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Couch: Auburn's best chance vs. FSU lies with Coach of Mystery

Auburn Tigers coach Gus Malzahn
Gus Malzahn and his offense are hard to figure out.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.

Gus Malzahn has perfected the nerdy-genius vibe. The distrustful, paranoid thing, too. Surely, it’s natural. He wears the glasses, talks in short sentences, doesn’t elaborate.

Doesn’t swear. Uses words like “crud.’’ Makes up other words. Talks about eating at the Waffle House.

Somehow it works for him. It’s part of his charm, his genius, though he’s not wild about that word. And when you see a guy you can’t quite figure out, and he’s running an offense that no one else can figure out, it all works together beautifully, mysteriously.

Who the heck is this guy, anyway?

The truth is, the belief in Auburn’s chances Monday night against Florida State in the national title game isn’t based on the whole Team of Destiny theme being pushed, but instead on the Coach of Mystery.

Honestly, I think Florida State is going to win big, but there is just that one little hesitation that maybe Malzahn is going to pull up some trick plays on offense, or new scheme, or smoke and mirror.

Exactly how do you defend a Malzahn offense? Coaches have been asking themselves that for years.

“Well, you have to keep eye-discipline,’’ Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Sunday. “Any time you have moving parts, any time you bring something in front of you, just like when you’re driving, if somebody flashes a hand in front of you while you’re driving down the road, it makes you blink, makes your eyes distracted.’’

Was Fisher describing Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense or a magic show? I talked to another former major-college head coach who said one of the big issues in defending Auburn is that you can’t figure out who has the ball.

You know Auburn is going to run it. You just don’t know who, with people running in direction and misdirection at the same time.

“A lot of people say we run trick plays,’’ Malzahn said. “But from our players’ standpoint, we call them special plays because we actually work on them . . . and it’s just all a matter of putting pressure on the defense.’’

Malzahn was a legendary high school coach in Arkansas and didn’t even start coaching in college until the 2006 season. Malzahn publicly thanks Arkansas coach Houston Nutt for giving him a chance to break into the college ranks, as offensive coordinator.

But the truth is, the year was nearly a disaster for him. Increasingly, Arkansas fans were getting upset with Nutt, and Malzahn was becoming a statewide sensation by working his magic offense in high school. He also had five of the top recruits in the state.

Nutt hired Malzahn, partly for PR, partly for those recruits. And, most people thought, partly for his offense, too. But Nutt became jealous of the attention Malzahn was getting.

Arkansas even sent Malzahn to booster functions. And Nutt started cutting back on the amount of Malzahn’s offense he would allow in his playbook. It was a dysfunctional season, though Nutt did manage to win the SEC West. Then, Malzahn and a few of those top recruits left. He went to Tulsa, where he was allowed to put his offense in fully.

The next two years, Tulsa led the nation in offense. Gene Chizik then hired Malzahn as Auburn’s offensive coordinator. Year two: national champs, behind Cam Newton.

A year after that, Malzahn left to become Arkansas State’s head coach. That was last year, and without Malzahn, Auburn went winless in the SEC. Now, in his first year as a major-college head coach, well, you know.

Did I mention that in Malzahn’s first year as a high school head coach, his team surprisingly reached the state title game?

Malzahn is going to open minds about hiring high school coaches, which, for the most part, will be a disaster.

But he says there really isn’t much difference between coaching high school and coaching college. You get closer to the players, he believes, than you do coaching the pros. He has brought that mentality to Auburn.

“Some of the fun things about coaching high school is mowing grass and moving water pipes and cleaning out locker rooms and toilets,’’ he said. “I think that’s the grass roots.

“That’s where you really learn your work ethic and really your appreciation. Now that I’m in college, I feel like being a former high school coach has given me a huge advantage with those areas. But then, at the same time, any time you’re a head coach in high school, game management stuff is exactly like college. So that background has really helped me in a lot of different ways.’’

It’s the one thing Malzahn does elaborate about. But you can only imagine athletic directors hearing that, seeing Auburn, and trying to save money by mining high school football for geniuses.

Malzahn stands for something, but I’m not sure exactly what it is. He is an obsessive perfectionist, and there’s something nice about the fact that he won’t swear. Two players, though, told me his non-swearing diatribes are worse than anyone’s with swear words.

Both said they wish he’d just swear. It would be nicer.

It’s hard to say if Malzahn is about focus or obsession. Throw wholesomeness in there, too, maybe. Or maybe it really is just some sort of football genius. Or savant.

That’s the mystery, I guess.

Tagged: Florida State, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas

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