat up with 'em.
He would spend hours that bled into full days throwing a baseball against a brick wall. He would plant himself in front of his television and obsessively study Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys, then lie in bed at night reconstructing route combinations. His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, but eventually his mother remarried, and his stepfather, a salesman named Ray Ruhman, forged a connection with his stoic stepson on the baseball diamond. "He was fairly tough, big on discipline, but at the same time, he wanted us to play catch and do all the things that fathers and sons are supposed to do," Malzahn said. "It had a big influence on me."