At year's end, Malzahn could read the tea leaves. He'd never have full control of the offense under Nutt. Their philosophies were too far apart. By the end of the year, rumors were swirling that Nutt had essentially handcuffed his offensive coordinator, demanding a more conservative approach. Malzahn resigned to take a job at Tulsa as the Golden Hurricane's offensive coordinator under his friend Todd Graham. Graham, also a former high school coach, promised Malzahn total autonomy in the play calling. Mustain, weeks after Malzahn resigned, decided to transfer to USC. When Mustain watches Auburn now, he can't help but lament what might have been had Nutt fully ceded the reins to Malzahn. Nutt lasted just one more season at Arkansas before resigning.
"S---, there is no telling what could have been done with the people we had," Mustain said. "A lot of people forgot, up until 2013, how much coach likes to run the ball. My senior year, our running back had over 1,000 yards on the ground. There is this constant revisionist thing where people say, 'Of course they weren't going to let coach run his offense because they had Darren and Felix and Peyton. But if you look at his history, and look at what he's doing now with Nick Marshall and Tre Mason, holy crap. Can you imagine his offense with Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis and Marcus Monk? It's unbelievable to think about what could have happened."
Did Malzahn feel like he was sold a bill of goods by Nutt? To this day, he won't go there. He just knew the situation was untenable, and he needed to get out. Maybe it was selfish to want to prove his philosophy was the right one, but history has weighed in and it's clear he was right. Malzahn still feels bad that Mustain's career was essentially derailed by an SEC soap opera. The quarterback struggled to earn consistent playing time at USC, and is now trying to play football in the Arena League.
"Each head coach has their own priorities," Malzahn said. "We tried to mesh two things, and … "
He pauses, letting the words linger. He doesn't continue. The silence says plenty.
Once Malzahn got his foot in the door of college football, and found places that would let the architect within him unleash his designs, there was little to slow him down. In 2007, with Malzahn as its offensive coordinator, and no one yanking on the reins, Tulsa won 10 games and led the nation in total offense, averaging 542.5 yards per game. In 2008, the team, and the offense, was even better, winning 11 games and averaging 569.8 yards a game.
"Todd really gave me a great opportunity," Malzahn said. "He gave me a chance to establish myself as a 'college coach.' I'll be forever grateful to him. He said, 'Come in and do your thing. Do it all.' Back then, that was a little unique."
Auburn coach Gene Chizik hired Malzahn to be his offensive coordinator in 2008, and over the course of three seasons, he put to bed yet another fallacy about his offense: That it wouldn't work in the hard-hitting SEC. Some SEC coaches had even gone so far as to grumble that the hurry-up no-huddle offense was dangerous for players because it would cause more injuries. "When I first heard that, I honestly thought it was a joke," Malzahn said.