He was a good athlete, but not a great one. It's easy for him to see that now, to understand it and fully digest how it shaped everything in his life that was still to come. A more pragmatic person might have broadened his worldview, prepared for a life outside the painted lines. But Malzahn, whose family was always a few rungs short of middle class, had no dreams outside of sports. He simply couldn't conceive of a future that didn't revolve around them. And when it came to football, he was plum eat up with it. When he wasn't playing the sport, he was coaching it, even as a teenager. When he turned 15, he volunteered to coach a youth football team run by the local Boys Club. He knew, even then, it was what he wanted to do with his life.
"Everybody told me, 'Oh you'll have trouble supporting your family, you'll never be able to get a job.'" Malzahn said. "I didn't care. I really didn't. That's what I wanted to do. I just wouldn't be good at anything else."
He graduated from Fort Smith Christian High School in 1984, but the opportunities to play college football were limited for a lanky wide receiver with soft hands and limited foot speed. He had just one scholarship offer, from Henderson State, but couldn't resist the power the University of Arkansas wielded over him for much of his childhood. He decided to pass on the scholarship and walk on with the Razorbacks. It took only a few practices for him to realize he wasn't ever going to see the field. "I hung in there for a few years," he said, "but the reality was, I wasn't good enough to play."
Eventually, he transferred to Henderson State, a small school in Arkadelphia that sits just west of the Ouachita River, in search of playing time and a degree in physical education. He found both, though his time on the field came primarily as a punter who averaged 37.7 yards per kick his senior year. Still, his head coach, Ralph "Sporty" Carpenter, thought highly of him, and planned to recommend him for jobs, but Carpenter died suddenly after that season. "I didn't have any connections," Malzahn said. "I didn't have anyone who could sort of show me the way and recommend me."
He blindly mailed out dozens of résumés upon graduation, but landed only one interview, at West Memphis High School. He didn't get the position, but the coach who did suddenly meant there was an open spot at a tiny, underfunded Eastern Arkansas school called Hughes in a town of the same name with fewer than 1,500 people. The school's athletic director, Charlie Patrick, called to see if Malzahn was interested in becoming Hughes' defensive coordinator. The school wondered if he'd be willing to sign a contract immediately. "I don't think there was a lot of job interest, so it worked out pretty well for me," Malzahn said. "There wasn't a Wal-Mart within 30 miles. My wife, Kristi, was a real trouper. I wouldn't be where I am without her. She deserves a lot of the credit for everything we've accomplished."