Early one afternoon in the fall of 2005, 17-year-old Mitch Mustain -- who at the time was a senior at Springdale High School in Arkansas, and widely considered the best high school quarterback in the United States -- decided he was going to take advantage of a free period between classes and pop into the small office occupied by his high school football coach, Gus Malzahn.
Mustain, in the midst of arguably the greatest season in the history of Arkansas prep football, had been going over Malzahn's scouting report for one of Springdale's upcoming opponents. Though he felt as if he had it more or less memorized, it was always fun to pick Coach Malzahn's brain for hidden insights. Malzahn could remember tiny details from plays, and the flaws that were their undoing, even if they had occurred years ago. His mind, his players had learned, was like a digital archive.
Before he entered Malzahn's office, Mustain took a peek through the tiny rectangular window in the door. It's hard to explain why he did it. A part of Mustain wanted to catch a glimpse of his coach hard at work, unaware he was being watched or studied by one of his students. A part of him wanted to witness something he could tease Malzahn about. The coach could be deathly serious on the practice field, and a little levity in a season where pressure and expectations had intensified to unreasonable levels couldn't hurt. Instead, it was a bit like stumbling upon John Nash during the scene in "A Beautiful Mind" when the professor is scribbling on walls, furiously trying to crack codes only he can see or begin to understand.
Malzahn was bent over, his face six inches from his desktop, carefully arranging eight different colored Sharpies until they were perfectly aligned. He then proceeded to diagram his play sheets on manila folders, tracing and retracing (then outlining!) the letters and numbers into the codes that Springdale would use to call plays in its hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
"I think that scene absolutely reflects him perfectly," Mustain said. "Every single bar he drew had to be perfect, then it had to be outlined, or he was starting over. He could have had some graduate assistant do it, but instead he insisted he do it himself. I've said this a million times before, but there is really nothing you can do but keep repeating it: His mind is extraordinary."
Gus Malzahn is not a genius. And no one is more adamant about this than Gus Malzahn.
He cringes, in fact, whenever he hears the word attached to his name. When a reporter brings it up on a recent visit to his current office -- an office with wall-to-floor windows overlooking part of Auburn University's campus -- Malzahn wants to know the names of the foolish people who were uttering it. When informed his own players, current and former, are the guilty parties, he rolls his eyes and breathes deeply out his nose. He's sitting at a table next to his desk, surrounded by dog-eared notebooks, multicolored Sharpies and manila folders. It's the rare compliment that only serves to annoy. Agree, and you label yourself as an egomaniac. Dismiss it, and it feels you're being ungrateful. Eventually, he musters an answer. "I don't see myself that way at all," he said. "It's just silly."