He did a little of everything at Hughes. He taught history, coached basketball and begged the best athletes to come out for the football team. He learned how to drive a tractor so he could cut the grass on the practice field, making sure every pass of the mower left a perfectly straight line. He had a hard time concentrating when he was supposed to be teaching because his mind was always drifting back to football. He'd saved every scouting report from every game in college, and he studied them obsessively, scribbling Xs and Os on the back of napkins and notebooks. "I made a lot of mistakes," he said, "but I realized there was no better way to learn than to make mistakes."
Within a year, Hughes' head coach left for another job and Malzahn was promoted. He was left with one assistant, plus a volunteer from the local junior high who would occasionally help out with practice. They didn't even have matching coaching gear, but it was the first time Malzahn had a team to call his own. "As a coach you think you know what you're doing, but when I got out there, I realized I didn't have a clue," he said. On a whim, he reached out to Barry Lunney Sr., a legendary high school football coach in the state who had also grown up in Fort Smith, and asked for some advice.
"How many plays do you have?" Lunney asked.
"Coach, we've got at least 200," Malzahn boasted. "We're going to be able to run every single one of them."
"Pick out four or five of them," Lunney said. "Then run 'em no matter what the defense gives you. Do that and you'll be just fine."
To this day, Malzahn considers it the best advice he's ever received. You can still see echoes of the strategy, in fact, in Auburn's offense. That year, Mazlahn's squad -- primarily a wing-T running offense -- stunned the region by making a surprise run to the state final. "We were such a ragtag bunch," Malzahn says. "But we had talent and our guys believed." In the final minute, Hughes had the ball with first-and-goal from the 10-yard line, trailing 17-13. The Blue Devils tried a trick play, had issues with clock management, dropped a touchdown pass, didn't get in the end zone and lost. Malzahn, for all his success, is still haunted by it.
"It's a game I think about probably once a week," he said. "I don't ever think about the wins. I think about the ones where I didn't do the best job. I still feel bad for those kids because we could have won that game. We could have won had I done a better job."
Building a better mousetrap, he learned, would take time.
It would take resources, too, and Hughes didn't have them. Malzahn wasn't even sure what he was searching for at first, just that he wanted to do something radical, something that would force people to look at the game differently. In 1996, he left Hughes to take a job as the head coach at Shiloh Christian, a private school in Springdale with a rich football tradition. Malzahn, who grew up in the First Baptist Church of Fort Smith and was saved when he was 13, felt at home at Shiloh. He and Kristi felt embraced by the community. It was the ideal place to raise their two daughters, Kylie and Kenzie. He was too competitive for most family fun nights, so he tried to bring them around the football team as much as possible. It wasn't perfect, but he was too driven to be a regular dad. If they went bowling, he had to win at bowling. If they played board games, he plotted strategy to dominate.